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Review: Hunger

Steve McQueen is interested in using Hunger to silently document the daily intricacies of committing a crime.

3.5

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Hunger
Photo: IFC Films

It’s fascinating that Steve McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning black artist born and bred in a land that defines itself by “country first” (and is having its own faith shaken at a time when many young Brits are defining themselves as “Muslim first”) would create a film that subtly uncovers his homeland’s hypocrisy. For the British believe in “country first” only when that country is England, which is why Irish Republican nationalism (Ireland’s own version of “country first”) historically has been so offensive, thus brutally repressed. In contrast, America has always been a land of identity politics, defining our groups as “African-American,” “Mexican-American,” “Jewish-American,” the “American” always second in importance. But in England, it’s always “Anglo” first (McQueen is not “Caribbean-British” or “African-English”), an offensive veil that the Provisional IRA fought to rip away.

Since McQueen is first and foremost a prestigious visual artist, I expected the images in Hunger, his Camera d’Or-nabbing debut feature about the infamous hunger strike staged at Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in 1981 after leader Bobby Sands and his fellow inmates’ special status as political prisoners was revoked, to be stunning. What I wasn’t prepared for was an equally assured, mind-blowing sound design and stage-worthy script. The term “art film” has been batted around, posted like a sticky note to so many movies since the time of its conception that it’s hard to type the two words together with a straight face. And yet Hunger, with all its visual, sonic and editing elements flowing together in harmony like a five-star, six-course meal, exemplifies the phrase. McQueen’s film is a nuanced masterpiece that never flaunts its artistry, but uses it humbly to serve the all-important story.

From the earth-shattering opening—a rattling of pots and pans in a protest rally until the noise becomes deafening, nearly unbearable, even as the close-ups of the items being banged resemble nothing but pieces in an automated factory assembly line—to the sudden blackness, to credits over silence, McQueen has stated his unorthodox intentions. Hunger will be a roller coaster ride through the atmosphere of Maze Prison, not a straightforward study from a history book. So hang onto your seats.

Or leave them. Several people walked out of the screening I attended, and I venture to guess McQueen’s unflinching, cerebrally stylized violence reminiscent of Abel Ferrara, paired with sound effects as rich and colorful as the near-religious image of snowflakes landing on a prison guard’s bloody-knuckled hand, proved to be too much for delicate stomachs. Personally, I was even more impressed with McQueen’s ability to wield silence like a painter instinctively aware of which portions of the canvas to leave blank.

The act of waiting becomes a suspense device. Like the soldiers serving in Iraq who know their lives are on the line if a town is uncannily quiet, prison guard Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham as the man whose hands are forever scabbed or dripping blood in metaphor of the British empire itself) is unnerved when he leaves his house to drive off to work. His neighborhood seems eerily quiet as the camera whips from one end of the utterly still street to the other. Immediately he drops to the ground to check for a car bomb, his wife peeking out from behind a virgin-white curtain, terrified to look as he turns the key in the ignition. Silence is always the enemy—the calm before the storm.

From a long shot of puddles of urine streaming together like tributaries from under doors of prison cells to collect in the hallway to the medium shots of “blanket” and “no-wash” protest prisoners wrapped in dirty wool covers, modern-day cavemen dwelling in filth, McQueen’s use of perspective is Goya, not Godard. His camera slips and slides, twists right along with the squirming naked body of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender of 300, the lead in Ozon’s Angel—and the next Daniel Day-Lewis if he keeps this up) as he’s finally forcibly cleaned up (slammed into a bathtub to be scrubbed by Raymond Lohan’s industrial broom) and then bloodied again, the irony as thick as the red flowing onto the floor. And then just when you want off this not so amusing ride (though not a second before) comes a cut that doesn’t hurt—to perfectly timed silence, the image of Raymond leaning against a wall, sucking in nicotine in the snow.

Of course, momentary respites are few and far between. Even church services become not-so-sacred ground as Father Dominic Moran, played by the wry and philosophical Liam Cunningham from Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, preaches to a roomful of unapologetic “terrorists,” the din of covert activity drowning out his sermon. The swift note-passing, the small groups conspiring, gives way to a single spiritual moment as McQueen frames Brian Milligan’s sleepy-eyed inmate Davey Gillen in still close-up, his sudden resemblance to storybook Jesus startling but unmistakable.

Like Bresson with Pickpocket, McQueen is interested in using Hunger to silently document the daily intricacies of committing a crime—in this case running a revolution from a prison cell. Visitors conceal contraband in orifices, prisoners smuggle “comms” (communications) between cells, which are then hidden again in orifices, passed back along to their loved ones in a nonstop underground chain. Every seemingly innocuous move masks a secret agenda—and a chance to be caught. McQueen’s pacing is breathtaking (from absolute stillness to extreme ultra-violence and back), the torture methods used by the guards every bit as violent as the lethal inmates themselves, rendering Maze Prison one giant game of chicken versus egg with the occasional time out for a smoke (rolled from the pages of the Book of Lamentations if you’re doing time). This is a game in which no one wins, in which the easy way out via death isn’t even a goal, as the guards don’t want to annihilate so much as deliver a message—that the Irish Republicans must never forget who is boss, which of course, historically, mirrors England’s attitude toward Ireland itself.

The Brits themselves who take part in the ritual, gangbang billy-clubbing of prisoners can’t help but be scarred for life. Even as McQueen shoots the beaten prisoners like martyrs, with poetic reverent images of slowly oozing blood, he won’t hesitate to frame a split screen with ruthless violence on the left, a young guard unstoppably crying in a corner on the right. The ordinary “everydayness” of violence is astonishing: When one prison guard is gunned down execution style in front of his mum, that’s just business as usual. It’s Belfast after all.

“Putting my life on the line isn’t the only thing I can do—it’s the right thing,” Sands tells Father Dom in my favorite scene of all, one worthy of a stage play (and no wonder, as McQueen shrewdly hired Irish playwright Enda Walsh to pen the script). In one long, 22-minute (!) take, a medium two-shot in which the priest and Sands have a heart-to-heart across a waiting room table before cutting to close-up as Sands continues the monologue, then back to the two-shot, is so smooth, the editing seams completely hidden, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Sands’s monologue about being with a group of Belfast boys on a cross-country running trip and discovering a foal dying in a river, of sitting around listening to his teammates debate what to do while the horse suffered until he couldn’t take it anymore and forced the foal’s head under water to drown it, explains his reasoning behind leading a hunger strike with the eloquence of Nelson Mandela.

“I will not stand by and do nothing,” Sands responds to Father Dom, who thinks he’s “deluded” if he believes a hunger strike will make the Brits capitulate. It’s a lovely and thoroughly believable scene made all the more lovely by the fact that McQueen simply frames and walks away, leaving room on the canvas for these two incredibly talented actors to relish in the sophisticated dialogue.

Then once again, there’s that long shot of a prison guard “sweeping” the puddles of urine down the deserted hallway, toward the camera, coming closer and closer to us, classically framed yet as frigid and threatening as Kubrick’s hall shots in The Shining. The slow dolly over the subsequently scrubbed floor while Thatcher’s voice introduces the hunger strike in voiceover is equally as cold. And as Bobby Sands finally lays dying, the camera floating above him, the cut to black birds flying free among the trees, then back to Sands, all shot as if from that menacing roller coaster, one wonders if mankind stands a chance, if the political ride will never cease.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Liam Cunningham Director: Steve McQueen Screenwriter: Steve McQueen, Enda Walsh Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2008 Buy: Video

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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

3

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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