Monday, March 15, 2010


(Steve McQueen, U.K./Ireland, 2008)

A beautiful, troubling, and entirely refreshing film. McQueen, a well-known video artist, has successfully navigated a daunting project, maintaining a perfect balance between the narrative and the poetic, the lyrical and the cerebral, and bringing conceptual rigor to a story steeped in pathos and fraught politics. As has been noted elsewhere, the film functions as a kind of triptych. Part one sets the stage, but in an elliptical (and highly methodical) fashion, immersing the audience in the physical environment of the Maze, and remarking on the way the human lives are shaped by the environment. Part two is the theoretic exegesis on the morality & effectiveness of the hunger strike as a strategy, an audacious sequence that succeeds in simultaneously revealing thematic content and character. It might be more accurate to say that this section begins as a didactic, somewhat abstract dialogue and becomes a portrait of the individuals engaged in the dialogue. And there's part three, where the film becomes most lyrical and most harrowing. The physical decay is difficult to watch, but it draws all of the disparate elements we've seen before together, and the uniting is an aesthetic accomplishment of stunning subtlety and grace. All of the film's many oppositions - Catholic and Protestant, inside and outside, cleanliness and filth, violence and tenderness, are drawn together, or maybe it would be more accurate to say they are simply erased. All that's left is the absolute inviolability of a human being, and the tragedy of its demise, whatever one may feel about the political conditions that determine the circumstances of the death. (The lack of controversy surrounding the film's release confirms this, at least in part.) McQueen manages to exhibit the palpable physicality of politics, while at the same time providing a visceral statement on the human condition, here expressed by the title, which is both literal and metaphorical. How much do we need to sustain us - in flesh and spirit - and how long can we go without the sustenance we seek?

*A corollary to this final question, and a hint at the answer, lies in the question of: how much do we get to choose about what we consume, in the way of ideas, food, emotions, experience, and what bearing does that have on how are lives are lived? I would say McQueen seems to be suggesting that a certain aspect of living a meaningful life (or dying a meaningful death) is deciding just what kind of things we "hunger" for, and under what conditions we are willing to give them up.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Last Days

(Gus Van Sant, USA, 2005)

An intermittently interesting film, but mostly a frustrating one. It's hard to tell exactly what Van Sant is after, and where he went wrong - did he aim too high and miss, or not aim high enough? I'd like to think it's the former, but that would only be giving him the benefit of the doubt. The subject matter is serious enough: it's the final film in Van Sant's informal "death trilogy" - but the film doesn't have much to say on the topic of mortality, instead offering a series of moody sketches that alternate between the staid and the vaguely comic.

Blake - the Kobain character played by Pitt - doesn't seem so much tormented as bored and even autistic; there's no interest in his character as anything other than the mythic late-century American grunge artist. He is alone, isolated, misunderstood, practically a ghost. Even when the other characters - a wispy cadre of junkie hangers-on - notice him and attempt to communicate, it's as if they're talking through him. There's plenty of room for speculation, especially on the symbolic level - is Blake's mumbling meant to suggest his inability to properly convey his pain, or the world's inability to listen? Or is it just a literal depiction of someone who's too stoned to speak up? Is he in pain at all, or just grouchy and passive, cooling his heels in solitude and casting lazily about for some transcendent kicks? Last Days winds up feeling like a pastiche of an art film, a dabbling in structuralism, with some moments of humor and irony thrown in for good measure. I don't think of Van Sant as cynical - it's a sincere picture, but it doesn't feel committed. Certain scenes and shots are very good - mostly where the mood lightens, as when the Yellow Pages salesman comes calling - but the overall effect is one of irritation. There's no lasting coherence, and the finished product feels like the work of someone who is trading on a moment of cultural infamy without anything significant to say - about the culture, the art, or the people.