so, this week i’m going to put on my historian hat and do a bit of ranting.
i finally found time on saturday morning to watch artist steve mcqueen’s film about bobby sands, hunger. the film could fairly be called “critically acclaimed” — often a meaningless phrase — because, well, it was. one of the guardian’s film critics went so far as to say that he was never going to watch another film that wasn’t made by an artist again because this had been a life-changing experience. subsequently, he’s watched wolverine, avatar, and (i think) alice in wonderland, so i’m thinking this grand claim didn’t hold true for too long!
brief synopsis: the film follows (or tries to from about 52 minutes in) bobby sands, member of the irish republican army, who was imprisoned in 1976 (for the second time) and died on hunger strike in 1981, the first of ten ira members to die in the long kesh prison in northern ireland in ’81. their aim was to pressure the english government into returning “special category” prisoner status which would allow imprisoned paramilitaries to be treated, in essence, as political prisoners. they would have the right to wear their own clothes, receive more mail and more visits, arrange their own living spaces (with prison rules), and a few other privileges that “ordinary decent criminals,” so called by the prison system, did not receive.
so — first, the good stuff. the film is beautiful. i don’t know exactly what mcqueen’s background is or what other work he has done but he has an eye some directors and cinematographers would probably kill for.
when i say that it’s as carefully, precisely, and gorgeously shot as a good polanski film (see the ninth gate) or pretty much any danny boyle or sam mendes movie (see 28 days later or american beauty), this should get the idea across. there are no particularly fancy camera tricks — except for some crane work when bobby is dying that gets truly dizzying which i imagine was the point — and most of the work is simple close-up, static shot, or dollying. it’s very basic, which makes it gorgeous.
the colors are beautiful — for a film which as to take most of its action inside a prison system, mcqueen did a fantastic job of finding a way to make it not bleak or, rather, to make the bleakness meaningful without making it drip with symbolism. the prison is a prison; there’s really no way around that. but the use of light — see the scene in the beginning with a prisoner standing by a broken window grill, the cold light from the snowy day outside lighting his bare torso and making it appear to glow ivory — is phenomenal. it’s the opening of the trailer down there; the picture quality on this isn’t as good as on the dvd copy i watched, but it should get the idea across.
there’s a scene at about the midway point of the movie — lasting for about 10-15 minutes — done in two shots: one a static framing shot, and the other a tight close-up and the photography of the cigarette smoke as the two men in the shot smoke and argue is distractingly lovely. really — it does get a bit distracting! but it’s beautiful to watch. and it highlights the emptiness of the room around the two men nicely.
so, yes, look, i said some good things, right? now — the problems.
i have never seen a better propaganda piece for the ira. or, more precisely, for the martyrisation and idealisation of bobby sands.
and that’s including all the time i’ve spent reading/watching/looking at actual ira propaganda!
and i’m having to take periodic breaks from writing this post because it’s making me too upset; by the end of the movie, i was actually lecturing the computer screen sternly on its iniquities as a piece of historical thinking.
and, of course, that’s one of the problems. it isn’t a piece of historical thinking. it’s a movie. but it’s a movie that purports to be closely based on historical events — and not all that distant ones, either. less than 30 years old. it isn’t like mcqueen could claim the clouds of intervening centuries blurred his vision; there are men who were in prison with sands who would, i’m sure, be delighted to talk to him. or, if not delighted, could probably be talked into it. if nothing else, there are histories — believe me, there are histories — and memoirs and narratives and state papers — all of which could have helped this be better.
now, go forth and watch the preview for hunger and i’ll be back on wednesday to discuss a few problems: