Friday, 13 August 2010
Sunday, 8 August 2010
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Paul Dano
Music: Jonny Greenwood; Arvo Part; Johannes Brahms
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit
‘There Will Be Blood’ is, essentially, a film which privileges style over substance; this is a fact which cannot be covered up by hurling platitudes in the direction of score, cinematography, and Daniel Day Lewis’ performance, as most critics seem to have done. Despite its length, and gestures in the direction of the ‘epic’, the film is basically a cartoon (although one could claim that the standard Hollywood definition of ‘epic’ often mean ‘cartoon’ anyway. The difference is that ‘The Ten Commandments’ was sufficiently campy, and ‘Ben-Hur’ sufficiently enthralling as spectacle and narrative, to belie their pretensions to grandeur, while ‘There Will Be Blood’ takes itself very seriously.) Director/ screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson has been quite open about only adapting the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘Oil!’, and what has been left out is pretty much all the political content, narrative thrust, and character interaction. Thus, the oil baron is not a human being with motivations, allegiances, and schemes; he is more like a ‘force of nature’, a symbol, an opportunity for Day Lewis to do the unthinkable, and go beyond even his demented turn in Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’. (If he can be said to have chewed the scenery in ‘Gangs’, here he increasingly seems to want to gobble it all up, like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street.) There *is* some sort of thematic backbone to the film, but it’s of a simplistic kind that really needs fleshing out to retain any interest beyond a one-sentence summary – in other words, to properly make the transition into a fully-fledged feature film. Thus, we have a simple opposition between the drive towards capitalist accumulation – as manifested in Day-Lewis’ character, Daniel Plainview – and the superstitions of religion – as manifested by the fanatical young pastor Eli, who shouts and wails in exorcism-type rites, aware of the benefits, in finance and welfare, that oil drilling will bring to the community (principally, this means bringing in funds for his church), but also concerned by the lack of interest in (and perhaps active antipathy towards) religion exhibited by Plainview. Day-Lewis’ ‘son’ is the film’s other major figure, but, in reconfiguring the parent-child relationship from the Sinclair novel, Anderson causes it to lose much of its significance. Whereas Sinclair’s son was the novel’s protagonist, a Socialist whose desire for better worker conditions and opposition to his father’s corrupt business practices placed him in familial conflict, the character in the film is relegated to secondary and near-mute status. He’s actually the orphan child of another miner who worked with Plainview on an early expedition, before he’d struck it really big; when the miner died, Plainview took on the child, as he felt this would be good for his image. The son never really comes into direct conflict with him; he goes deaf in an oil-related accident (thus indicating Day-Lewis’ sacrifice of the domestic and the relational in favour of the crazed pursuit of oil and wealth), and seems to harbour some resentment (particularly after he’s sent away for a year or so), but accepts with good grace the final revelation that he’s actually an orphan, and goes off into the sunset as a good model Capitalist – married to his childhood sweetheart, and intending to start his own oil-drilling business. As Plainview only really needed him for image purposes anyway, their relationship lacks any real dramatic spark; for someone who’s so blatantly and bafflingly misanthropic, it’s hardly a surprise that the Oil Man is unable to sustain a human relationship of real love and mutual affection.
We might be able to excuse such an element of the plot in isolation – perhaps even to praise it as refreshingly unsentimental – but it remains unfortunately true that the things Plainview does in the film often don’t make sense as the real, motivated actions of a human being: thus, when he finds out that the truth about the imposter who’d been posing as his brother, and whom he had taken into his confidence to some extent, he murders him in the middle of the night. Earlier in the film, when Eli approaches him to ask “when we are going to get paid?”, Plainview doesn’t try to sweet-talk him, but gives him a savage beating and a ‘baptism’ in a pool of oil, while roaring “why can’t you cure my son?”. One would think that, rather than unnecessarily antagonising one of the community’s main voices, the oil man would need to keep him (and thus the community in general) in his good graces, as he’s relying on them to work the derricks. Even given the fact of his near-pathological hatred of his fellow human beings, it seems unlikely that Plainview would have risen to his position without some degree of cunning (which he has demonstrated earlier, in his smooth-talking acquisition of the farmers’ land for bargain prices). Instead, Anderson always seems to feel that a ‘big scene’ is called for – murder, beating, yelling; consequently, the narrative feels rather unsteady at times, and Plainview’s characterisation turns more and more cartoonish.
This is a film of stubbly, gritty men in a harsh, dry, dusty landscape, about the myths of rugged individualism and savage competition that mark the formation of the American west – about violence, revenge, and hatred. Sound familiar? Well of course, and, while the comeback of the western hasn’t been that much of a success, as attested by such recent failures as the ‘3:10 to Yuma’ remake, its basic concerns and something of its iconography have made their way into tales such as ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ (both, incidentally, starring Tommy Lee Jones, who has the weathered face of cowboy if ever there was one). This is not a complete picture, however; whereas westerns themselves had always, to some degree, had roles for women (though by no means proportionate to the number of women who actually lived in the Old West), and whereas ‘The Three Burials’ actually has a couple of sensitively-observed female characters, with their own frustrations and desires to balance out those of the men, ‘There Will Be Blood’ delegates something like 90% of its roles to males. There are some old women in the church; Plainview’s son marries a girl with whom he’d played as a child; and that’s it. Significantly, Plainview had no relationship with a woman in order to produce a ‘son’, and takes no part in the activities in a brothel (women are heard laughing in the background, but the only shot we are allowed is of Day-Lewis slumped grimly against a wall). Perhaps this is intended as a criticism, of the male-centred, dog-eat-dog mentality behind Old West mythology, and its translation into modern-day American Capitalism (cowboy presidents et al). And yet, the near-total *absence* of women feels like an important historical error, as if the film-makers got so stuck on the ‘ruggedness’ and ‘bleakness’ of their depiction, so enamoured of the malignant masculinity that they filmed in sweaty close-up and silhouetted long shot, that they forgot to fill in the detail, forgot to give some sort of context, some sort of background, to the ciphers on screen. The tone is set by the opening sequence, a near-silent depiction of the loneliness and danger of the initial stages of searching for oil which, in its own way, is very well done; from then on, the preference is always for a shouted, repeated line, a punch to the face, a bullet in the forehead, or the explosion of an oil derrick, rather than for conversation, for dialogue, for explanation. At times, this feels very appropriate – for example, the halting inarticulacy of Day-Lewis and the supposed ‘brother’ who comes to visit him in a mid-film interlude are nicely judged – but at others, it feels like an unnecessary restriction. The film is always telling us that something important is happening, or about to happen (see below), and yet it never really shows us in what way this is important; the occasional allusions to historical context (such as the mention of using pipe-lines to counter the cost of railroad transport, or the depiction of desperately poor farmers easily goaded out of their land by smooth-talking oil men) don’t really tell us *why* these men act as they do. Religion is portrayed (dismissed) as a succession of crazed set-pieces and false showmanship preying on the naivety of simple country folk, while Day-Lewis seems to act not so much out of greed as sheer misanthropy (in a scene with his ‘brother,’ he explains how much he hates other people, and wants to get away from them). To portray capitalist drives/ the lust for oil as mere man-hating evil and greed is to ignore the ideological back-up and societal framework which allows such action to be seen as ‘normal’, and creating such cartoon villainy in lieu of any deeply considered socio-political inquiry allows the film-maker to appeal to the ‘visceral’, to a kind of poetry of barbarism, a portrayal of man as harnessing and containing within him brute natural forces. Such a portrayal is in no way meant to be an endorsement – Anderson can be judged as firmly in opposition to his protagonist – and yet it does pave the way for a simplistically naturalising approach that betrays a lack of coherent or far-reaching intellectual back-up. In other words, all the technical resources are there, but there’s a certain quality and coherence of *thought* that’s lacking, and, while this problem might be sidestepped in a more pulpy or less ambitious context, it’s a major draw-back when one seeks to tackle a subject of historical dimensions, in a manner that suggests epic pretensions. As Zach Campbell comments at the ‘Elusive Lucidity’ blog, “[Anderson] knows only partly what he wants to say, and knows perhaps way *too* well how he wants to say it. [He] sometimes strikes me as someone who never entirely grew out of this [teenage film-making] stage--the need to tell truths but the rush to sometimes not think them through--and via charisma as well as intelligence & talent, gets away with it.”
It’s not, though, as if Anderson was constrained by lack of experience, by the film’s running time, or by budgetary demands; ‘There Will Be Blood’ takes two-and-a-half hours to unfold, with plenty of *big scenes* suggested by Jonny Greenwood’s overly-dramatic music (all sub-Ligeti pizzicati and glissandi and thundering percussion, with some Arvo Part minimalism and ‘ironically’ deployed snatches of the Brahms violin concerto interspersed to provide variety). In fact, the music tries to suggest drama, tension and angst even when the actors are doing little more than walking through the scenery. “THIS IS IMPORTANT AND TERRIBLE, DAMMIT” scream Greenwood and Anderson, “THIS IS AN EPIC – THIS IS A *BIG MOVIE* - AND THERE *WILL* BE BLOOD” – and the critics seem to have fallen for this hook, line and sinker. But it’s all just a cartoon, ridiculous rather than sublime, all posture and bravado, from the Gothic lettering of the film credits, to the schlocky title (which sounds as if it might have come from a pulp novel or a B-movie), to Day Lewis channelling John Huston via pantomime villainy (admittedly fun to watch, though that’s not really the point of the performance), to the absurd final scene. It’s here that the film most explicitly strives to insert a message, with big flashing lights all round it. Now an alcoholic recluse, having made enough money to get away from people (as he put it in his aforementioned admission of misanthropy), Plainview is visited by Eli, the young preacher turned Christian radio-host who earlier humiliated the oil man into accepting a baptism into his church, in exchange for a tract of land needed to build a pipeline. Eli desperately needs financial aid as the Great Depression looms, and Plainview takes great pleasure in cajoling him into thinking that he can help – on the condition that Eli admits that he is “a false prophet”, and that “God is a superstition”. Once this is done, Plainview informs him that help will not be forth-coming: the oil-rich land which Eli thought would fetch him a fine price is now worthless, as all the oil was leeched off via the derricks constructed on the land around it. “Drainage! Drainage, Eli, you boy. Drained dry. I'm so sorry. Here, if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw…And my straw reaches across the room, and starts to drink your milkshake... I drink your milkshake!” These lines, seemingly designed for cult status and endless re-quotation, are apparently inspired by the actual use of a milkshake metaphor to describe leeching, in a real-life court case, and they are admittedly rather neat – though Day-Lewis’ spittle-dropping delivery has to be seen to be believed. It’s what follows that really takes the biscuit: not satisfied with Eli’s total humiliation, Plainview now chases him down the bowling alley he has constructed in his mansion and beats him to death. His servant pokes his head around the door to see what the fuss is about; Plainview reassures him that “I’m finished now.” Cue a final ironic burst of Brahms, and the film ends with a punchline, self-consciously flashy and audacious. In some way we’re meant to feel elated by the burst of violence we’ve finally witnessed: the film promised us blood, and we got it. Of course, we’re also meant to feel shocked at the depravities to which greed and misanthropy can go, and to reflect that this is some sort of allegory for the evils of capitalism and big business: murder in a temple of misanthropic millionaire excess, like Howard Hughes without the charisma. This really is the equivalent of having a message bashed over one’s head; except that, as outlined above, the lack of detail behind that message results in a certain emptiness that OTT, big-statement final scenes can’t redeem. Perhaps I’m being overly harsh here – but I do feel compelled to make my point, if only in reaction to the almost unanimous praise showered down on this film, the casting aside of qualification and balanced examination in favour of hagiography and platitudes. Maybe it’s just that I’ve grown frustrated with the ‘new, meaningful Hollywood’ – movies praised to the hilt for being more than just dumb entertainment, consciously showing off their bigness, their seriousness, their philosophical bent (my cock/fight scene/portrayal of existential angst is bigger than yours) while all too frequently only making *gestures* in that direction, running out of steam, and making up for it with smokescreens of sound, fury, or snappy sound-bites. In fact, one the films I’ve most enjoyed and appreciated recently is a little Uruguayan picture called ‘El Bano de Papa’: a sweet, yet realistically-, and sometimes pessimistically-observed story of the money-making schemes to which people in severe poverty are driven. There are no flashy visual devices, no great philosophical diatribes; instead, we get a nice balance between a genuine sense of personal struggle and an element of gently comic whimsy, through the presentation of a simple narrative and a set of characters who feel like complete human beings, rather than ciphers. The socio-political commentary which results, despite unfolding almost in passing, as an element secondary to the narrative, ends up seeming more coherent and convincing than that mustered by any pseudo-intellectual Oscar-nominee of the past few years. And it doesn’t need to try and imprint quotable lines in our collective consciousness by having Daniel Day Lewis shout them at us several times in a row…
Saturday, 7 August 2010
Today I’d like to consider some paintings by the Dutch architect Ben Huygen, working under the alias ‘Per Hilldoranza’ (images of the paintings are available at his website). Huygen has co-designed, with Jasper Jaegers, the so-called ‘cactus building’ planned for Rotterdam port (see image above) – a nineteen-floor tower containing 98 residential units, arranged in a staggered floor design that allows each unit a two-level outdoor space with enough available sunlight for foliage to flourish. Such architectural work (which one might place within a recent trend for ‘biomimcry’ – a kind of sustainable design explicitly echoing natural forms, systems and processes) indicates a pre-occupation with the relation between the natural and the artificial, the solid and the fluid, shape and function, which, while of course not precisely translated from the buildings to the paintings, may still provide a way into them, or at least help us to see some affinities between the work in both disciplines.
As Huygen says of a more modest house design in Kinderdijk (a village just outside Rotterdam): “We like self-evident buildings. After all, we are not standing there to explain them; they should tell their own stories.” (‘Dwell’ magazine, May 2006, p.210) Thus, his painting, poised between abstraction and representation, definitely ‘tells its stories’ (strong suggestions of figures, buildings and natural features are common), but without tapping into a complex set of gestural, colouristic, or figural iconography (of, let’s say, the kind outlined in Michael Baxandall’s ‘Painting and Experience in Fourteenth-Century Italy’). For one thing, such a detailed system of aesthetic symbolism is simply not accessible to the modern artist – with the broadening of themes and influences, and the countless reproductions, imitations, and mediations resulting from the explosion of the *image* in the information age, the artist has to find their own, *individual* specificity, to create their own myth, their own set of images and symbols which may flow freely from and between several different systems of thought (for instance, African tribal art, Oriental philosophy, or the vestiges of Romanticism). This art may be full of suggestion and allusion, but it is never fixed or tied within a more general system of belief; it is aware of tradition, but unable to fit with any great clarity into a specific artistic lineage or chronology. The artist must always work alone, an individual working through the echoes of the past and the contradictions of the present in order, perhaps, to provide some glimpse of the future.
On his website, Huygen’s list of current themes (or topics of thought) includes ‘the moon’ and ‘infinity’. Bearing this in mind, we might consider the series of four paintings entitled ‘nobody has actually been there’. Perhaps the most immediately striking aspect here is the use of thick, white bands of paint (laid on with a sculptural touch, to suggest the overall smoothness of stone, but also, like stone, with rough bands and cracks making small incisions on the surface) that dominate the upper half of the canvas. It’s hard not to view these as abstracted nightscapes, the areas of white like the moon transformed through vision, stretching and bulging out over blue-black bands and vertical shadows which suggest the night sky and the sky-scraping skyline of a city below. This is by no means straightforward, however, for the white band and its relation to the darker areas underneath it exist in a different relation in each of the paintings. Thus, in the first of the series, the white area looks like part of a larger shape, cut off by the edge of the canvas – vaguely suggestive of a dog’s bone, a drip trickling away from the main area of a puddle, or a curving river – which might be part of, or connected to, any of the white areas in the subsequent paintings, as in a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Though the compositions are definite entities in themselves, stark and almost monolithic, one is still left with the sense that they are only fragments, details from a much larger work. This is largely due to the placing of shapes within the frame: for example, a rounded shape appears cut off by the frame’s straight edge, before it has the chance to complete its curve. Such use of the frame is perhaps influenced by photography, though the ‘zoomed-in’, microscopic effect by no means diminishes the work’s sense of (large) scale – the powerful imposition it makes on the viewer, demanding attention, drawing one into its encompassing space. Nonetheless, of the four paintings, it is only the third that expands out the viewpoint, so that the white shape is not cut off at the edges, and we see it entire – a highly suggestive shape reminiscent at once of pastry rolled flat by a rolling pin and trailing flour behind it, an amoeba, or a cartoon angel. Once more, this shape is placed over, or within, a dark ‘background’; and, even here, its placement makes it seem as if it might be flying off towards the edge of the canvas, as if it has only just been captured in time. Here then, the white night object has become a flying thing, once again suggestive of something other than itself –the moon’s reflection, the shape stretched mid-ripple on water – but it is not that other thing precisely, not a ‘representation’ of the moon as such. Rather, the moon hovers behind this shape, this whiteness as symbol, as idea, perhaps in some sense relating to the ‘collective memory’ included in Huygen’s list of themes; both something as specifically tied to a historical period and to a set of religious concepts (crosses, church architecture) and as ‘general’ and ‘timeless’ as the moon (though of course, in itself, the moon is related to more ancient forms of religious belief) re-awaken something, functioning as imprecise symbols – symbols which long ago lost their specific, ritual or iconographical function, but which still trigger off something a species memory, and provide the possibility for the creation of a new set of images to refresh and expand on the old. As Werner Herzog puts it, “we are surrounded by images that are worn out, and I believe that unless we discover new images, we will die.” This has to do with possibility, with the entering into and creation of a space of dreaming and contemplation, a space that must in some ways be removed from direct involvement with the scientific ‘fact’ of the world (and the remnant of religious ‘truth’), that must attempt to remove itself from pre-defined ontological systems, to move into a more ecstatic realm where the relations between things and the meaning with which they are imbued become looser, more subject to change, more subject to new inscriptions that will remove the harmful legacies of past beliefs.
Perhaps this is merely what I wish to ‘read into’ the canvasses, what their particular combination of suggestiveness and abstraction brings out in me – perhaps this is why I want to see the flecks of white paint streaking and trickling down from the main body of the white shape, descending from the moon to the earth, from the realm of the non-human to the realm of the human, as ‘moonshine’: both as the moon’s reflected rays beaming, bearing down light, and as a kind of liquid emission – like the bath of light in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, or “the wine which through the eyes is drunk, flow[ing] nightly from the moon in torrents” in Albert Giraud’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire.’ It’s as if someone wished to capture some substance of the moon and to bring it to earth, like a jewel, a precious thing; and this desire – to reach upwards, and to bring back downwards the fruits of one’s exploration – seems manifested in the spindly ladder scratched into the paint in the second of Huygen’s series (an echo, perhaps deliberate, of William Blake’s engraving ‘I Want! I Want!’). At the same time, this wish is just that – an unfulfilled wish– rather than a reality. The child in Blake’s engraving has only just begun his ascent, poised on the first few rungs of the ladder, and, though there is a square shape, resembling a door, which might allow entry into Huygen’s ‘moon’, there is no human presence to use the available ladder and enter that door: both ladder and door simply sit there, inert, inactive, immobile. In any case, the ‘door’ really appears as such only in the first painting, the ladder only in the second; one has to read across the paintings to connect them, to force a stronger symbolism than that which actually exists. Huygen is not simply presenting a dreamer’s naïve desire. It is precisely because it is something outside the normal sphere of human activity and control, an object of aspiration which remains frustratingly just out of reach, that the moon can appear as so powerful a symbolic presence; because of this inaccessibility that it can remain an object onto which dreams can be projected and inscribed. And this gives a transitory, fragile quality to any such dreams – and to any such interpretations of the paintings. ‘nobody has actually been there’ might jokingly refer to conspiracy theories which suggest that the moon landings were faked; it might also literally describe the painting, the creation of a ‘landscape’, or an imagined space, to which no one can in reality go, because it does not exist, except as an imagined image. Thus, there is at once both a desire for the impossible, for that which is just out of reach – a desire to continually push the boundaries, the limits of what one is allowed to do and dream – and a realisation that this might render one simply a passive, inert dreamer. Perhaps this is the difference between painting and architecture: a building, because of its scale, its presence within a public, lived environment, is a visible contribution to the world, while a painting hangs in a corner of a room, away from prying eyes, a mere speck in that same environment. And yet, because of this, it allows greater space for experimentation and for the working-through of symbolic resonance than on a building project.
Of course, both in painting and in architecture, the artist has to work with the materials available to them – with the illusion of physical space (in painting), and with actual physical space (in architecture); with the grain of texture, with the malleability of shape, and with the varied tints of colour. If Huygen’s ‘Cactus Building’ presents itself at once as ‘alien’ and ‘natural’ (a plant swelled to monstrous size, but also a skyscraper – something monstrous in itself – made to appear more natural, more curvaceous, more flowing, bending in sympathy with nature’s hatred of rigidity), so his paintings work through theses and antitheses, contradictions, complications and intersections.
Textures and colours used may simultaneously suggest the roughness of dust and the sharp clarity of flecks of light; earth and sky, solidity and fluidity, thickness and translucency. The attempt is to give something essentially solid, a mass of immobile material, the illusion of shimmering, of movement. At the same time, Huygen’s admiration for the simplicity of form found in medieval church architecture ensures the presence of firm and clear shapes and motifs – not for him the floridity and display of statuary in the great cathedrals, but the simplicity of a roadside cross. A cross, a suggestion of skyline, of silhouette, of shadow; a night sky, a door, a window: such motifs are not used for a specific symbolic function – as with the treatment of the moon in ‘nobody has actually been there’, a whole maze of symbolism is present, but not to the forefront; rather, it lurks beneath the surface (after all, the moon itself may be only part of a wider symbolic field initiated by the paintings’ use of whiteness). There is undoubtedly much more to say about these works, but perhaps this short piece has given some inkling as to their fascinations.
Tuesday, 3 August 2010
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)