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Hunger (#110 of 6)

Toronto International Film Festival 2013 Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

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Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

The opening scene of 12 Years a Slave is startlingly tragic for both the viewer and its protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), renamed Platt upon being sold into slavery, but it’s also effective in its smallness and intimacy. Shown supine on the hard, wooden surfaces sleeping with fellow slaves, Platt is awakened by a young woman who forces his hand on her breast and pushes it down her body so that he will finger her. He relents, at least momentarily; she watches him with an unimaginable despair that turns into temporary pleasure, and he watches her back with a similarly unknowable sadness. This is the first of many scenes in the film in which director Steve McQueen masterfully articulates the necessity of a character demanding a level of control and power when forced into contexts as depraved as slavery. The woman doesn’t look to Platt for physical intimacy; she just needs to be touched, and knows she can simultaneously trust him and exploit his humane temperament to do it without him hurting her.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Steven Boone’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Steven Boone’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Steven Boone’s Top 10 Films of All Time

There are simply too many amazing films—thousands, really—that could occupy every slot on this list just as confidently as the ones that are here. So I chose great ones that, whether or not it was the authors’ intent, protest the way systems, traditions and institutions threaten to break or trap individuals. Some celebrate how people manage to hold onto themselves or each other during the assault. Others dramatize defeat (see numbers five, six, nine, and 10). This quality in movies is more desperately needed right now and more enduring over time than such film critic checklist items as technical virtuosity and screenplay structure. The vast majority of people who watch movies are the ones who bear the yoke, and last century’s problem was too many films made to satisfy those who wield the whip. We, the people, are still stuck in that false reality of virtual freedom, every time we turn on the TV, click through a corporate banner ad, or look up and see more billboard than sky.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2012: Two by Mark Cousins, Boy Eating the Bird’s Food, House with a Turret, & More

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Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2012: Two by Mark Cousins, <em>Boy Eating the Bird’s Food</em>, <em>House with a Turret</em>, & More
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2012: Two by Mark Cousins, <em>Boy Eating the Bird’s Food</em>, <em>House with a Turret</em>, & More

Every year, the lovely spa town of Karlovy Vary—formerly known as Karlsbad—awakens from its long sleep to welcome hundreds of mostly young, backpack-toting film enthusiasts. For me, who’s been coming to the 47-year-old Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for about eight years, the place offers a comforting sense of annual déjà vu. There’s the solid Soviet-style Thermal Hotel where most of the action takes place: terrace meetings, the press room, the video library, and screenings in the five small, rather uncomfortable cinemas. There are also the delicious spreads at the Grandhotel Pupp (pronounced “poop,” a source of hilarity for most newcomers) and plenty of free wine and beer. Once you step out after a two-hour drive from Prague, the vibrant atmosphere hits you. And what you hear is the constant clamorous babble of cinephilic conversations between filmmakers, critics and the public.

Poster Lab: Shame

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Poster Lab: <em>Shame</em>
Poster Lab: <em>Shame</em>

There’s minimalism, and then there’s a picture of a rumpled bed, which you are certainly intended to believe just witnessed the messy thrusting of Michael Fassbender’s sex addict, Brandon, into whichever conquest he finessed off the subway. The ultimate one sheet (aw, come on, there was no resisting that one), this decidedly unadorned beauty is going to make many billboards and building walls look alternately comfy and pathetic, and for New Yorkers who’ve seen the film, it’s going to make for quite the awkward moment when it’s the first thing viewed after stepping off the 1 train with a new date. “Have you seen that?” the date might ask, and the sudden relief that she hasn’t will wrap around you like a warm blanket.

As easy as it may be to cut this thing down for its near-Duchampian anti-artistry, it may just be the year’s most effective poster, wholly capturing the pitiful mood of the film in question, and taking on more shape and meaning as you look at it. What viewers should know is that it capitalizes on the very best shot of the film (the opening shot), which sees Brandon lying awake on this very bed, half-covered, looking so empty one might peer right through him to the linens. As the camera remains static, he gets up and opens the Venetians, shedding light on the sheets and revealing the film’s title as his daily grind (get it?) is recycled. More than offering the instant suggestion of sex, this image is all about ugly guilt, right down to the trivial, almost childish domestic no-no of failing to make the bed. Its color is as telling as anything else, as Brandon is one blue cat, and though the film isn’t as successful at establishing it, it’s clear here that his bed—or any bed, for that matter—is a hideous, odious villain.

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)

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Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)

Ben begins:

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.

HND@Grassroots: Season 2, Episode 4 (22), "A Whiff of Whiteness" with Steven Boone and Lauren Wissot

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HND@Grassroots: Season 2, Episode 4 (22), “A Whiff of Whiteness” with Steven Boone and Lauren Wissot
HND@Grassroots: Season 2, Episode 4 (22), “A Whiff of Whiteness” with Steven Boone and Lauren Wissot

Our first episode sans both John and Vadim (don’t fret THE FUTURIST! and friends, they’ll be back next round) features House contributors Steven Boone and Lauren Wissot on the weighty subject of Ballast and the nutritive effects of Hunger. Texts referenced in the discussion include Armond White and Ed Gonzalez’s reviews (in New York Press and Slant Magazine, respectively) of Ballast; more of Lauren on Hunger can be found here.

We segue from that into the recent Cineaste symposium about the Internet’s effects on criticism, specifically Amy Taubin’s contribution, which references Steven (so jealous!) directly. All vanity (vanity, all is vanity!) and envy (away with ye, Barry Levinson!) aside, our chat takes some pretty interesting twists and turns (even an unanticipated side trip to Wall Street via Wall Street). And if you don’t believe me, well, chalk it up to the fact that I’m not as good at these intros as the indispensable Mr. Lichman, who’s still waiting (Russkie comrade at his side) for you to buy him a drink.

Get to it! Both Dow and Star Jones command you! Keith Uhlich