Rightwing Film Geek

McQueen’s direction

I figured after I wrote that this reply to a commenter was also detailed enough for a post … basically what do I think of the Variety review of HUNGER, which was the best fillum I saw at Toronto, and its specific complaint of trite symbolism.

[HUNGER] stumbles in film’s last furlough with trite symbolism. Pic’s slow pace and uncompromising physicality may choke off some auds, but “Hunger” should pull in arthouse auds in moderate numbers domestically and travel offshore. …

[Director Steve] McQueen really overeggs the pudding [] in the final reel, where (and this is no spoiler for anyone glancingly versed in Sands’ story) the protagonist wastes away, the camera focusing intimately on his bedsores and emaciated frame. Tawdry, cliched images include Sands’ vision of himself as a child sitting in the room, topped by a near final image of a flock of birds — free at last! — that seemingly symbolizes his soul’s last flight. It’s a disappointing last gasp for a film that otherwise demonstrates confidence, guts and the abundant promise of its helmer.

I think it’s pretty wack to accuse HUNGER of trite symbolism, though I agree with some of the other reservations that a trade publication may have — that its “slow pace and uncompromising physicality” (two of its greatest virtues IMHO) means it isn’t a crowd-pleaser. In fact, this seems a case of a critic getting a film without getting it, since those two features are exactly why the third act doesn’t commit trite symbolism (something I’m usually on guard against).

McQueen’s direction in the third act is too physical and unsentimental but also too highly subjective to be dismissed as trite. The third act is about us giving us the experience of being inside Bobby Sands, even in the scenes where he is offscreen. When the nurses changing the badly bloody sheets (bedsores and body wasting combined), stained all the way down to the mattress, Sands’ blood is being as present as the shit on the cell walls in the first act. The Variety reviewer notices the moment but not the import. McQueen fetishizes Sands’ wasting body to some extent, but the effect is not like SEVEN or lesser serial-killer movies, since this is a man still alive, a man we already knew, and a man whose healthy body we’ve seen. Time passes through dissolves of meals at one’s bedside, but they go, not from hot to cold as food does, but from cold to hot (steam rising off) as a new meal is delivered. This is the sort of detail that makes me hoot at describing McQueen’s direction as cliche — he’s found a new, different and counterintuitive-but-‘yeah-makes-sense’ way of filming the passing of time.

As for the birds specifically, to be perfectly honest, I don’t really recall them, though I’ll take the Variety writer’s word for it. I’m looking at the end of my viewing notes for HUNGER and the only notice I made of the birds was “blurry, moving around,” as if Sands’ decaying body and brain is trying unsuccessfully to follow his own hallucinations. But those scribbles come too early to be the moment-of-death that so offended VARIETY. Still, perhaps they didn’t bother me because they had been specifically set up for by the earlier bird shots (i.e., they don’t stand out as a tug at the heartstrings).

If the birds had bothered me, I think my viewing notes¹ would probably have said that, because they do note that there was “one too many cross-country race” flashbacks (and I agree that we didn’t need Sands as a boy in his hospital room). The thing to keep in mind is that HUNGER becomes more subjective as it goes along. This is a man whose body is wasting away and he’s hallucinating. I’m willing to cut some slack for deathly hallucinations hitting familiar buttons.

This definitely made the cross-country flashbacks seem prepared for and sensible in this context — a dying man rehallucinating the key moments of his own life — since a cross-country race is described in the second-act conversation with the priest. (I vividly recall comparable moments as a Catholic boy in Glasgow.) So maybe the birds at the end didn’t bother me because the felt earned at the end of a grueling experience where dying, or rather THIS man’s dying, is made physical, palpable, and slow. Death probably did feel like a relief to Sands, dying this way, of his own hand and fully conscious for much of it.

Also perhaps since McQueen’s direction is so wildly eclectic throughout that perhaps a single moment of what-might-seem-in-another-context to be a grasp for cheap sentiment didn’t come across that way in this film, because the film is not directed as if teleologically aiming for that moment. McQueen goes from an entire act with very little dialogue but nonstop sound effects to one that is nonstop talk back to one where there is hardly any talk and heightened-subjective sound effects. He said during the Q-and-A that he did not think consciously about an overall style for the film as a whole or have any self-conscious cinematic influences, but thought just about each scene individually and thought “how do I visualize this single scene.”
¹ Also, the absolute last thing I wrote is “why is he tearing,” i.e., producing tears, before I remembered that the hunger-strikers were drinking water, a point the film makes by indirection in its final title cards: the Sands strike lasted 66 days. As we remember from the Terri Schiavo murder, we can live a couple of months without food, but only a couple of weeks without water.

September 22, 2008 - Posted by | Steve McQueen


  1. Thanks so much for the lengthy response, Victor. I greatly admired the film, but I think I’m going to come down on the side of Variety on this one.

    A flock of birds do take flight at the end, just as Sands passes on. In fact, it cuts from said birds to a shot of his corpse — barely alive before; dead afterwards. I really can’t see very many ways to read this, which is not to say that it’s a deal killer, but it is disappointing coming at the end of what is otherwise a very intelligently constructed, unsentimental film. I understand the need for transcendence, but it undercuts whatever argument the priest made in the film’s second act about Sands’ self-sacrifice. Considering that what he did had both negative and positive effects, I would’ve preferred the film to have remained focused on the physical and stayed well away from the ethereal, which felt like an attempt to coax an emotional response from the audience. (As Chris Nolan proves time and again, a silent flashback can prove to be quite affecting.) And to make matters worse, the flashback to his childhood is clearly intended as a reflection of what he told the priest about the foal — it was a foal, right? — which worked quite well as an anecdotal attempt to explain his motivation, but seemed quite simplistic when McQueen placed additional emphasis on it in the third act. (All credit, though, to McQueen for not showing the actual incident — I was waiting, cringing in my seat, for a shot of the foal, writhing in pain, which mercifully never happened.) In and of itself, the flashback is actually quite lovely — haunting, even — but, to me, it seemed an ill-fitting, oversimplified summation. We should’ve experienced the third-act suffering without transcendental reprieve, leaving his inner thoughts off-screen. Admittedly, though, the anticlimactic way in which the film does finally end counterbalances that to some degree, but I couldn’t help but feel that the third act’s sub-Malick moments weakened the overall effort.

    Sorry, Victor, I should’ve been more upfront about my feelings (in my initial post), but, to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure. In fact, I’m still not. I think a second viewing is in order.

    Comment by Jim | September 23, 2008 | Reply

  2. Victor, I’m just now catching up with your fantastic writing on this film, since I tried to see HUNGER and form my responses to it in a relatively rasa manner. But yes, you’re right on the money in every respect. This is a film about the physical traces of a human existence, impressions left, and it’s no coincidence that McQueen is a video artist and a sculptor. He thinks in terms of objects, their movement and removal. And as I state in my review, this problem — synecdoche, the problem of how one body, one life and death, or several, or hundreds, comes to (or fails) to represent something greater — is the crux of McQueen’s film, and why HUNGER is such a radical exploration of the meaning of representational and/or symbolic politics. What a brilliant piece of art this is.

    And the birds? I saw them as Sands dissolving, his atoms shooting out in all directions, pure entropy. Not freedom, good lord… I guess where cheesy metaphor is concerned, I’m lactose intolerant.

    Comment by msic | October 9, 2008 | Reply

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful review, Mike. I’m still not convinced that the crows taking flight are intended to symbolise anything more than his death, but your reading is certainly more intriguing and satisfying. I suppose it’s much easier to write off the symbolism as cheesy and “trite” than it is to see it in the way you have.

    Staying on the topic of birds, it’s also worth noting that Sands was keenly interested in them, as evidenced in his diary. (It’s also noted elsewhere, such as in David Beresford’s book Ten Men Dead: “[He] had been passionate about birds since childhood.”) They clearly played an important role in him maintaining some connection with the outside world, which, if anything, further supports the criticisms of it being cheesy and trite.

    Comment by Jim | October 10, 2008 | Reply

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