Interpretations: Steve McQueen, Hunger (2008)

by Meghan Falvey and Asad Raza

In 1981, Irish republican prisoners, led by Bobby Sands, conducted a hunger strike at HM Maze prison near Belfast. Steve McQueen's Hunger is an account of that strike. It opened in New York City on Friday, and we recommend you see the film before reading this.

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Meghan: The restraint of your summary suits the movie, I think. I come to any movie or story about sectarian violence in Northern Ireland expecting that I'm going to be attacked with sentiment, with a light scrim of history thrown over a pretty standard David vs Goliath root-for-the-underdog set up. It bothers me that that stuff can get into my Irish-American lizard brain– I cried watching Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and it was only partly out of frustration that I was susceptible to romantic nationalism. Also I expected another exercise in telling stories about recent history that are meant as metaphors for the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the War On Terror's illegal captures and torture. At the beginning of Hunger I felt like I braced for a similar assualt, and then it never came– I almost relaxed as it went on! The two Thatcher voiceovers were the closest thing to melodrama– what a ham she was! But that's enough, maybe, about what Hunger isn't. I watched it as a– well, what did you make of it?

Asad: The first thing that occurs to me to say to readers is: please see this beautiful, terrible film. I watch a lot of movies, and this one, from the first pounding sequence, felt fresh. More than fresh: new. There's lot to be said for letting a talented visual artist try to make a movie with total control–McQueen's technical confidence and maturity are so… there. There's a moment in the film where the Bobby Sands character breathes and as he does, there are three very brief dissolves to birds flying, and then back to Sands. He's near death. That brilliant use of an age-old technique–the dissolve–was so evocative and so sad that I cried. Even as a structure, the movie is very bold–it's a triptych in which the parts are almost totally distinct. (We have to talk about that middle “panel” in more detail below.) As for the politics of the film, which you bring up, I think they are my favorite kind: the politics of the body and not the body politic. Know what I mean?

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Meghan: I'm no movie critic, but for what it's worth, I second your recommendation! And yet, I wonder why we were both so struck by 'the politics of the body,' meaning I worry about it a little. It's such an easy metaphor. And it seems like a dimunition of the terrain of politics. I wouldn't say it's my favorite kind of politics, exactly, but you know I tend to zero in on questions of who does what and who gets what; basic distributive politics.

So did Bobby Sands, actually; in what you called 'the middle panel of the triptych' there are some references to his community organizing. The priest asks 'that's because your needs are specific needs?,' and he replies “Of course they are! some woman bringing up three children in West Belfast shouldn't care about civilian type clothing or whatever they're calling these clown outfits.” This is the reply of a person with a conception of interests. but also a person known mostly for his death by self-starvation. I know I project wildly, but I thought, god! no, one doesn't get to choose the terms by which you pursue your emancipation. For Sands, in this movie at least, those terms were set in London and by the IRA.

Was his own body the only field of engagement left to him? I cried at the scene of the “Bearded Man”– the IRA liason who shot a note out of his nostril telling Sands “Negotiate!”–visiting Sands in his hospital room; all we see is Sands' view of his face, talking intently, but the sound is mixed so you can't make out a single word, and his voice sounds like a memory of an echo.

Asad: I know you tend to zero in on distributive politics, Meghan; you're a sociologist! Bless you. But when I say the politics of the body are more interesting to me than the body politic, I'm talking more about these things as subjects for movies and visual art. When Jenny Holzer makes a digital display that says “PLEASE CHANGE BELIEFS,” this act has a political dimension, but it is not simply political or even easily understandable. Similarly, there is a veiled socio-political dimension, a critique of racialism, in Bruce Nauman's black balls–expressed comically. That is somehow electrifying to me. But when, as in Holzer's current show at the Whitney, her displays refer to the CIA, to the murder of innocents in Iraq, etc., I find it less interesting. The venue seems wrong and I feel they are preaching rather than exploring. In such works, we already know what's good and what's bad. Art shouldn't be that clearly valenced.

What Hunger does, in my opinion, is to focus on the tactile effects of a political situation on the bodies of its protagonists: bloody knuckles and bedsores, notes hidden in vaginas and anuses, the tears of an overwhelmed British riot cop. What is the visceral experience of starving yourself to death? This seems so much more revelatory, so much less valenced. I guess I'm less interested in adjudicating the basic question of distribution than you are–who's getting screwed and who's not. That's a different kind of question.

But I still share your suspicion–maybe that's too strong a word–of the film's power. It is the most harrowing and emotionally devastating movie I've ever seen, actually. To watch it is overwhelming, almost traumatizing. When the priest, trying to convince Bobby not to start the hunger strike, asks “What do you think your wee son's going to say?”, Bobby's succinct response is “Fuck off. You're going to attack me with sentiment?” But you could say the movie's procession of beautiful male bodies being subjected to violence–some shots look like Jesus versus the Nazis–attacks us with extreme sentiment. I don't know exactly how I feel about that.

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Meghan: Do you bless me in your capacity as a man of letters? (Read that in Thatcher's voice and quake!) The funny thing is that we are in agreement: expressly didactic art (especially visual art) seems to me to wander beyond its brief as art and wind ups doing neither what it could do as art nor anything useful as politics. I didn't ask Hunger to adjudicate regional labor politics, nor do I think McQueen intended it to. Like I said, I project wildly from my own preoccupations. And I think it's due to Hunger's success at allowing multiple or unfixed valences that my response isn't, technically, absurd. But I'll take another of Holzer's Truisms: “ABSTRACTION IS A TYPE OF DECADENCE,”at face value for the moment at least and return to your reservations about “Jesus versus the Nazis.” This is one of those films in which every object and every face is shot or lit or both to look arresting. That scene in which Michael Fassbender, playing Sands, turns over on the bloody floor of his cell after the mass beating and “mirror search” to stare almost vacantly up at the camera, with his bloody mouth fallen open– that scene is distressingly gorgeous. The Sands who looks with warmth and defiance at his parents across the visiting room table– the humane, social person– is gone by that cell-floor scene. You're looking at an actor playing someone who has had their character beaten out of them, while you notice the composition of the shot and the contrast of the almost-green floor with red blood and white skin. There were a lot of scenes like that (practically the whole movie) where the combination of aesthetic pleasure and horrific content produce unease. And I did wonder, during Sands' dialogue with the priest, if his defiance would have seemed crazier, more like zealotry, if the actor weren't so typically handsome. That's not quite the same thing as what you're getting at, though; will you say a little more about it?

Asad: Nice return via Holzer quote! I'll go down the line using Bertolt Brecht: “First we eat, then morals.” Hunger strikers perversely reverse this dictum. That's what the movie's crucial middle panel, the debate between the priest and Sands, is all about: one character is on the side of “morals” and debate and the other on eating/not eating–i.e. pragmatic expediency. Or as Steve McQueen said in a Q&A, “I thought of the scene as John McEnroe versus Jimmy Connors, Wimbledon final. Both players want to win, but they want it in different ways. One player wants to act, to serve and volley, to make something happen, and the other wants to react, to hit winners off the return of serve.”

Where I think the film succeeds hugely is by not taking a position on this question–though you could say it implicitly favors Sands, since he's the hero and the priest isn't. The shot you mention, where Sands has beaten senseless and looks giddily into camera, is distressingly gorgeous. We find it gorgeous–in other words, the spectacle of violence moves us, compels us, gets something going. The movie doesn't resist this dynamic in the slightest–it exploits it. Thinking about it, I have no problem with the movie's “attack” anymore–it's a heavy serve, giving us a return to hit. And the fact that the middle panel scene, shot in two gloriously intense long shots (a wide shot for seventeen minutes, then a closeup), is so funny, so alive with banter, and so unself-pitying, means very much to me. Humor found in tragedy can be a consoling, beautiful thing. (By the way, speaking of those Thatcher voiceovers, their use feels very British to me–they somehow make me feel this is a British film in a line from Kes to My Beautiful Laundrette.)

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Meghan: You served, I returned! Yeah, that “middle panel” conversation is entertaining. All the banter about Dominic's ambitious, successful little brother: “He worked the bishop. He's a golfer. He's pushy little twerp is what he is.” And, as they light Dominic's cigarettes he asks: “Bit of a break from smoking the Bible. Ever worked out which book is the best smoke?” “We only smoke the Lamentations.” They're well-matched in deadpan fervor and manipulative skill and it's hugely pleasurable to watch them parry. Why would Dominic bring up his frustration with his superiors in the Church if not to coax Sands into revealing his own discontent with the IRA? You would not want to find that guy on the other side of the confessional grille.

I wouldn't characterize their relative positions quite as you did, though. Dominic starts off on the side of pragmatic expediency (the function of a hunger strike is to bring your adversaries to the negotiating table); and he brings up morality only after that fails to sway Sands. How do you argue with someone who says “My life means everything to me. Freedom means everything,” in effect taking both sides of the argument you're trying to have with them? Communicating via balled-up notes smuggled in the cavities of your body could be easier.

About black humor: I can't help but think of J. G. Farrell's Troubles, when unseen “Sinn Feiners” bury the protagonist, the Major, up to his neck on the beach and leave him to drown. He regains consciousness and starts wondering why the British soldier opposite him looks so inert, he worries about whether his foolish love is requited– he has no sense of the momentousness of his condition. And then he doesn't drown and in the morning the Sinn Feiners dig him up and rebury him, closer to the surf. That is some unpitying distance to keep from your characters. But what McQueen does is spread his sympathies more widely: not only to the orderlies and prison guards (especially the baby-faced kid who cries during the mass beatings, the audience surrogate); and to both Dominic and Sands.

Asad: Yes, McQueen has made a film that doesn't feel as though it emanates from a national perspective–and on a topic where any account seems inevitably partisan. Another thing to admire. In general, I'm amazed this is McQueen's first feature film. The early sequence showing a prison guard leaving home for the Maze, establishes so many things so quickly. His exhalation as he dips his raw knuckles into a sinkful of cool water. A shot from underneath his car as he bends to check it for bombs establishes the mood of tense, justified paranoia shrouding Belfast. Before that, we're shown a strange shot of his lap under the breakfast table, sweeping crumbs off a napkin he has placed there to catch them as he eats. Those crumbs, it seems to me, do a lot: they imply a (fascistic?) impulse to cleanliness. They bring our attention to the body, specifically the mouth and hands, and, of course, to eating and the byproducts of eating. And when the officer sweeps the crumbs, they go right onto his own dining room floor; his impulse makes them into a problem for his wife. A small metaphor for the intractable problem of security, of the impossibility of eliminating undesirable corporeal substance, that is this movie's subject.

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Meghan: I agree that the movie is extraordinarily efficient at setting up the scenario. And as in your description of the opening scene, it does this without recourse to most of the traditional techniques of exposition. But McQueen definitely takes sides, though, don't you think? Even if those sides aren't couched in terms of the nation. So many unmistakable parallels are drawn between the relative freedoms of the guards and the prisoners' deprivation. For example, very soon after the guard's morning routine, we see Davey arrive in the prison and he's forced to strip in front of three uniformed guards. The guard buttons his shirt up from bottom to top, in his middle-class bedroom; Davey unbuttons his shirt from top to bottom in a room off a barred hallway. And the guard's clothes are laid out on his bed just as the lurid “clown clothes” will be laid out on Sands' bunk later. The guard listens to the radio on his drive to work; later, we see a prisoner take a rudimentary radio from his visiting girlfriend and hide it in a pile of maggoty food scraps in the corner of his cell. I could go on! But my point is that the movie sides with the prisoners, even or maybe especially as they do disgusting things– like smearing their own shit on the cell walls with their hands.

There's so much more to discuss–how did we get this far without talking about all that piss and shit! And blood and bedsores and the way Sands, like, eats those cigarettes.

Asad: I love your description of the Kubrickian symmetries of the opening “panel”: to me those symmetries observe the structural differences between being a prisoner and a guard. But even if that constitutes side-taking, as the hagiographically beautiful shots of Fassbender also do, to take sides is not the same thing as to make a film that feels nationalist, which this doesn't. Anyway, all those beautiful symmetries are connected to all the things that we haven't had a chance to talk about (the janitor shot! the allusions! the score!): they are examples of how packed this movie is, how motivated each of its shots are. The movie almost feels old-fashioned in its film fluency–it's like discovering someone who speaks an older, richer version of the language. McQueen spent five years making it, with full control, and it shows. And his base in the art world, perhaps, has admirably freed him from the kinds of considerations that someone who wants a career in “the movies,” that debased zone, must have.

One last thing about that middle panel, that says a lot I think about McQueen: in his Q&A at a screening, he said he knew he wanted to shoot it as an extremely long take, in a backlit wide shot (which actually looks something like a tennis court!). They shot it and McQueen was happy with it. His producers, naturally, wanted him to cover it from other angles, just in case his pre-visualized idea didn't work as well as he thought. So he started to set up a tracking shot to satisfy them, then stopped and refused to do it. He said he was thinking, “Why should I waste my cast and crew's talent and time? We've got it. I've spent five years on this. I'm not here to muck about.”

Meghan Falvey is a graduate student in sociology and Irish-American. Asad Raza lives in New York and writes regularly for 3quarksdaily.

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