14 November 2008


Let me start by getting something out of the way:  I just saw Joe Spivak, the Christian (usually known as "cute Joe") sitting on the stairs quite drunk.  Joe Spivak seemed so much like the sort of person who never got drunk:  he is the definition of "clean-cut." So I was slightly taken aback.


I just came back from seeing Hunger, Steve McQueen's film about Bobby Sands.  I really didn't know what to make of it.  The film begins not with Sands but with a prison guard at the Maze going to work:  he has to check under his car for bombs, and the film also at least suggests (without quite making it certain, at least to me) that he finds his job gruelling and torturous. So it seems to be seeking to show that the prisoners were not the only ones who suffered (indeed, since this guard later gets shot in the head whilst visiting his mother in a nursing home, and since at its end the film informs viewers that 16 guards were killed during the dirty protests, that seeking is pretty clear).

At the same time, most of the film is taken up with the actions of the prisoners -- first the prisoners generally, then Bobby Sands specifically.  The last 45 minutes or so are simply a visual record of watching Sands starve to death (it's not pleasant.  It's a lot less pleasant than you imagine it to be, however unpleasant you imagine it to be).  So the implication, at least in terms of time meted out to each side, is that McQueen -- or let's say, the film, in order to avoid the author/text fallacy -- is on the prisoners' side.

Yet there's little sense of direction in the film, little sense of focus or purpose.  I found myself thinking that if it were in French, or Swedish, it would simply be called an art film and put in a very small niche.  The portion in which Sands dies is the closest thing to cinema verite I've ever seen.  Since I presume that McQueen's goal is not simply to lay before us a number of scenes of torture and brutality, followed by a detailed rendering of a man dying by starvation, I did find myself wondering what I was supposed to take from the film.  That the British were terrible to the IRA prisoners in the Maze?  Surely that's a given.  That the IRA were murderers and brutalists who destroyed lives?  Surely that's also a given?  That Margaret Thatcher was a vile egotist?  Also a given.  Perhaps that in these times when America detains people it calls terrorists and mistreats them, here there is a fable for our times?  I hope that's not the message, because the parallels between the two situations are minimal indeed, and
because such a subtext was in no way made apparent.  If the message was meant to be that Bobby Sands decided to sacrifice himself out of a saintly impulse (since he gives a speech to that effect), that message seems somewhat teleological (that is, Bobby Sands became a secular saint after he died; therefore he meant to be a secular saint when he undertook to die, which - in this reading, I suppose - makes him even more of a saint), and also somewhat poorly given with all the reflections on the losses to the other side that come at the beginning.

So I was puzzled, and somewhat troubled (no pun intended).  And I realised about three-quarters of the way through the film that I was puzzled by the larger situation, too.  I don't believe the IRA should have killed, or bombed, or tortured.  But I also don't believe the British belonged (or, I sometimes think, belong) in Ireland.  I don't think the correct response to that is violence, but it's pretty clear the ballot box wasn't going to work.  Furthermore, I do believe that by refusing to negotiate or to grant concessions the British government effectively prolonged the IRA's terror campaign, so it is possible to argue that in a certain way the government contributed to the torture and murder of its own citizens.  So I don't know where I come down, or what I believe.  Or even what I think.  

Maybe that was the point of the film.  I discover from a brief cruise round the web that Steve McQueen is primarily an artist, so perhaps his goal was simply to provoke complex thought, rather than to support any side.  But then I'm left feeling that I don't want that from a film.  But then I'm left thinking that as a person committed to considerate thought, I ought to.  And so, yet again, I don't know what to think.

I went on my own.  I semi-tried to get someone to come with me, but now I'm glad no one came.  Although I did want someone to talk about it with afterward, it's a film you could only go to with someone you knew well, or someone you were intimate with and so hoped to know well, and hoped would know you well.  And I don't have anyone here like that - not even a friend of that level of intimacy (yet?).  It's funny:  the only person I could imagine might have wanted to come to it with me was my ex-boyfriend J., because he was Irish and we saw tons of Irish films together, but even he I'm not sure about.  I think he would have viewed it as an art film, and I think our experiences of it would have been radically incommensurate.  In any case, it's best that I went alone, at least in this situation.

Odd film.

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