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.

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