FILM APRIL 15, 2009
Steve McQueen is a well-known British artist who is becoming a well-known film-maker. Hunger, his first feature film, is less a promising work than a fulfillment. It has nothing to do with Knut Hamsun's famous novel of the same title (beautifully filmed in 1966). It deals with the Irish Troubles, specifically the hunger strike in a Northern Ireland prison led by Bobby Sands in 1981, a strike that led to his death and nine others.
The Troubles, including the Sands story, have been well treated in film--in Some Mother's Son, Bloody Sunday, and In the Name of the Father. But McQueen's film is not just one more. His film is certainly political in context, but it is not centrally about politics. It is, as he says, "an abstraction of what it is to die for a cause." This is a different and even more awesome subject, not topical but timeless.
The previous films that McQueen has done were, I gather, objets d'art, made for museums and galleries. This is his first film made with actors. He needed a writer, and he did not want an experienced screenwriter because, he says, they tell an audience too much. He engaged an Irish playwright named Enda Walsh to collaborate with him, and after much research and interviewing, they created a script unlike any I know. It is in three distinct parts. The first part and the third have almost no dialogue. The second part is a conversation between two men. Odd though the structure is, it comes to seem inevitable for this film--thus a proof of McQueen's unusual vision.
Bobby Sands does not appear in the first part. That section, about forty minutes long, concentrates on a guard in Sands's prison. McQueen says, in an interview in the latest Cineaste, that he had read somewhere that Godard had said the only way to film the Holocaust is through the eyes of a guard. With these Irish prisoners, McQueen follows the comment in the opening part. Hunger begins in the home of a guard named Lohan, washing up in the morning, having breakfast, then leaving for work after he looks under his car for bombs. In the course of the day he goes through some rote procedures, which include office routines and the beating of naked prisoners in a corridor gauntlet. Between tasks, we sometimes see Lohan alone, smoking, shaking. Subsequently he goes to a nursing home to visit an older woman, his mother presumably. She has been rendered mute and unresponsive by a stroke, so she cannot respond to what happens to Lohan right in front of her.
The second part brings in Sands, but in an unusual way. In a medium shot, we see him and a priest on opposite sides of a plain table in an otherwise deserted visitors' room in the prison. They are backlit by a window in the far wall. They smoke. (The priest provides the cigarettes.) They speak together, says McQueen, for seventeen and a half minutes--one shot, fixed, gratifying--before we cut to close-ups of Sands and the priest. It is not the novelty of the idea that fascinates--introducing the main character well along in the film and doing it in a fixed double shot. By the time we get there, McQueen has convinced us that any conventional procedure would be unworthy.
His unique method enhances what these men say. The priest, a mature man, begins with what he later calls "priests' small talk," asking Sands about another priest whom they both know and indulging in some unpriestly professional jealousy. (Expletives in both men are not forced but are not forsaken.) Sands knows that this talk is only the warm-up, but he takes it as such, and when they come to their real subject, he is quietly ready and willing. He is going on a hunger strike to protest the order to wear prison garb. (In the first part, we have already seen this refusal in other prisoners.) He holds that he and his friends are not criminals and should be treated as prisoners of war. Stripped to the few possibilities of protest in prison, he makes this clothing matter a major issue. It is worth, he believes, his life.
He speaks simply about this belief--in essence a belief that life must be lived to a purpose. This is the purpose that has been afforded him here, to give his life for a principle, a freedom, that may help to enrich life after he has left it. The priest counters often with the church's proscription of suicide and, in Sands's terms, with questionings of his belief. The priest fails. We feel that, disappointed though he is, he admires Sands. The only way he can show it is to leave Sands the pack of cigarettes.
Part Three distills into a half-hour or so the sixty-six days of Sands's course into death. As in the first part, the dialogue is sparse. We see his physical decline with some detail, just enough. We see that at every mealtime he is brought a tray of food that he doesn't touch. There is no force-feeding. His parents visit during these days, always taciturn, always accepting of his decision. They even bring his burial clothes. A closing credit tells us that, during his strike, Sands was elected to Parliament by Fermanagh and South Tyrone in Northern Ireland. We are not told that, all through the strike, his face was on Irish television every day with the number of the day.
In addition to the unique frame of the whole film, the framing of every shot--with Sean Bobbitt at the camera--shows an eye for the relation of detail to major elements. The pace of events is not so much slow as undisturbed. (A number of recent films by independent directors have been paced in opposition to the time-span rush of the present day. Some film-makers are resisting the supposedly universal injunction to feed the eye at the expense of everything else.)
"I had never worked with actors before, but I thought it best to be truthful with them and I think they found that quite shocking," McQueen says. Shocked or otherwise, the three principals embody what McQueen presumably was after in their characters, Stuart Graham as Lohan, Liam Cunningham as the priest, and Michael Fassbender--simple, without pretentious glow--as Sands. The good news: with McQueen's first feature, an open, fine, inquiring artist has joined the film world.
Is the idea of time capsules still around? If so, here is a candidate, a documentary called American Swing. The subject is not pop music of past decades but sexual swinging. This film by Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart is about a Manhattan sex club called Plato's Retreat in the late 1970s. It tries to view the founder, a man named Larry Levenson, as a hero who needs memorializing, but the real subject is his club and its patrons. If this film is dug up in a time capsule a century hence, our descendants will see what some people in the twentieth century thought was sexual liberation, right after the liberating Sixties.
Levenson started his club because, he said, there were only gay sex clubs, none for heterosexuals. His place had some rules. Among them: no one was admitted fully dressed. Couples were preferred but were not expected to stay together. Anything that anyone wanted to do or say was acceptable if the other person or persons accepted it. Relatively private rooms were available but were not always used. Groups of nude people around a pool were variously entangled.
The film is built--serviceably--of recent interviews with former staff members intercut with footage of patrons made back in the glory days. This 1970s footage is the first of the picture's interests. The people who swung at Plato's apparently wanted to be known for it. Time-capsule viewers will see that knowledge of their presence mattered to many of the swingers as much as the swinging itself. Thinkers of the future might ponder if this implies a need for moral standards--in order to snub them. The reveling in this film, frank as it is, doesn't seem to be free-flying rapture. It seems like a jailbreak, escape from the guardians of propriety. I kept hearing the unspoken words: "Look at this, mom and dad! Look at this, Reader's Digest!"
All the male patrons were white: I caught one glimpse of a black female. I didn't see race mentioned in the rules, but possibly, as late as the 1970s, restrictions were sometimes assumed.
The publicity about Plato's was of course loud. Some media people visited the club, and some reported from the outside--or at least wanted to seem as if they did. Even the big television talk shows of the time--David Susskind and Phil Donahue--had Levenson and his friends on their programs and tried to be calmly judicious about the matters discussed. (Today there might be less condescension and more detail.)
For a few years Levenson prospered. Then he had tax troubles, served a prison term, and tried to open another Plato's, but was crushed by the arrival of AIDS. He ended up driving a cab, then had a fatal heart attack. He is still remembered fondly by some. Their memories--the recent interviews with past patrons--bring an unexpected poignancy to the film. Now elderly and plump, they sit on their sofas speaking about their visits to Plato's as if remembering family excursions. Husbands and wives nod at each other about the strangers they embraced there. One couple even descends from those memories into cozy incidentals. They recall the food that Levenson provided on the buffet. The wife names the various dishes. The husband adds: "And cole slaw." "Cole slaw," agrees the wife.
The almost requisite, airily sophisticated tag for a factual film of sexual display is "sad," but these latter-day conversations give the word a deeper color. With those older patrons, Plato's seems further away than the 1970s. That surprising rue--about time's passage--slips in. Perhaps future capsule viewers, too, may be emotionally nudged by the gray-haired former swingers. Even though the sexual antics of the past will possibly seem superfluous a century hence, the pathos of those nostalgic oldsters may, in human terms, link them to the future. Possibly, too, the cole slaw.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann