Two Scenes from Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’

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For about seventeen minutes, we have the same shot of Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham on either side of a small table in a private room in Prison Maze. Fassbender is leaning forward for most of it, sitting back only at one point, when Cunningham accuses him of political nihilism and criticises his political strategy for its insufficient valuation of his life and those of his fellow Republican prisoners. Other than that, motion is minimal; it is only the blue smoke from their cigarettes that provide any sense of movement, whirling about in the darkened room in the infinite number of slightly haunting ways that smoke does, only serving to highlight the men’s static, almost silhouetted, figures.

From a thematic perspective, representing the two as mostly immutable has the effect of visually stating the irreconcilability of their viewpoints, Fassbender representing Bobby Sands’ commitment to starve himself, the rock to the hard place of Cunningham, as Father Dominic Moran, advocating the nitty-gritty, unsexy work of community building. It could be said that what we have here is a visual thesis and antithesis, an argument between life and death.

The metaphor never stultifies the scene of course — the most notable thing about it is its dynamic exchange of dialogue, which is naturalistic and casual. For its first half it is devoted to what resembles mere patter or small talk, as the two spar over their early lives in the two very different Northern Irelands that they grew up in. The scene is uncompromising for potential outsiders to the conflict and its history; casual references to Northern Irish geography and the various factions within the IRA and the British state abound.

The shot change, when it does eventually come, results in a close-up of Fassbender, in which, over the course of four and a half minutes, he tells a story from his childhood. His narrative involves putting dying foal out of its misery in front of a number of boys taking part in a cross-border cross-country running initiative. He tells the story as a means of impressing upon the priest his level of commitment to the cause, and his justification for refusing to compromise. Once the camera has followed Fassbender’s cigarette, it once again becomes still, and remains fixed, and Fassbender looks at a point just beyond it. The fixity of his gaze is starkly unstinting, at only one point at the start of the story does he look away, point having misspoken.

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The consequence of having such a tight focus on Fassbender, particularly wearing the expression that he does, is that we are brought right into the remit of his intensity. The immovability of his gaze, the taunting angle of his eyes, just bisecting the camera, and by association the viewer, makes clear the irrelevancy of circumstance to his character and his strength of will. The shot is intended to cow us, as is attested to by the countershaft that contains Cunningham. He does not maintain his gaze as Fassbender does, but looks around, turning over the implications of the narrative, his realisation of his inability to change Sands’ mind. His capitulation is just as haunting as anything else in the scene, “Couldn’t have that on my conscience, no.”

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He also doesn’t speak any dialogue in his close-up, Fassbender dominates his frame, but Cunningham seems trapped, uncomfortable.

Another scene of significance to the film, and our understanding of Sands, is the polysemous ending, in which Sands dies, which appears to be interspersed with fragments of memory from the cross-border cross-country running he tells Father Moran about. But there is a problem of interpreting the scene as just a manifestation of Sands’ memory, or merely an instance of life flashing before his eyes. For one, would the priest that beat Sands for drawing the foal have allowed him to participate in the event afterwards, second, his friends aren’t singing pop songs, as Sands remembers, but a Belfast variation on the ’Everywhere We Go’ song. We could put this down to Sands’ faulty memory, the loss of a somewhat unimportant detail, but it seems like a slip that shouldn’t be ignored, based perhaps off the vividness of the foal episode.

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Next we have Sands running through the Goath Dobhair countryside, apparently by himself, having long outrun his friends, referring to his speed in his conversation with Father Moran. The overt connection of Sands in a darkened wood, following unclear path with his death shouldn’t require too much unpacking, but what could have been a very of-itself closing sequence rises to something a lot more evocative and almost supernatural, when we recall Sands’ belief that in his next life, he’d find himself closer to the land in some way, and that Gaoth Dobhair is, in his eyes, paradise.

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The sudden looseness of the camera, the quick edits from the birds on the tree to their departure and sudden drunken veering in the night sky, not to mention the apotheosis and abrupt bathos of the score, is probably beyond my ability to wholly digest and reproduce, and it is in the resonance of the inferences and loose ends that the power of the shots reside.

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