Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hunger. (2008) Steve McQueen

Next month I'm going to begin trying to articulate why I so highly believe in the global power of film. In fact, I'll probably be talking about things like media saturation, nightly "news", image and imagination, non-fiction (which I believe is no longer present, in a way), reception and intent of projection, truth with a small "t" and bonded deception -- style, substance, necessary rebellion, the eyes, the ears, and the heart. I'm still trying to decipher my own thoughts as to why the medium remains the most durable artistic bridge, but the fact that I do believe this is some of what thoroughly depresses me when I write about my disability in connecting with it, as I previously did with both Ajami and L'Intrus (see below). I don't put all of the blame on myself though. There has to be a desired bond between both the giver and the viewer.

A friend of mine recently recommended a story I'd lingered over for various reasons. I didn't want to deal with the English accents. I was tired of old and clichéd prison movies. I didn't want to see a story that essentially amounts to a man starving himself to death. All of this adds up to "thoroughly depressing," and I'm just not at a point in life where I wanted to dwell on all that.

But then I saw the trailer, and from that point my thinking changed:

These are the closest aesthetics I've encountered to anything Lynne Ramsay since Ratcatcher (Morvern Callar notwithstanding). There are so many points in the trailer where we realize -- if the actual film is anything like the trailer, this is going to be a mesmerizing collision of image and understanding. This is the most sold I've been on a trailer in a long time, and the film didn't back off a bit.

The story is about the 1981 IRA hunger strike at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. It could have been clouded by all kinds of political hierarchy, the kind of stuff that would hold an average viewer on the outside. But it isn't. And that's where my comparison between it and both Ajami and L'Intrus breaks down. Both of those are (to me) somewhat distant and uninviting to foreign realization. But Hunger takes us deep into the story within the story, which is that of prisoner/warden, slave/master, the forgotten rebel and the forgiven priest, the willing (or suicidal, depending on your perspective) martyr and those who've given up on the cause. It can be seen by those who are closest to the story, with all the understandings of every political stance, and it can also be seen by those who only have an understanding of aggressor and resistor, the mini inside the meta.

I'm limited by time right now but I'd someday like to go shot by shot through every important frame of the film. Suffice it to say, I consider it a riveting journey of high art, not only a well-built story of historical importance, but just a flat-out fantastic work in the medium. Especially in light of the fact that it's the debut film from its director.

It opens ever so quietly as it introduces us first to the Maze through entrance to it from a prison guard, and later from the alternate entrance of prisoner Bobby Sands. The most known character in this altercation, Sands was the protest leader who was first to die in giving up his food on the strike. The Maze becomes another character through these opening entrance shots, in all its filthy, horrifying squalor. In these quiet moments of imprisonment, the tension between guards and inmates rises, creating a crescendo in the film that is unrivaled.

There is a fifteen minute one-take in the middle of Hunger that is only filled with dialogue. It's one of the best conversations I've witnessed in a film, and it's easily the best one-take shot I've seen. It centers the film as a total climax, both ends hinged on the highest exclamations and questions of morality, and the film descends into Bobby Sands' last few days from this point. The story exits as quietly as it begins, and along with "best dialogue ever" I will also throw out another "best," that of crescendo and decrescendo:

These symbols are the easiest way to sum up an understanding of Hunger.

I can't think of a film that starts so quietly and with such high aesthetic and expressionist intent, which takes us on a turn through total horror -- the racking despair in the brutality of an unjust prison system -- and then back into those same quiet, "high art" and somewhat abstract shots that bring on the death of its character in the final moments. Shot by shot, McQueen brings an aesthetic to this work that I can only think of as Ramsayesque, even in its final, dying moments, where flesh and memory collide.

I don't know why I don't just stick with more Criterion. Time and again they envelop us completely. They release films that speak in a language of image, where sometimes image is as inculcating as words.


  1. Is Steve McQueen bringing this out for Fangoria's new contest FrightFest? There is definitely a film called Hunger that's featured it it. I really want to see it if it is the same film.

  2. Hmmm. I am unfamiliar with Fangoria's Fright Fest. Where is it located? This is definitely not a horror genre film, though elements in the true-to-life story are certainly horrifying... But I cannot imagine the film being included in a horror fest.


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