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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Hunger (2008, ****)


“I WANT THIS MOVIE TO BE LIKE A SMELL.” English video artist Steve McQueen said that about one of his early, prize-winning efforts, and he could have said it as well about his feature debut, Hunger, about life and death in Belfast, Ireland’s Maze Prison during a 66-day hunger strike in 1981.
Movies got confused in their first century. They forgot what they were (or are). Cinema started as an extension of photography, a curiosity of curiosities, of observation and witness in apparent real time. Think of the Lumière brothers’ short pieces like Train Entering a Station. (L’Arrivée d’un train en Gare de la Ciotat, 1895). In reflected light, we see what we’ve seen as seen by someone else but seen as if in a dream. Movies with a thirst for light and enlightenment and in recent decades have largely become something else, tethered to scripts and money that must be made back and plotlines with only the slimmest of variations between them. Hunger has the scent of that nearly lost curiosity, a thirst for time’s passage, for the stink of life, the punishing truth of duration. McQueen’s earlier video installations and other non-narrative forms were tender and tactile. His work functions as bodily exploration, as forensic as it is dramatic, as bacterial as it is spiritual. Consider it corporeal punishment.
Think also of Terence Davies’ stern lyricism in the transfixing movement of camera and light in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). Hunger is studied, and filled with limpid, lyrical images, of feathers and snowflakes and cigarette smoke and a crying policemen, of men smoking pages of the Gospels, but also blunt depiction of what the “dirty protest” of the men actually entailed, with cell walls daubed with waste, corridors running with fluids. (Call it “Belfast CSI.) The structure of the film, written by McQueen and playwright Enda Walsh, is essentially a triptych. A nearly wordless opening passage of the quotidian of prison life is followed by a second that reduces the protagonists to a single character, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), the first of the ten strikers to die. It’s an extended conversation between Sands and a priest that consists of moral and political argument. Shot on film, it’s an exceptionally long scene, thrilling in its concentration, that required special film stock to run the camera its 20-minute or so duration.
Fassbender commits himself to the body and the out-of-body, in the latter scenes starved into the figure of Sands, crumpled even more than Christian Bale was in similar sacrifice in The Machinist (2004). McQueen’s portrayal of the bruised male form brings to mind the great painter Francis Bacon’s bodies of men in extremis, bruised, torn, vividly corporeal. Sympathy? No. Pity? No. Empathy. Dignity and the human form are fragile and both necessary to sustain life. And patience: which the harrowingly beautiful, tragic, even transcendent Hunger has in abundance. In the end, Hunger makes concessions to traditional form with a lovely, if familiar image of release, of souls in flight. It is a gesture of forgiveness. To paraphrase the Sex Pistols, McQueen, he’s a human being.

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