I was completely blind-sided by Hunger. I didn't even remember what the film was about when Jacob (my son) and I popped it in the machine. Honestly, it just slipped my mind, even though I recall now that you had mentioned the film's subject matter when you handed the disc to me. And I remember also saying to you in return, something to the effect of: "Well it always helps to have something real to say, a true story that speaks for itself." All that had left my mind five minutes after it happened. So I was blind-sided by Hunger. Blind-sided and bowled over from the first frame to the last. And having seen the film now, it is not the empirical testimony of it that so staggers me. It's the poetry of the thing.
Hunger shows the fact of the matter—the truth—with the utmost emotive economy. There's something pure about the brutal beauty expressed in it. Not its ideological sympathies, but the way history is allowed to speak through the abstractions of art. Jacob said that the film is somehow "mystical," and while I find this word misleading for a work so starkly fixed on the actual ground, I appreciate what he is trying to convey.
Of course, those of us without religion are just as easy to impress as those with religion when it comes to the symbolic power of an individual sacrificing himself for a Cause with a capital C. That the individual in this case explicitly and rationally explains how his action is not that of a messianic martyr but rather a practical political leader, only adds to the—and you know this is usually a pejorative term for me—heroism. The film utterly inhabits the grim reality within the altruistic mission and in so doing takes on the transcendent quality of which Jacob speaks.
As I told you when I urged you to see this film, I think Hunger is serious business. Art with a capital A which does justice to that Cause with a capital C of which you spoke. And you weren't wrong that the true story speaks for itself. I hear you. But Hunger doesn't speak so much as it shows. Damn near a silent film! And that is what I remain most impressed with in Hunger. There's only one scene of real dialogue in the whole film—and what a scene that one is!—yet the lyricism and potency of the imagery is so vivid, the movie touches something deeply-held in all of us. Commitment. Love (at least in the abstract sense of the word). Truth.
Structurally, stylistically, thematically, this is beyond impressive. It is astonishing. Director Steve McQueen earns comparison to Dryer; and like its antecedent, Hunger, aka The Passion of Bobby Sands, damn near transcends the bounds of the artistic medium. Images from the film continue to haunt me every single day, so I suspect you'll continue to see them yourself for a long time to come.
You are so right. The scene of the guy smoking a cigarette against the wall as the snow starts to fall, it's like Ozu or something. We don't even know yet who he is, why we should pay attention to him, never mind care about him. Yet the image commands us to do so. Alluring and forbidding at the same time.
Or the scene of the naked prisoners being pushed through the gauntlet of club-wielding cops in riot gear, and the complete explosion and subsequent implosion of one of these cops. I can count on one hand the times I have seen such truthful violence in film. Absolutely concrete and explicable, in no way causally ambiguous and therefore open to interpretation; just plain and inescapably factual. How is it then that this ostensibly prosaic communication is so poetic? Another word Jacob found is "aura." This film has it.
And you are just as correct that this time out a picture is worth a thousand words because silence is golden. So often more is said by words unspoken. (Personally, I only know this in theory, but that's my fault). So much meaning comes from silence, especially in art. But who has the power to silence whom goes straight to the guts of the politics portrayed. And the same thing from the opposite direction: authority can extract language from a voice struggling to resist in silence. This is not always immediately obvious when power is applied indirectly through social compulsion, but it's plain as day when the methods involve physical force as they do in Hunger.
In her book, The Body in Pain (1985)—a remarkably unique avenue into some fundamental issues in phenomenological philosophy and political theory—Elaine Scarry examines (among other things) the impossibility of language for the sentient body subjected to torture. This rendering of a human to a non-linguistic state is for the person upon whom the violence is inflicted what Scarry terms "the unmaking of the world." The lack of dialogue in Hunger profoundly enters into a violent struggle that has literally reached the point of being past words. The unmaking of the world resulting from the war going on even turns back on itself in the self-inflicted torture and death of the hunger strike.
In this circumstance of bare-knuckle brutality and monkish communicative abstinence, when the time finally comes for language in the film, it's as if that occasion is the only possible opportunity to talk; as it would have been, in fact. I have in mind—of course—the long dialogue scene between Sands and the preacher who is trying to talk him out of his fast. Everything counts, even the so-called small talk. Clausewitz said war is a mere continuation of politics by other means. Here we have the continuation of war by other means. The semantic substance of it—Jesus!—it's literally a life and death conversation.
Taken out of context as a scene in its own right, that dialogue is the kind that is never supposed to be in cinema. It belongs on the stage. The director knows this full well and shoots it accordingly. He almost entirely dismantles the three-dimensionality of the space by way of silhouette and bodily stasis in order to make the opposing profiles confront each other to speak in no uncertain terms. When he finally cuts in to close-up, the intimacy is almost unbearably intense. The tension and pacing of it is approaching the aesthetic status of music.
You mention Ozu when describing the scene of the guard smoking outside in the snow. The lyricism of the moment had me thinking haiku. Something like this:
Bitterness and fear
Melting together slowly
Snowflake on knuckle
Interesting commentary about the power of silence in a power relationship, particularly in the face of torture, as well as the power of silence in art. I am eager to learn more about this. I've heard musicians like Eric Clapton discuss the notion that it is not the proficiency with which you can play 16th or 32nd notes (yeah, I think he was looking at you Eddie Van Halen) that makes one a great guitar player, but rather the rests between the notes one plays that gives one's playing its power and poignancy.
In light of this, I can certainly see how the silence in Hunger can be seen as heightening the significance of the words that characters eventually do speak. As you say, the exchange between Sands and the preacher is very theatrical, but it is absolutely essential to the cinematic experience as well, largely because so much has gone unspoken. In fact, siding with Clapton, I'll contend that the long stretches of silence prepare us for the big verbal blow-out by making us hunger for the spoken word. We are so starved for some sort of linguistic engagement, we can't wait to hear these two sit down to hash things out.
Still, what most impressed me about the film—beyond its formal majesty, above its assured command of the grammar of cinema, on top of its soaring lyricism—was its determination to show (not tell) the effects of this sort of situation on both the oppressor and the oppressed. The images of the prisoners struggling to maintain their humanity in the most degrading circumstances dominate the film. They dare us to look away and demand that we take their side. And yet, McQueen also takes us into the world of the oppressor to show the corrosive effects on those cast in the role of torturers. The guard, worn down and disheartened as he prepares for another day in hell, soaking his hands in the sink. His wife watching him leave, waiting to see if the car will explode, the mournful cigarette in the snow. The other prison guard, whom you alluded to, full of dread as he prepares for the onslaught of violence, snapping and beating one of the prisoners (I assume to death), then breaking down in what can only be described as complete ontological despair. It isn't as if the film doesn't take sides—it bloody well does. But this does not preclude the film from having a heart large enough to extend to all who suffer in this situation.
I am not familiar with Eric Clapton's pronouncements on less-is-more, but I do know that before the Birth of the Cool sessions, Miles Davis told the tenor saxophonist Gerry Mulligan that they would be playing to create space rather than fill it. Told him: "Bring your eraser to the gig."
I continue to agree with you. The absence of dialogue in Hunger makes us almost desperate for some; so when it finally comes in such a massive dose, we are willing and able to take it all in. I should highlight how well written and performed is this scene between Sands and the preacher. It's a stunning piece of theater in its own right. The famous Irish gift of the gab is set loose and contra Scandinavian muteness, they play chess with death in accordance with their outspoken culture.
Related to all of this silence is your insight that the film is determined to show, not tell. Of course, this goes to the heart of cinematic theory about silent era pictures that must prioritize the image out of necessity versus talking movies that are not so compelled. So directors who have still been able to prioritize the image in talking movies are especially respected. I already mentioned Ozu and now I want to mention Tarkovsky, for there are shots in Hunger that do more than just linger, they hang on so long you start triple-guessing the meaning of life. Meanwhile, this whole "spiritual" or "aura" feeling Jacob spoke of has you referencing to Dryer's Joan and me thinking about Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev. There is something religious about Hunger that I cannot fathom.
What is fathomable for me is your observation that the film manages simultaneously to give a balanced presentation of the IRA prisoners and the guards, some of whom are UDA. While plainly adopting the point of view of the former party, the humanist consideration it gives to the latter is what elevates Hunger beyond a doctrinaire tract. There is a neutrality to the film at a higher level of abstraction, philosophic if you will, whereas the bias is politically concrete. In my estimation, the reverberation of Hunger within this contradiction is achieved on the aesthetic terms which we are attempting to elucidate here.
I hadn't quite made the leap to Tarkovsky, but I can explain why Dreyer is the easiest comp for me, particularly the intensity of The Passion of Joan of Arc. The religious fervor of the film's central character is matched by the emotional devastation of the audience. Both Hunger and TPOJOA really hit me hard at that level, and much credit must be given to the ability of McQueen, like Dreyer, to hold onto moments, long after our comfort level has been sated. I'm thinking here not of the dialogue scene, which is riveting for all sorts of reasons, not just for the length that he holds that shot, but rather other scenes.
Consider the one where the prison guard is swabbing away all the urine from the hallways between the cells. In a typical movie that scene might last six to ten seconds, just long enough to establish what was going on. But McQueen makes us watch the activity from the beginning right to the end. I was waiting for the standard edit at the beginning of the scene. By the time we got about 30 seconds into it, I was captivated, and I would have been pretty damned disappointed if McQueen had cut away before the job was done. There was a truth in that moment that couldn't have been conveyed any other way than by witnessing it in its entirety.
And that's pretty much how I feel about the whole film. There were times when I wanted to turn away, when I wanted the camera to look away, but thankfully McQueen never wavered. And somehow, neither did I. Herzog talks of holding onto shots because in those moments beauty and truth can sometimes emerge. We have acknowledged the truthfulness of Hunger. And the reality ain't pretty. But the film is also beautiful. Blood-stained hands and shit smeared on walls and piss running down the hall—beautiful…somehow. Really, just so much cinematic greatness here.
The guy sweeping up the pee from the corridor is definitely one of the main silent statements in the film. If I remember correctly, it comes immediately after the big conversation. It borders on the agonizingly long silent takes in Bela Tarr's Sátántangó, except the movement is towards the audience so we are not caught in Tarr's infinite futility. Rather, we know for certain when the scene will terminate because we know where it must—upon us. It's a real time insertion, the effect of which is to trap us in the path of piss, inescapably. You've no doubt heard of (and probably heard) theater audio technology that is surround-sound; well, this is the surround-image. So experiencing the duration becomes a responsibility on our part. You speak to this indirectly when you say how sometimes in the film you wanted to look away but the director didn't, so you couldn't. We are not allowed. We must bear witness, as you did say directly.
How about the execution of the cop while he is visiting his senile mother at the old age home? So much for the aristocratic duel!
No kidding. Sorta puts Grand Illusion in its place, doesn't it?
Ozu. Dryer. Tarkovsky. (Eric Clapton and Miles Davis as well). Herzog. (Bela Tarr too?) Now Rousseau, albeit disrespectfully. Who is this Steve McQueen guy anyway? I thought he was really cool in The Great Escape, but who knew he could direct? Seriously though, look at the company we believe he is keeping. Since we are falling all over ourselves to this extent, I reckon it would be irresponsible of me to neglect the one criticism I have of Hunger.
I feel the arc of the narrative requires a post-script that is missing. I recall you informing me in advance that the main character does not appear until at least a third of the way into the film. This is certainly unconventional and the novelty of it is striking. I doubt that it is unprecedented though. I also reckon it's the flip-side of the Tarantino/Coen Bros move of killing off what was hitherto a central character after the audience has become attached to her. Nothing of this postmodern Hollywood sensibility is operative in Hunger. Far from formal fun for the ironic sake of it, the introduction of the protagonist late in the proceedings is indicative of a devotion to the dictates of content. The whole point is that Sands is a member of an organization, part of a social movement, one among a united plurality engaged in struggle. The leadership he takes upon himself is undeniable and the film celebrates him for it. But the film is ultimately about more than that individual and the focus resolves the way it does because of the big picture it means to show. So the introduction of Sands so late in the story is conceptually appropriate, in my view; but in keeping with precisely this concept, the film should have included a final scene of the next "generation" of prisoners taking up the hunger strike after Sands' death.
This registered, Hunger is as good as any film I've ever seen. I mean, there is so much great art from the past that we were told in advance is great art and so we expect it to be and mostly it proves to be so. This is perhaps the deepest well from which we can drink. But to be bowled over by something contemporary, hit by the full force of a thing from now, well, it demands a different kind of attention and admiration. And we need to make ourselves available for feeling this way. We need to go in blind so we can be blind-sided. Advance reviews are to be avoided in general. They tend to be spoilers of one sort or another on behalf of the advertising mill. How can a work of art make an impression on us if we are not first impressionable, in the best sense of the word?
If we are going to touch on the film's flaws, it becomes necessary to point out that McQueen does occasionally slip into cliché in the film's final reel. In particular, he has a bit too much affection for familiar and morbid imagery that portends Sands' imminent death; e.g., multiple shots of birds taking flight. That said, I must emphasize that this is a very minor complaint given the cinematic monument that the film as a whole represents.
(As for knocking off the erstwhile protagonist early in the film, this is not only a Tarantino/Coen Brothers move, but also a Hitchcockian one, made famous by Janet Leigh's showery exit from Psycho. Transferring audience affections from Leigh to the twitchy Anthony Perkins was one of the boldest moves in Hitch's career. )
But I digress. Who is this man McQueen you ask? Excellent question. Given that Hunger is his directorial debut—and one for the ages at that—we are compelled to learn more about the man. Where does he come from? Where is he going? I don't necessarily mean this biographically, but artistically. I know from a little Internet research that he is a Brit, born in the 1970s who studied fine arts at Goldsmiths College. He is also an award-winning visual artist (Turner Prize in 1999) who was Britain's official war artist in Iraq for all of six days in 2003. He produced a set of stamps to commemorate all the men (whether they died in action or by friendly fire, accident or suicide) who were killed in the initial wave of the invasion. The Ministry of Defense has persistently refused to allow them to be made available to the public. Wonder why.
McQueen was making (usually silent) art films, inspired by directors as disparate as Andy Warhol and Buster Keaton (!) as far back as 1993. Critics point out that most of McQueen's work is provocative, but not heavy-handed, allowing audiences to determine for themselves where they stand. Hunger, which clearly shows McQueen's continued fascination with silent film, is his first feature film (winner of the Camera D'Or for best feature film debut at Cannes), and provokes the obvious question: Has there been a more impressive debut?
In interviews McQueen seems both forthcoming and candid about his interests in the art of film. He is less interested in narrative film-making, and more interested in taking the audience into the physical and emotional world of his characters. As he notes about Hunger, "I want people to feel the weight and responsibility for an hour-and-a-half of that time in history." Shit, he got former IRA prisoners from The Maze to make the feces covered walls of the prison cells. He wanted to get that right, so we would have a clearer idea of what their experiences were. McQueen develops audience empathy through this degree of attention to detail and concern for verisimilitude.
Next, McQueen is slated to direct a biographical film on Fela Kuti, the Nigerian composer and human rights activist. Given Kuti's renown as a pioneer of Afro-Beat music, it appears that McQueen is not simply going to settle back into his fascination with the use of silence in film. (Though as this review wisely points out, Hunger, despite its long stretches without dialogue, is anything but a silent film.) In 2007, before he began to make Hunger, McQueen noted that "f people anticipate my next move, thinking I'll turn right, I'll go left. I have never been interested in an easy narrative. I don't want to make things easy, either for the audience, or for myself."
Whether McQueen turns left or right, all I know is that I am really looking forward to the ride.
Dan Jardine is the publisher of Cinemania.
Ben Livant is a jazz lover and good friend of Dan's who he has been lending movies to for a while now.