Tuesday, 3 August 2010
Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ and the Aestheticisation of Politics
Critical positions on artist Steve McQueen’s feature-film debut ‘Hunger’, a depiction of the 1981 hunger strike and resultant death of Irish Republican activist Bobby Sands, seem split between praise and blame. There are those who praise it for its ‘even-handedness’, and those who praise it for re-claiming Sands and his colleagues as victims of oppression; there are those who condemn it for uncritically making hero-martyrs out of its subjects, and those who condemn it for its ambivalence and refusal of genuine political engagement. I have only seen the film once, and should perhaps view it again, but I feel that I paid it enough close attention and subsequent thought to take my own stance, which comes closest to the last of the positions I outlined above. The ambivalence I’m going to take issue with in relation to ‘Hunger’ is evident in a work of McQueen’s made a few years earlier: the postage stamps on which are imprinted images of British soldiers killed in Iraq. At first, one might suspect this to be a political commentary on the conflict, a counting of the cost, the unnecessary lives lost. However, one considers the environment in which this takes places, things become quickly more worrying; the work’s refusal to take a definite stance on the deaths, its desire ‘simply’ to register them, to commemorate them in some way, makes it dangerously complicit with the ugly militarism that has arisen in the past few years in Britain, since the occupation of Iraq. I’m thinking about the increasing Islamophobia, the patriotism, the talk of ‘our brave boys’, the sense that one cannot condemn the troops (as described by Richard Seymour over at the ‘Lenin’s Tomb’ blog), the fact that details of British soldiers’ deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan appear daily on the news, while the ‘foreigners’ whose country they are occupying, and supposedly ‘liberating’, are rendered faceless, nameless, non-existent, except as terrorists or authority figures like Karzai (with regards to this, one might consider the final chapter of Judith Butler’s ‘Precarious Life’, in which the de-humanisation/ ‘defacing’ process of non US/UK subjects is related to Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophical conception of the face as the area of relation with the Other). Given this, for McQueen to desire to remain ambivalent on a topic which has aroused the ire of even the softest of celebrities, and seems to be defended only by the US and UK governments, and by Richard Madeley, seems an act of direct evasion, not an honest acknowledgement of artistic powerlessness (which I don’t think, in any case, is an honest thing in the first place); the desire is to keep art in its own separate box, in some ways ‘commenting’ or ‘reflecting on’ society, but never risking direct engagement, refusing to acknowledge the way in which art is complicit with the society from which it emerges, refusing to acknowledge the unavoidable entanglements of the political situation around us with the most intimate and personal details of our very lives.
If McQueen was setting out to make an ‘abstract’, or ‘fictional’ film about the body – an ‘art film’, with political resonances (the sort hinted at by the quotation on the film’s advertising poster, which describes the body as the last resort of protest) – he could have done so with much aplomb. As a craftsman, he has a superb visual sense, though the glacial pacing can sometimes seem like a mannerism designed to suggest profundity, rather than profundity in itself. (I’m thinking specifically of the very lengthy shot in which a static camera observes a guard cleaning the corridor of the piss which the prisoners have thrown into it, moving from one end to the other in a process that lasts for several minutes and whose depiction seems to serve little purpose within the context of the film). The trouble is that what might fit in a gallery space, as installation or video art, needs expansion if it is to enter the more public world of cinema, a transition McQueen unfortunately fails to make in several important respects. What worries me, then, about ‘Hunger’ is the aestheticisation of a political situation (though not totally, of course, for the film contains unavoidable political elements); treating an event, a series of events, with a political context, with political and personal consequences, as a museum piece, as an exercise in shot composition and the striking of poses. We might argue that there is precedence for this – Pasolini’s ‘Salo’, where the sadistic-sexual cruelties taking place are presented with ‘cold detachment’ – but ‘Salo’ is making a specific political statement about facism, is bringing things perilously close to the edge of a desperate, twisted pornography – and it knows it is doing this, it has the conscience of an art aware of where it is placed and what it is doing, an art aware of its own potential complicity in what it presents and condemns. McQueen suggests something similar when he describes how he broke down and had to leave the set when filming multiple takes of the naked prisoners running a gauntlet of batoned riot police – a scene that was shot with the actors receiving real blows, a scene that contained violence that blurred the line between ‘real’ and ‘staged’. But this is just one scene, and this guilt doesn’t really translate into the film itself. Consequently McQueen’s motivations seem vaguer than Pasolini’s; he admits to being captivated by the notion of Sands’ death when younger – much in the same way as Richard Hamilton (in ‘The Citizen’) portrays a Christ-like, beautiful Sands standing by the light-washed window, next to his shit-smeared wall, the excremental patterns turned into something rather beautiful by their transformation into paint, on canvas. But Hamilton’s image is deliberately stark, deliberately an entity in itself – a provocation from an artist well aware of the impact of the poster’s larger-than-life yet transitory mythologising, of ‘pop art’; aware too, of the provocation created by the religious aspects of his work (like a politicised Francis Bacon). It is a painting, it is one object; McQueen’s film, by contrast, occurs in time, as a collection of separate tableaux, as a sequence of events, as a narrative. And yet it often wants to deny this, wanting instead to be in some sense an object of contemplation, almost of religious devotion. The comparison several reviewers have made in this regard is Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’, but, whereas Gibson’s film ‘justifies’ itself through the Catholic mystical/religious/Passion tradition which motivates it, which forms its sometimes-unspoken backdrop, McQueen has no such widespread, centuries-old tradition behind ‘Hunger.’ As he himself admits in an interview with The Guardian, Sands’ hunger strike and death is yet another event that was pushed under the carpet in the post-Thatcher age –a forgotten, festering sore out of sight, out of mind. McQueen’s laudable aim to uncover that sore, to examine it, to probe it, ends up betraying itself through a near-depoliticised contemplation of that sore for itself, as an object of beauty, as an aesthetic experiment: in the final act of the film – the hunger strike itself – Fassbender strikes beautiful, naked poses, crouches in the centre of the frame in a perfect composition, lies jaundice-faced on his pillow with a look of deathly ecstasy on his face, like a starved hermit, a starved saint, the light catching him from the window, flashbacks to his childhood adding a ‘poetic touch’ (and, interestingly, providing another link to Gibson’s Passion’).
If ‘Hunger’ presents Sands as a martyr, it does so in a manner that is essentially visual and shallow; there is no Christian motivation behind the work – if anything, his desire for martyrdom is criticised during the central conversation scene with the priest – and the quasi-religious poses and images thus come across as dangerously one-dimensional and decorative, unrelated to any real political sense. Sands ends up coming across (and this is probably unintentional) as, essentially, a hollow man: in the film’s first act he is hard to distinguish from the other prisoners who spend the film’s first act alternately mumbling in monosyllables and screaming like madmen. There is very little sense that he, or any of the others, are intelligent or committed beings – they seem almost to have come from another planet, not to exist at all in relation to the outside world. It isn’t really until the long conversation scene, half-way through the film, that we get any sense of where they are coming from or what they are trying to do; indeed, the moment when they all trash the furniture in their cells because the guards, in response to their demands, have provided them with ‘civilian clothes’ that are actually just another, mocking uniform, makes them appear like angry little children throwing particularly violent paddies. True enough, they are depicted as brutalised and de-humanised by beatings and forced washings – but simply to depict a human being as the object of violence does little to give a sense of their specificity, which is elided into the de-politicised ‘universality’ of pain and suffering. The second act – the conversation between Sands and the priest – is the only moment in the film when politics, when the context of the degradation within these prison walls, is really allowed to take centre stage – and even here it almost takes a back-seat to the ‘record-breaking’ technical trick of being shot in one, seventeen-minute take –and to a moment of rather cheap psychologising, in which Sands describes an incident from his childhood involving the mercy-killing of a foal. This psychologising recurs in the third act – the quasi-iconographical process of starvation and death – as fever dreams take centre stage, and Sands watches his childhood self as a long-distance runner, looking back into the light-filled landscape from where’s he come, and then deciding with firm conviction to run into the darkness of the forest ahead. Furthermore, once the ‘hunger’ portion of the film begins, we get the impression that all Sands was able to do was lie in bed, unable to speak or move. While the sense of isolation – which prison deliberately engenders, by shutting people away from society – is effectively conveyed, it is also exaggerated to a profoundly un-realistic level (despite claims made on behalf of the film’s ‘unflinching realism’). The strikers were never reduced to just skeletons in cells, smoking, being afflicted by sores, masturbating, being beaten, grimacing; the guards, and the British government, may have attempted to break their will in this way, but they remained aware of what they were doing, where they stood politically – their actions were never reduced to a mere existential pose. Despite the beatings and the humiliation: "The prisoners looked out for each other. There was bingo and quizzes, shouted through the gaps in the doors. They taught each other Gaelic, gave history lectures, sang songs, recited stories. Bobby Sands relayed the whole of Leon Uris's novel Trinity. It took him eight days." None of this appears in the film; there's no real sense of solidarity. Instead, one prisoner tries to masturbate under his blanket without waking his cellmate: a private, fumbling act, carried out in secrecy and shame. We’re informed over the end credits that Sands was elected as MP during his strike, but this does not appear in the film itself (perhaps the scene where he is visited by a bearded man is meant to show him being conveyed the news, but we are not allowed to hear what is being said, as it is put through a sound filter that renders it inaudible, implying that Sands is by this stage too far gone to understand what is happening). From the moment the ‘conversation scene’ ends, Sands becomes a mute figure, beautifully suffering, beautifully emaciated; and what are we to make of the moment, earlier in the film, when he rolls onto his back on the floor of his cell after a savage beating, and opens his bloodied mouth in a dazed grin?
So far, my comments have been almost exclusively confined to the film’s treatment of Sands, and of the other prisoners. However, the first few scenes actually depict one of the prison guards, and it is this presentation of ‘the other side of the coin’ that might lead one to praise the ‘even-handed’ approach: ‘no agit-prop here’! We see the guard setting out his clothes on his bed (a shot echoed later on, when the prisoners get their ‘civilian clothes’ back), and washing his hands with great deliberation. We notice that his knuckles are bloody and bruised, as if he had been in fight, or punched a brick wall. Having made his preparations, we cut to the moment he leaves his house; as his wife watches from behind the curtain, he checks under the car for bombs. Once he arrives at the prison, he doesn’t associate with the other officers, who jostle around in a background hubbub of noise, smoke and conversation: one of them tells a vulgar joke to which the others respond with raucous laughter. We see the guard we have been following in the toilets, once more washing his hands, this time shaking in front of the mirror. Now he stands smoking by the prison wall, snow coming down around him. Once more we register his bloodied knuckles, this time in close-up, as a snow-flake lands on the sores and melts there. After some subsequent scenes in which we are introduced to the prisoners and their environment (the cells with their excremental patterns on the wall), we see the guard again, this time participating in the forced washing of one of the prisoners on a ‘no wash’ and ‘blanket’ strike. Now we see why his knuckles are bruised, as he punches the resisting prisoner in the face, and participates in a savage washing ritual, as if soaking an animal, three men holding him down, the guard lunging in with a broom. Now a repeat of the snow/smoking shot – and now we realise why the guard trembled. A much longer prisoner sequence ensues, but, later on, we once more see the guard, this time in civilian clothes, as he goes to visit his senile mother in a nursing home. He tentatively greets her, trying to engage her in conversation, but she just sits in her chair and stares vacantly into the middle-distance; it is unclear whether she has even registered his presence. “These are daisies,” he says of the flowers he’s brought her, and then a gunman walks in and casually shoots him in the back of the head. He falls into his mother’s lap, blood spattering both their faces. She still sits immobile, staring ahead of her, unaware of what has happened.
This latter is a scene of tremendous, shocking impact, due in large part to its unexpectedness – we associate the prison corridors with violence, but not the apparently peaceful surroundings of the nursing home – and represents the film’s first acknowledgment of the outside world, in relation to the world of the prison – the fact that the violence did not take place in a separated cage, but was connected with, spilled out into, had its origin, in people’s daily lives. Yet this, the film's first couple of scenes, and a brief shot inside a riot van, are the only times we move out of the prison; and one might argue that this leads to a fundamental imbalance, whereby a prison guard is shown as having a life outside the prison, but the protestors are not shown to have any real connection to the outside world. The violence committed by the regime remains within safe confines; the prisoners do not seem to be ‘ordinary’ civilians, and thus their brutalisation has an impact quite different to the prison guard’s murder.
In addition to this guard, we are also allowed a small ‘personal glimpse’ at a riot cop, who participates in the vicious running-of-the-gauntlet scene that is another of the film’s harrowing set-pieces. Appearing nervous in the van taking him to the prison, he lets out a yell of mingled exhilaration, panic and despair during the beating of the prisoners, and is subsequently shown crying and shaking in a screen split between the beating and this subsequent reaction. One critic suggests that a man would have to be “pretty sadistic anyway” to take a job like this, and thus implies that this ‘personal moment’ is sentimental hogwash in the guise of ‘even-handedness’. To counter that, one might remark on the scornful, grinning look the bald bouncer-type riot cop gives to his young colleague, seemingly conveying the unspoken message that ‘this is the rite of violent macho initiation, don’t be a sissy and flinch from it.’ And one might also consider the motivations behind prison guards and riot cops (who leftists too often simply demonise as evil murderers – ‘the pigs’, ‘les flics’). Being a prison guard was a steady job – and the compulsion, the necessity to earn money frequently overrides moral imperatives, no matter how strong the pangs of conscience and guilt become. Any tendencies towards sympathy and compassion were soon rooted out through peer pressure and group brutality: "If a screw was fair, he'd get abuse from his own people. They had orderlies who brought the food round and one who was sympathetic squeezed a half-ounce of tobacco through the door. The screws caught him and gave him a beating. Another orderly was told to do his 'party piece', and got on the table and urinated into the tea urn." That this set up a sometimes irreconcilable dilemma within individuals makes the depiction of distraught guards and cops an entirely plausible one: “During the Long Kesh years, 50 prison service employees committed suicide. The pressure, recalls one warder, led to ‘irrational behaviour and heavy drinking. You could smell it on their breath.’ ” Of course, it’s likely that there were guards and cops who *were* sadistic, who took part in the violence for the thuggish thrill of it, perhaps bolstered by some vague ideological notions, more likely exhilarated by the atmosphere of group machismo and the dehumanization of their ‘enemies’. But we can’t condemn McQueen for showing the emotional suffering endured by the perpetrators of violence; that acknowledgement doesn’t mean we have to ‘excuse their actions’, just as it’s hard to say for definite whether any act within a liberation struggle such as that in Ireland, or that in Algeria (as depicted by Pontecorvo), is ‘purely right’ or ‘purely wrong’.
And yet …and yet, we don’t get any real sense of this sort of complex entanglement, this messy world of context and motivation and the connection of politics to real hurt and suffering – too often in ‘Hunger’, what takes place appears to take place in a sort of bubble, a glass case in which the subjects are put under aestheticised observation, sometimes visceral, but more often distanced through too-studied composition, too beautifully ‘perfect’ images, filtered through the sensibility of a visual artist rather than that of a political film-maker. Once more, this is the problematic aestheticisation of a political situation rather than – what it perhaps wishes to be – ‘the stripping it away of the situation to its human core, in a non-partisan way.’ Though I’ve mentioned it several times, I haven’t spent much time on what is really the film’s central scene (both in terms of chronology and importance): the one-take conversation in which most of the political content/information is included. Here, Sands discusses his decision to go on strike, contrary to the instructions of the IRA leadership, with a priest sympathetic to the republican cause but not to this measure, which he sees as suicide and a misguided attempt at martyrdom. This long stretch of dialogue, unafraid to risk accusations of ‘wordiness’ (films now have become so visually flashy that they can seem almost exclusively to privilege the image over the word, to an extent perhaps even greater than in the days of the silents), contains hints of what might have been done in ‘Hunger’ – what *was* done in Ken Loach’s ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ or ‘Land and Freedom.’ I’m not arguing that McQueen should have made a Loach historical picture, a film in which debate takes centre stage. Perhaps he didn’t wish to become ‘bogged down’ in talking, wanted to concentrate all of that into one (albeit protracted) scene: the rest of the film takes place not silently, but, very often, wordlessly. But I still find this wordlessness inadequate – and a few snatches of Maggie Thatcher’s voice, played out over moody shots of prison corridors doesn’t satisfy my desire for more context to be provided. Of course, one might argue that the viewer has to bring their knowledge of the historical background to the film, to avoid laziness, not to expect the facts to be laded to them on a plate – but what is included really does bring into sharp perspective how much was left out. The rather trite, romanticized childhood flashback discussed earlier is far less effective in ‘explaining’ Bobby Sands – or at least, giving *some* more insight into his motivations – than would have been a scene in which he talked to his family, to those in the outside world; or in which they talked about him – it comes across as an arty fabrication that looks good but says little.
In the end, I guess I just don’t really see what is to be gained by shooting some powerful, violent scenes, and including some political detail, only to deaden it all with glacial, observational pacing: depersonalization pretending to ‘objectivity’ and ‘realism’ when in fact it is extreme ‘arty’ stylization. Too often the film seems *unreal*, uncontextualised – the artist saying, ‘don’t look at me, I don’t know or do anything politically, not *really*’, while throwing in a few political details and violent set-pieces to stir the pot. Overall, there is an endless shying away, a chill and an evasion here, and, much as I don’t want to simplistically condemn ‘Hunger’, shouting at it to be committed or at least more aware of context, I find it hard to avoid doing so.
Links to Articles Referenced Above
‘McQueen and Country’ - McQueen interviewed by Sean O’Hagan in The Guardian, 12th October 2008 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/oct/12/2)
‘The Legacy of the Hunger Strikes’ - Piece by by Melanie McFaydean in The Guardian, 4th March 2006 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/mar/04/northernireland.northernireland)