Shame

Michael Fassbender is a powerhouse of subtlety. Even in big budget fare he shines, but it’s his work with director Steve McQueen that is most recognizable. Both Hunger and Shame are McQueen visions that are fueled by the madness of a singular character played by Fassbender. It’s quite possibly a connection that they have as artists or maybe a niche in which they’ve found the ability to collaborate viscerally and poignantly.

Hunger is an amazingly powerful film that affected me deeply, but Shame is a companion piece that raises the bar and builds the apex of what I hope will become a McQueen/Fassbender trilogy of sorts. It would be awesome if McQueen’s currently in production Twelve Years a Slave is the work that rounds out their collaboration and seals in all the colors and textures and smells a McQueen film packs behind its images.

Many great directors find themselves eventually creating a triptych (whether intentional or not), and it’s not too soon for someone like McQueen (who showed his filmmaking chops very early on) to have this type of style that ultimately results in a common “theme” tying together a few consecutive works. Shame is at times graceful and at other times vicious. It diabolically wears its NC-17 rating with a sense of pride (one that maybe only Europeans can appreciate marketing-wise) that Fassbender’s character himself would shy away from for sure. The images at times are as black as the solitary confinements of the prison in Hunger.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a sex-obsessed business man with some deep-seated anti-social tendencies. While the film’s only negative quality may be the potentially inferable pointless of it all; the irresolution; it’s better viewed as a character study and less as a traditional Hollywood narrative. Carey Mulligan plays the estranged, nearly naïve, waif-like sister / subconscious-level, incestuous lover, who also, in a very Lynchian way, is a lounge singer.

Fassbender’s character arc is one of self-realization to self-treatment to self-dissolution. By the end of the film he is seemingly right back to where he was at the beginning and without correction to his ill-attended issues. The cool thing about McQueen and Fassbender’s way of dealing with this well-trodden cinematic theme is that they never supply an easily blamable cause to the matter. His sex addiction is not depicted as necessarily a power possession or release thing for him, and it’s not really depicted as something stemming from childhood. There’s really no good explanation for why he is the way he is, except that he just is.

Shame is the kind of film you’ll come back to so you can look for the nuances missed the first time around. McQueen’s way of framing a shot has always been like a great impressionist painter, and though the background here is the twinkling lights of New York City, I have no doubt he is the new Renoir using the lens as his brush and the celluloid as his canvas.

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Hunger

Hunger may have been directed by Rembrandt. At least, he had to be the cinematographer. This film is glorious to watch in all its squalor. Ninety percent of the film is set in the gleaming, industrial Irish institution that is almost comically known as Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (referred to here as just the Maze). The other ten percent of the film takes place outside the prison walls, just long enough to depict the justifiably paranoid lifestyle of one of the British guards.

The rancor that comes with watching Steve McQueen’s incredible Hunger is almost tangible in your living room. Yet everything about this film screams beautiful new-Asian cinema, such as Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, (I’m re-appropriating the term “new-Asian cinema” for myself here, because I’d rather a film like Poetry take that credit, than the recent run of torture-horror flicks that seem to flood the Asian-via-America cinema markets). McQueen’s cinema is about experience. He wants to make you submit to his story when the lights go down. So get your color bars adjusted, fire up the Blu-ray and crank up the volume on the surround.

As McQueen himself says about the film, he wants to take you on a journey through the Maze, but bring you in two different ways. We see the guard as he begins his shift and we also see the new IRA prisoner Davey as he gets processed and immediately refuses to conform to the standards of the prison by not wearing their uniform. He is promptly delivered to his cell, naked, where he finds the walls that hold him in covered in fecal matter and his cellmate starved, unshaven and unwashed.

The incarcerated IRA here are on a no wash protest and so every so often the guards have to pull them from their cells, dragging them to a place in the prison where they can hold them down, cutting their long hair and beards with oversized pairs of shears and subsequently throw them in a bathtub, run a bar of soap over them and drag them back to their cells. Prison life gets worse as the film progresses and another scene depicts riot police called in to basically beat, and at turns violently and degradingly search the prisoners.

After a brutal and somehow expected killing of the British prison guard whom we are initially introduced to, comes the best scene in the film: a nearly twenty-minute, unedited, static two-shot where a priest attempts to convince the prisoner Bobby Sands not to start the hunger strike he’s planned out in his head. As opposed to other IRA-prisoner-led hunger strikes, Sands has the fortitude to envision this one happening on a more cataclysmic scale, basically tiering the order of the men who strike, so the strike can never really cease. The purpose of his tiered approach is to create more opportunity for serious casualty if the the Queen doesn’t respond, whereas in previous hunger strikes, all the men just stop eating at the same time in a more clumsy act of rebellion.

It’s a hugely integral scene to the film and a hugely integral moment in Sands’ life. His conversation with the priest is at turns witty and devastating as it soon becomes clear that his martyrdom is inevitable. Aside from the clear aesthetic reasons for shooting the scene this way – there’s no chance for the viewer to escape the inevitability of his fate as Bobby virtually confesses his premeditated suicide to a priest – it’s the filmmaker’s tool for catching you up from the entire first third of the film which had little to no dialogue. It’s now also been touted as the longest shot in a film.*

From this point on, we are forced to watch as Bobby destroys his body from the inside out. While the first third of the film is rooted in a sense of gritty, British cinema realism, the middle is a segue with priest and confessor that stands out as a slice of American independent cinema from the 70s, and the final stretch of Hunger is almost Bergman-esque avant-garde.

There’s an amazing sequence where Sands, virtually immobile, bed-ridden, malnourished and delusional, follows a crack in the ceiling above him all the way down to the wall, where the crack ends and the POV framing reveals himself as a young ghost, standing there, staring back at him. The film goes out on a relatively high note even though while he disintegrates in real life, we watch him as a lean, young man, racing through the woods near a river (which we’re familiar with from a story he tells the priest). Abruptly, he stops dead in his tracks. The foliage around him is a deep emerald green and the water of the river flows alongside. He looks over his shoulder behind him.

It’s really the perfect ending to his life.

Bobby Sands was not the only prisoner to die during this hunger strike. Nine other men did as well, ultimately prompting British government to yield to the IRA’s demands. During the strike Sands was also elected to British Parliament representing two counties in Ireland.

Editorial Note: As I was scouring the ‘net for some good stills from the film, I came across a Guardian article from November 2008 where – what did I find but this pictorial comparison of McQueen’s film to a Rembrandt painting! I find this extremely interesting, in that, when I began writing this and that first sentence came out where I compared the images in Hunger to Rembrandt, I had not heard of any comparisons as such, and I thought anyone who read mine would think me merely proselytizing on the side of the critic-debate that Hunger is more concerned with style over substance. While, granted, it is very stylistic, it’s not so in a way that I believe detracts from the film. As I detailed above, I find the film to be inspired by various cinematic movements and styles and I feel like it blends them all together to create a portrait of a man that surely could not be summed up in the most straight forward of terms.