Steve McQueen’s Hunger works well enough as apiece of fluffy art pop. It fills the screen with a fair number of beautifully composed but gently hard to look at images and leaves the doctorate-holding liberal viewer feeling on the side of the good and the just, yet able to site the film’s ambiguity as an alibi. Hunger isn’t a film that doesn’t manipulate it’s audience, or one that sets up real contradictions, it’s a film that, like the contemporary bourgeoisie, makes a religion of not knowing what to feel. The movie works more less the same way the work of Andres Serrano or or Damien Hirst pictures does. Unfortunately, the film and McQueen want you to take them seriously, which reveals that they are empty as Schindler’s List and Steven Spielberg.
In order not to confront the fact that he has merely added another entry to the filmography of post-gospel typology, McQueen tells professional film salespeople like Denis Lim that his movie scrapes relevance off Guantanamo Bay and the contemporary climate of terror. He even claims that the belabored citations of Christian iconography were “unavoidable” in a film about “a naked skinny guy dying.” McQueen, it must be said seems as stupid and disingenuous as anyone in Hollywood or the galley world and probably uses “reference” as a verb. His film has to do related to Camp X-Ray and contemporary terrorism only at the most deluded level of abstraction.
His hysterical love for ending shots in the overly dramatic but well-balanced compositions typical of a certain school of large format art photography structures the camera work form start to finish. The problem with that tick isn’t so much that the compositions aestheticize the image, but that McQueen’s aesthetics are an ongoing project rather than a mode of historical analysis. Everything from a guard shot in the head while visiting his mother at a nursing home to shit prisoners smeared on the walls of Maze prison is presented from the same monocular point of view. That point of view contains violence in the image within a decorum of the image. Formally the film enacts a huge step backwards for the cinema, so much so that I can hear the decomposed Derek Jarman.
The film tells you very little about the no-wash strike, but does generate a lot of eroticism. Its Sadistic investments come to an enjoyable climax in the second half of the film, which is nothing other than an analysis-free hagiography of Bobby Sands as an individual. No mater how many clichés about having “nothing but one’s body” as a weapon McQueen spouts about or how many poorly digested sound-bites about bio/ thanatopoltics his supporters invoke, the second half of the film is even more of a mess than the first half. It uses out of focus shots as means of focalizing the narrative around the starving Sands and cuts to saccharine shots of Sands’ youth right before he dies, further toning down the films mild and over rated horror.
The one almost successful part of the film the first part, about the no-wash strike, with the second part, about Sands. In that sequence, Sands argues with a priest about the merits of a hunger strike unto death. It plays a bit as if McQueen had read the cliff notes to the fabluation chapter in Gilles Deleuze For Dummies and mixed it with some vague ideas about Irish bards, but at least it gives a sense of antagonisms within the Republican movement and doesn’t spend itself in giving us images to look at. Even here, McQueen can’t get away from art world clichés — sands tells a story that turns out to be about that gallery favorite, a dead faun. The aforementioned shots of Sand’s youth in the second half refer to this story, retrospectively diminishing the scene even further when we realize that it was nothing but a mildly sentimental set up for big time bathos. The fact that many critics fell for McQueen’s bullshit and claim the film is rigorous (it’s anything but) while celebrating the supposed fact that he read a couple of books about Sands and Maze Prison before shooting the film (one would hope so,) is almost laughable. McQueen’s Hunger is hunger for success success success.