The seemingly natural transition visual artists like Andy Warhol or Julian Schnabel make onto celluloid aren’t as smooth as they should be. Painters, sculptors, and video artists like Steve McQueen would seem to make natural auteurs, but cinema, and especially the feature film, is its own beast with its own methods and orientation. McQueen’s debut film, Hunger, is an incredible piece of work, commanding in both form and artistry; I’m just not sure it always occupies a filmic space. In many ways it’s more accurate to call Hunger a series of meticulous installations than to refer to it as anything more concrete; McQueen is obsessed with camera placement, composition, time, and structure in a way far more rigorous than a mere adherence to formalism would show. Hunger is a personal essay, a work of impressions whose real inspiration and narrative are forever distant.
But what an essay. When McQueen’s images can exist for their own sake, they’re staggering, and any quibbles I might have over form or function can stay in the damn textbook. Hunger, be it film or otherwise, deserves to be seen. It needs to be seen.
Ostensibly concerning the 1981 hunger strike of IRA prisoners in Maze Prison, Belfast, Hunger is connected to real events by an occasionally tenuous thread — specificities that could impair McQueen’s attempts to construct a metaphor. McQueen can’t possibly give us the entirely of Anglo-Irish relations, or even a summary of “The Troubles” which directly inform the events of the film, and he doesn’t try to. We see the conflict in the microcosm of Maze. Early on, Margaret Thatcher’s voice can be heard, railing: “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing, and political violence — there is only criminal murder, criminal bombing, and criminal violence,” and while that isn’t very far from the other condescending and asinine statements the old monster was fond of making (she also famously insisted there was no such thing as “society”), this was one of the gestures of parochial militancy that sparked the events herein. The British government’s denial of political status to IRA prisoners would spark a new wave of violence and protest, especially among the prisoners at Maze who fight their captors with utter savagery, refusing to wear prison uniforms or clean themselves, smearing the walls with shit, damming their cells with rotten food in order to flood the corridors with the contents of their chamber pots, and then being trussed, beaten, and humiliated by guards just as intent on bitterness. If such embittered actions were lost on Thatcher as those of mere criminality, it sure as hell isn’t lost on us.
Both inmates and guards are locked in a harrowing struggle for Foucaultian power; as soon as the former gain anything in the way of dignity by refusing to conform, the latter do their best to beat it back out of them. We haven’t seen what acts of (no doubt) violence have landed these IRA men in Maze; in fact, we see surprisingly little actual violence at all; we see consequences. Prisoners proudly display their wounds while guards soak bloody knuckles in the bathroom sinks and sigh. Outside the walls, it’s the jailors who live in fear. Both hate, and both suffer tremendously for it.
The strikers are led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), a gaunt, enigmatic presence we’re only introduced to halfway into the story. The core of McQueen’s triptych is a conversation between Sands and a sympathetic parish priest (Liam Cunningham), an almost 20-minute static shot of the two arguing ethics. The priest, the Satan to Sands’ Christ, is trying to dissuade Sands from embarking on the final gesture of the protest, the hunger strike which will ultimately claim him (and nine others) as a martyr to the cause. This is a curious move in the way of characterization, to hinge all of our knowledge of Sands on what is effectively one static exchange, even as the sheer formalist weight of that scene is hammered into our minds. But McQueen isn’t necessarily interested in our judgment — what he wants to make clear is that Sands believes in his cause with fierce clarity; he marches toward a slow, horrifying death, of which we must endure as the film’s final half-hour, with the clear conscience of an icon. Obviously, religious imagery and the very heart of McQueen’s meditation come to the fore with Sands’ “passion.”
These may not be pleasant images to bear witness to, but the filth and violence and bare human degradation of it all, presented with such austere, distant elegance, come together as a tremendous meditation on the human condition. McQueen lets us think what we like about Sands or the IRA, to damn him as a self-destroying fanatic or praise him as the sacrificial saint, and Hunger’s use of Christian imagery doesn’t make that any easier for us. What McQueen set out to do was represent the extremism that makes such acts possible, acts which I’m disturbed to find are as beautiful as they are harrowing.