Film Review: Hunger (2008)

I thought I knew how I felt about Hunger, which won British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen the Camera d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.  But after reading J. Hoberman’s review, I don’t feel as confident. Damn those good critics who are smarter than I! 😛

I suspect, however, that I’ll retain my position. Hoberman was enthralled with the “spectacle of violence, suffering, and pain”; however, the fact that it can indeed be thought of as spectacle makes me suspicious. His intellectual position is that the film eschews extensive exploration of the political ramifications of the 1981 Belfast Maze Prison protests, thus allowing for a more visceral, Passion-like presentation of an existential hellhole. To me, however, this was to the film’s disadvantage. It’s so easy to get lost in (maybe even enamored with) the film’s technical virtuosity that one can forget to ask what purpose the heavy formalism serves and also whether that formality achieves its objective.

I heard the director — the other Steve McQueen — speak at the IFC Center in Manhattan following a screening, and he said his goal was to portray the microscopic world of the prisoners, removed from the larger political realities outside the prison walls. Maybe, but after hearing his enthusiasm in describing the technical assemblage of several scenes (free from any political considerations), I got the impression that much of the film’s brutality exists as an end onto itself. That’s not a problem on its own, provided that such is unequivocally the method behind the madness. But here, it seems the pretension of addressing individual struggles within a larger political context acts as a veneer to conceal a morbid fascination with not only suffering and torture, but also the method by which they can be made most unpleasant on-screen.

Other members of the audience swooned over the film’s sound design and cinematography (rightfully so), but seemed unable to remove themselves from the grip of its cinematic legerdemain and examine whether the film actually had anything interesting to communicate. If it’s the importance of individual stories, I knew that. If it’s that physical suffering can be unbearably unpleasant, I knew that too. And returning to Hoberman’s argument, I’m having trouble interpreting the refusal to address greater political significance as a positive.

The film’s most conspicuous attempt at intellectual engagement comes during a massively distended dialogue between Bobby Sands, the most notable of the hunger strikers, and a wise-cracking, world-weary priest. If this scene can’t be thought of as an entire third of the film, it is certainly a protracted interlude that bridges two halves of hellacious human anguish. It’s by far the best stand-alone scene, and it’s filmed mostly in a single two-shot. But it’s also the first real exposure we get to Sands, who is ostensibly the centerpiece of the film, and by now, it’s too late to expect significant emotional investment from the audience.

As we hear Sands expound upon his philosophy, it becomes clear that McQueen is pleading with us to invest in Sands’s martyrdom, so that we’re even more moved when we subsequently see Sands writhing in malnutritive agony, his emaciated frame covered in sores and lesions. But it’s tough to feel emotional attachment to a man we hardly know, especially with all those artful sound edits, dissolves, and superimpositions.

At the film’s conclusion, McQueen can’t avoid giving us the ubiquitous post-narrative intertitles. (Why do filmmakers insist on this haphazard method of narrative closure?) There are several of these text blocks, and each made me wonder not only why we’re told and not shown, but also why they’re necessary if the film is supposed to focus solely on the visceral nature of the prison strikes.

Never mind that we don’t feel like reading after an extensive sensorial flogging.

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