Skip to content

Hunger

November 19, 2008

“I pressured the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring, O love!  O love!  many times” — Joyce, The Dubliners

Not known for being particularly political as an artist, Steve McQueen remains true to form with his debut film Hunger by seeking to express a balanced view about the no wash protests and Bobby Sands’ hunger strike.  Every time we see a police beating, we see a policeman crying.  Every time we see a no wash protester smearing his own shit up the walls, we see a warden having to clean it up.  Every time we see Sands being helped by a sympathetic trusty, we are shown that the system can also be sadistic by replacing said trusty with a member of the UDA.  However, despite McQueen’s desire to be balanced and realistic in his portrayal of the no wash and hunger strikes, he cannot help but allow his film to be dominated by the same sentimental narratives that dominate all films about Irish independence.

In Hunger, the desire for balance is not only expressed politically but also structurally and aesthetically.  The film’s centrepiece is a twenty minute scene shot in one take from a fixed position during which Sands and a more moderate priest debate the pros and cons of suicide as a political tactic.  Clearly written with Islamic suicide bombers in mind, this scene’s witty and yet cerebral back and forth is intensely stylised and incredibly theatrical.  Indeed, it seems not unreasonable to lay this scene entirely at the feet of McQueen’s co-writer the Irish playwright Enda Walsh.  Utterly balanced, this scene explores both viewpoints from religious, moral, political and practical perspectives and it impeccably ‘fair and balanced’.  From this central scene, stark in its minimalist direction, extend two stylised slices of life; the dirty protests at the beginning of the film and the hunger strike at the end.

The dirty protests are shot with a messy but effective blend of styles.  The scenes involving the prison wardens are traditionally cinematic.  The film’s opening scenes focussing upon a prison warden’s pre-work routine convey an introverted sense of being depressed and trapped in a manner that would be at home in any contemporary American middle-class melodrama be it Crash (2005) or Lost in Translation (2003).  Alternately, there is also a seen in which a warden is assassinated that could have found its way into any gritty crime drama from The Sopranos to The Departed (2006).  These more cinematic scenes contrast with the quasi-documentary realism of the scenes involving the lives of the prisoners such as the experience of being checked in and marked as “non co-operative” or the claustrophobic squalor of life as a dirty protester.  This blend of styles brilliantly conveys the sense in which both groups are trapped in their own little worlds.  The protesters are unwilling to back down and do their time quietly and the guards or their masters are unwilling to allow them to wear their own clothes.  Thatcher is only ever present as a disembodied voice; expressing political platitudes that barely seem related to the realities that we have been shown.

The hunger strike begins in the same documentary style.  We see Sands being offered food, being bathed and shitting blood as his body starts to consume itself.  The further along the path Sands goes, the further McQueen moves from realism.  As Sands’ mind starts to go, the screen becomes blurred and the sound muffled, but it is the final scenes that are the most memorable.  Attended by a trusty who never says a word and surrounded by gleaming sunlight and polished whiteness, Sands lies naked on the bed, his ribs visible, his pubic hair literally glinting in the sunlight as his final breaths leak out of him.  This is not so much a death scene as an ascension, the final moments of a journey from the filth and squalor of the real world to the lightness and saintliness of a man who passed into legend for his decision to martyr himself for the cause.  This Christ-like ascension is accompanied with images of young boys running through the Irish country-side.  Images of an idealised bucolic youth in an idealised bucolic Ireland.  No traces of British soldiers or paedophile priests taint these final moments… this is the Ireland of adverts for Irish stout.

By and large, McQueen’s attempt at balance is a success.  This is not a film that brow-beats you with moral absolutism or which rails at Perfidious Albion.  Instead it is a film that weighs its styles and its editorial content carefully and places all of it in a very deliberate fashion.  Hunger is very much cinema as art as you can feel the painstaking attention to detail, proportion, shade, colour and texture.  However, despite this desire for balance, it is difficult to walk away from the film without fixating upon Sands’ journey.  While clearly included only as a means of aesthetic contrast, the movement from shit, maggots and wanking to an almost Christ-like martyr’s death is a clear narrative journey that runs throughout the film and, ultimately, it is this narrative that comes to dominate and define it.

However, Hunger is not the only film to fall into this trap when writing about the Irish Republican movement.  In fact, bar perhaps Boorman’s The General (1998) and Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005) — both films featuring larger-than-life characters whose fantastical natures are emphasised by the gritty realities of life during the Troubles — it is difficult to think of a film about Irish independence that is not intensely sentimentalist.

The ne plus ultra of this trend is Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006).  Retreading similar ground to his (superior) 1995 film about the Spanish Civil War Land and Freedom, Loach ends The Wind That Shakes The Barley with a heart-rending scene in which the main protagonists are martyred for their beliefs in a manner that underlines the film’s commitment to the truth of precisely these ideals.  Even Neil Jordan’s more politically centrist Michael Collins (1996) sees the film’s titular protagonist murdered for supporting a two-state solution.

It is tempting to consider why it is that martyrdom plays such a large part in films about the Irish struggle for independence.  The graphic novel Preacher features a vignette revolving around the 1916 Easter Uprising and it is suggested that the futility of the armed uprising was in fact intentional as the leaders of the Republican movement (particularly Eamon de Valera) were looking for a ‘blood sacrifice’ that might motivate future generations given the alleged ambivalence of the Irish people at the time to the cause of independence.  This is a vision that flows largely from modern ‘revisions’ of the Easter Uprising such as those put forward in R. F. Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988), which suggests that “An intrinsic component of the insurrection […] was the strain of mystic Catholicism identifying the Irish soul as Catholic and Gaelic”.

It is worth remembering at this point that sentimentalism, before it found a natural home in Hollywood, was a philosophical and theological school of thought.  Originating in the 17th Century, sentimentalism is the idea that morality is grounded in emotional and intuitive reactions.  This view contrasts neatly with the Calvinist view of human nature as too depraved for its moral sense to be trustworthy, hence the need for rule-following and rationalist moral calculus.  This vision of humanity as a creature that damns or saves itself at an emotional level could arguably be seen as being behind much a-rational religious imagery and argument.  If emotions are the seat of salvation then it makes sense to appeal to them through grand architecture, images of beautiful Jesii and an emphasis on Jesus’ suffering for our sins.  What was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ (2004) if not an attempt to bring us to Jesus’ feet through the power of sentiment and empathy?

It would be easy to suggest that Hunger is just another film to advance the trope of Irish Republicans as moral martyrs.  Particularly when McQueen’s imagery is so affecting and religious in its aesthetic, but in truth I think that Hunger is not the only film to put forward a sentimentalist vision of war.

Traditionally, cinematic wars are presented to us in Whiggish terms; as in Star Wars (1977), war results in a freer, richer, better world thereby legitimising the sacrifices depicted with such glee through the means of explosions and fire-fights.  However, the Vietnam War arguably put an end to such tendencies and so war became, via Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), a surreal, dehumanising and almost a-political environment.  This same idea also found its way via the Realist school of International Relations to films such as Doctor Strangelove (1964), Thirteen Days (2000) and The Sum of All Fears (2001).  Works that treated war as a destabilising force to be avoided at all cost through careful negotiation and complex inter-national agreements.  However, in recent years this image of war has come in for some strenuous competition.  Saving Private Ryan (1998) begins with a destabilising, senseless and brutal bloodbath on D-Day and ends with an older Private Ryan weeping and wondering whether the sacrifices made for him were worthwhile and whether he was a ‘good man’.  No Whiggish images of progress or Realist Others, films such as Saving Private Ryan and Kang Je-gyu’s Korean War epic Brotherhood (2004) present war as a kind of moral crucible in which people are assayed for moral impurities with the final nugget of moral righteousness wheeled out and paraded as politico-historical insight.

Hunger is an extraordinarily well shot and carefully constructed piece of cinema that is layered around a wonderfully funny and clever piece of theatrical back and forth.  Clearly intended to be balanced, Hunger simply cannot get out from under the weight of cinematic history; not only are cinematic depictions of the Troubles unashamedly moralistic and sentimentalist, but so are cinematic images of war in general and in such a context, balance is hard to achieve.

6 Comments
  1. November 26, 2008 10:14 pm

    Your history is a bit out here. the ‘blood sacrifice’ man was Patrick Pearse. The futility of the armed struggle was not immediately obvious to the participants of the Easter Rising, with the exception of Pearse. Certainly Connolly and the Citizens’ Army did not see it that way, and of course the later War of Independence was not futile. Finally, martyrdom plays a part in most, and possibly all, political struggles, including English and American nationalism.
    I haven’t seen the film, but I have seen The Wind That Shakes the Barley and I think it must always be borne in mind that Loach’s work is directly and intentionally propagandist. I thought it was only in Ireland that it was read as a straight nationalist work. It was valuable in that it attempted to recover the other strain of radicalism here – the left – descended from such 19th Century radicals as Michael Davitt and William Thompson, a tradition buried under a dung-heap of nationalism and, nowadays, neo-liberalism.

    Like

  2. November 27, 2008 5:25 pm

    Is sentiment avoidable, indeed should sentiment be avoided even, when depicting a fundamentally sentimental act?

    A hunger strike seems to me essentially an act of sentiment, a statement placing a perceived moral imperative over survival itself (whether one agrees with the underlying moral vision or not). It’s inherently not a rational act. It’s an act which places something important to the perpetrator above the perpetrator’s own self interest.

    Indeed given that, any act of hunger strike seems necessarily an act of intended martyrdom. To depict it otherwise would be to deny the perspective of the hunger striker, which clearly here McQueen wishes to give equal time to.

    I’m not suggesting one need agree with the act or regard the perpetrator as actually a martyr, but it does seem clear that to themeselves and their supporters that is what they are and so unless you engage with the aethetics of martyrdom you can’t engage with their act in a manner which would make sense to them. That means the only way to achieve balance is to embrace sentiment, since sentiment is the rationale for the events in question. Does that make sense?

    Like

  3. November 28, 2008 11:01 am

    Hi William,

    I stand corrected on the point of historical fact. I did try and trace the remarks but I didn’t have access to Preacher and the Foster was overly detailed for quick reference.

    You may well be correct that Loach is a straight propagandist (hence the appeals to martyrdom and attempts to horrify) but I’m not sure if this is a necessary product of the left. Chomsky’s analyses, for example, are (though distorted) rigorously non-sentimental. The idea being that the FACTS support to leftist view of history so why should there be a need for artificial heart-string plucking?

    I can only think of Jimmy McGovern’s TV-play about Bloody Sunday as an example of films about Irish independence and the troubles that try to damn the British government with fact.

    I suspect that this is is similar to the Straussian idea of the lie as the basic unit of political currency. Sentimental leftists KNOW that they’re in the right and so they think that the best way to communicate their views are in a manipulative manner as these means are invariably more effective than rigour and objectivity.

    Like

  4. November 28, 2008 11:13 am

    Max —

    I think there are meta-levels here :-) Yes I think that Sands’ acts were necessarily linked to sentimentalism as a form of public discourse and morality, but I think that you can deal with sentiment without necessarily falling into sentiment yourself and I think that McQueen really struggles to do this.

    I think at this point we’re drifting into the arena not of readings of the film but gaps in McQueen’s thinking.

    The artificial theatricality and even-handedness of the talky scene in the middle suggests to me a real desire by McQueen to be even-handed and fair. A fact that is reflected in the blanket protests scenes which are both grounded in realism and try hard to show the psychological repercussions on the guards. However, the final scenes of the film are a complete capitulation to sentiment and the language of martyrdom between the religious nature of his dying moments and the shots of young boys running through idyllic countryside.

    I don’t think that you can take an artificially balanced standpoint and then claim that it’s only natural that you lapse into sentiment when dealing with a sentimental subject matter. If you wanted to do that you’d have to start the film by embracing the mindset of the British government or the wardens.

    I think it’s fair enough to go for religious imagery when dealing with Sands as he clearly was a martyr but this sits uncomfortably with many of the film’s other elements.

    I’m not so much trying to argue that the film was ‘wrong’ (though as someone who has studied war, I do think that the facts speak for themselves) more that it was inconsistent.

    Apologies for the delay in responding by the way… wordpress seems not to be notifying me of comments.

    Like

  5. November 28, 2008 4:15 pm

    I take your point Jonathan, even opening embracing the guards’ perspectives would be unbalanced, as the end of a film carries greater weight with viewers than its beginning (particularly in terms of an argument).

    Beyond that, I haven’t seen the film yet, and therefore can’t comment further until I have. I do wonder if the final scenes undercut the horror of a death of that kind, transforming withering and decay into an idyll, but arguably showing the reality of such a death is itself a political comment on it and so would be as much a loss of balance. Some conflicts are such that sides must be chosen, even if we don’t care for either of them.

    Nice line on the Irish stout imagery by the way.

    Like

  6. November 28, 2008 6:01 pm

    I think something more detailed could be written just about the film’s few final scenes. The imagery of Sands death is horrific (in particular the scenes of him shitting blood as his body consumes itself) but it is also bathed in this white light. I’m genuinely not sure what purpose the boyhood images serve.

    I think taking a position means throwing balance out the window but you can be inspired in your position by a higher set of values than sectarian ones. Loach and Jordan both failed to do that and so their films came across as Republican propaganda in much the same way as Gibson’s films about Scotland and the American revolution came across as childishly anti-Brit.

    Thanks re the stout. I was disappointed to find that that advert isn’t up on youtube because I think as far as stereotype-pandering nationalism goes it was a fairly singular campaign. It’s up there with the Marlborough Man.

    Like

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: