Mar 17, 2009

On Hunger

It’s rare that you encounter a film that is both formally challenging and effortlessly watchable. One which feels almost instantly canonical because of its audacity to take bold aesthetic risks, to build cinema from the ground up instead of from comfortable molds. Yet with its undeniable thematic clarity and relevance, a style that seems both married to theme and to be splintering traditional narrative film grammar and remaking it in fascinating new ways, Hunger is just that film. It’s probably just as rare to encounter a feature directorial debut that meets this criterion. Yet while exhibiting no small amount of expertise for grasping just what information an audience needs in each shot to convey the inalienable sense of dread and confusion within a system of repression that dehumanizes not just to prisoners, but those who imprison them, UK gallery world filmmaker Steve McQueen proves himself to be a rigorous cinematic visionary, a director who’s next foray into commercial filmmaking (in the strict sense) will be awaited with no small amount of fanfare.

His film, which bowed in Cannes last year and has been the darling of the international festival circuit ever since, delves deep into the shit smeared walls and pissed on hallways of the British prison where in 1981 Bobby Sands and ten other imprisoned IRA members, having been stripped of there status as political prisoners by the Thatcher Administration, staged a hunger strike that resulted in their deaths. Sands comes into focus forty minutes or so into the film, which drifts from a just arrived inmate, to a cell block veteran, to a lonely, brutal guard with a dying mother, effortlessly showing the private hells each of these men inhabit during the progressively more violent strikes, from a refusal to wear clothing or bath to an abject refusal to sustain oneself.

Yet McQueen’s real interest is in ambience and mood, intangibles and senses. His is a deeply plasticized cinema, one that while recreating brutal, real life events seeks not cheap simulations, not the pop verisimilitude of the wobbly camera, but a cruelly aestheticized grasp of the sheer physicality of these men, their arms, their bruises, their bandaged hands and bloodied faces. One can’t help but find beauty in their pain, but are not given the pleasure of enjoying it by the force of Mr. McQueen’s moral focus. This is a director who markedly asks us through his grammar not to align with anyone, not to show any pity, but to simply understand pain and courage and undigested sorrow. To feel what its like to be chased from this world by starvation. This is the product a fully formed expressive, a film that grabs you by lapels and taunts you with just how conventional, how un-alive most cinema is.

If you haunt regional art houses or Manhattan screening rooms, you’ll most likely encounter a fair helping of difficult cinema, some of which holds great rewards for a patient and eager audience, assuming that they’re willing to do some heavy lifting. Maybe that’s the case with Steve McQueen’s Hunger as well, but I’m inclined to see this as one of the most accessible “art films” I’ve come across in sometime, a movie of such jolting visceral power that, despite the three movement structure, two of which are nearly wordless and one of which centers on a twenty minute single take talk-a-thon between a light hearted Irish priest and a soon to be starved to death prisoner, has the potential to get out into the culture at large and get people to discuss what blind complicity and moral courage truly mean in a culture that imprisons more and more political combatants everyday.