In his 1999 Turner Prize winning installation short film Deadpan, Steve McQueen reproduced the great gag from Steamboat Bill Jr. It is the one where Buster Keaton is standing right in front of a house being blown over by a cyclone. The facade falls on Buster, who just so happens to be standing directly in line with a window on the upper story. To our great relief, he remains unscathed. In McQueen’s take, the figure stands in the same situation for four minutes worth of film shot from multiple angles, the wall collapsing again and again. It is repetitive and obscure despite its renowned reference. But there is a hidden tension in Deadpan that grows to encompass a dark comedy, a reflection on the artificiality of suspense, and the all-too-real terror of life and chance. This is the kind of physical cinema we would expect from someone who dropped out of film school because “they wouldn’t let you throw the camera around.”
McQueen is an experimental filmmaker. His artwork ranges far from the typical resume of a contemporary director, even those on the fringes. And this biography makes Hunger all the more surprising. It is controlled, severely exacting, masterful cinema. Most of Hunger involves lengthy shots of exhausted bodies – imprisoned, beating and being beaten, in halting movements, decaying. But there isn’t a spare moment, as even in these lengthy sequences there is an economy that develops along binary lines: guards/prisoners, inside/outside, them/us, freedom/hunger. Over the course of the first half of the film we become increasingly aware of the specific context of these haggard prisoners and bloody-knuckled guards. The Maze Prison, home to Republican paramilitary prisoners throughout The Troubles, was in 1981 the stage of a hunger strike leading to the death of Bobby Sands and nine others. McQueen abstracts from the events leading to this strike a series of images that don’t simply distill the political dichotomies of the hunger strike into ripped beards, bloodied heads and sores and meaty grunts, but actually re-cast the film’s historical narrative in physical terms. It is a history of violence as if charted by a choreographer.
The film pivots on a lengthy conversation between Bobby Sands and Father Dom Moran about the political logistics of the hunger strike. This static take, a masterpiece of theological ethics, explores a split in the Republican party that against Bobby Sands’ resolve to stare Thatcher down at any cost maintained a more pragmatic focus on Republican ideals. It is from this conversation that the last half of the film emerges, Sands now committed to a course of action that would end in a painful, protracted death. This stream of images in which Sands physically declines towards the end of the film is haunted by Father Moran’s suggestion that Sands’ self-annihilation will be simply that, a self-refuting response to Thatcher’s indifference.
In this way Hunger is as experimental as his video work, this time with increased dedication to the lens as a means of extended reflection. Scattered throughout the latter half are stretches of pure cinema. Birds taking flight. Long-distance running along rich soil. Even though the context invites us to think of these in terms of imagined freedom, they seem to actually be symbols of flesh and memory dissolving in a consciousness robbed of nutrition. Bobby Sands is breaking up. The lavish flashbacks towards the end are aesthetic counterpoints to his vanishing flesh, part of a quiet rhythm that winds down refusing to tell us whether Sands was a fool or not. He simply moulders in these synecdoches of mortality.
Belmondo flashes by in a glimmer of gesture at the end of Breathless. Remy passes on in a haze of conversation towards the conclusion of The Barbarian Invasions. Johnny Depp sails out out on the waves of Jarmusch’s poetic aptitude at the end of Dead Man. Bobby Sands simply dies, slowly. Hunger is Buster’s house falling repeatedly on Sands, but there is no longer a window. Through McQueen’s visual reflection on mortality, the meaning of his hunger is increasingly universalized. We often call films in this context “issue films.” These are movies linked to particular historical events that intend to raise our ethical awareness about overlooked people or social perspectives. But I don’t think Hunger is anything other than avant-garde. In its final steps we can see McQueen’s thought processes unfolding in images like samples from a transcendental playbook. Every point at which Hunger is about its political context, it is also about Bobby Sands as a metaphor for far less particular things. We so often see the deaths of soldiers or protesters or martyrs subsumed as political markers beneath layers of ideological tension. Hunger moves past this sloganeering into Kiefer, Chagall, or Bontecou territory, towards the common experience of decay that has its own historiography. And I guess even its own cinematography.