Saturday, February 6, 2010

Steve McQueen's Hunger

Like most of artist Steve McQueen's work, Hunger is absolutely beautiful. It's also deeply disturbing, in a visceral sense that I haven't experienced since Precious. That's probably at least partly because Hunger is based on the true story of a "blanket" and "no wash" strike that lead to a hunger strike of IRA prisoners held in Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in 1981. The stillness of this film echos the monotony, the disturbing silence that must have existed there. It's, well, imprisonment. The film is full of shit, spread all over the walls of each cell as part of the prisoner's protest to being denied political prisoner status by the British government. This image is so strong you can absolutely smell it and it's overwhelming. We watch an orderly pour bleach onto pools of piss that prisoners have poured out their doors into the hall, and we watch him sweep the liquid all the way down the hall toward the camera, methodically, as if to hypnotize the viewer, the pools reflective and somehow beautiful. I love it when experimental filmmakers and video artists make narrative features, because then we get this beauty, this stillness, this pause. And the film is indeed slow, but this is called for. It takes time to fully contemplate what is happening and to digest the horrific violence the prisoners endure (historical echos of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo). The sound design is amazing- sparse and quiet, so that there is an overlying tension and we can hear every little thing. The confined, entrapped, seclusion of the prisoners is contrasted with extreme low angle shots of a prison guard in the outside world with the sky behind him, no limits. In the same sense we see birds crossing through prisoners' dreams and at the end of the film flashbacks to outside times, forests and trees, causing my friend who'd gone to the bathroom to exclaim, "is this the same movie?"

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