23 February 2010
Double Feature: Hunger and Endgame
Hunger and Endgame offer two different approaches to representing history with narrative film, and the differences are such that a comparison may be unfair to Endgame, a film of minor accomplishments that quickly fades from memory, while Hunger, whatever you ultimately make of it, contains many scenes that are difficult to forget.
The actual events of the two films are only a few years apart: Hunger focuses on the 1981 hunger strikes by prisoners in Northern Ireland, and particularly the death of Bobby Sands; Endgame portrays the secret negotiations in the late 1980s between representatives of the African National Congress (particularly Thabo Mbeki) and the ruling Afrikaners of South Africa. The films work hard to portray the humanity of both sides of their conflicts, as if the filmmakers' greatest fear is to be condemned as biased or propagandistic. Yet their sympathies are so clearly on one side that the effort seems mostly token -- in Hunger (a movie with many virtues to overcome its limitations), the occasional moments where we are reminded that the prison guards are not all unfeeling monsters, and that some of them even have mothers and wives and daughters they love (yes, all women -- women in such movies exist so men can appear sensitive), are all overpowered by the scenes of prison cells decorated with feces, of prisoners being beaten, of Bobby Sands starving to death. The only comparably visceral moment with a guard happens when one's brains get shot into his senile mum's lap, but by that point we've seen him beat Sands senseless, and the only thing rousing any real sympathy in us is the power of the image: an old woman staring off into a world of her own, her son's blood splattered on her face and seeping into her clothes.
With one large and notable exception (a long scene of Sands and a priest talking, mostly conveyed via a 17-minute shot during which the camera doesn't move), it is the imagery that drives Hunger and provides its distinction. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the director, Steve McQueen, is best known as a visual artist (including art films and installations). Endgame mostly lacks visual distinction, and its cinematography is often of the hand-held verité style that should now come with the warning label, "Sorry, we couldn't think of any better way to remind you that this is Stuff That Really Happened." One of effects of Hunger's stylistic originality is to remind us that an overly-familiar style is nothing more than an overly-familiar style, and that verisimilitude and visceral emotional effect do not rely on, and in fact may be undermined by, such a style.
complex characters and situations and reduce them to plywood cut-outs. The problems would be even more obvious were the cast not as strong as it is -- Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Kani, Clarke Peters, and Derek Jacobi are all magnificent actors, and William Hurt is oddly watchable, though in every movie I see him in, I always wonder if he's recovering from a concussion. Ejiofor got nominated for a Golden Globe for playing Mbeki, and he perhaps deserved the nomination for being able to give some depth to the character without any help from the writer (or maybe for being able, unlike William Hurt, to be mostly convincing with a South African accent).
You'll learn more about the end of apartheid by reading even the most basic book about the subject (or a single article about the specific situation of the film), and you'll feel your way into the history more through a movie such as Amandla! (I have yet to see a feature film about the apartheid struggle as powerful and entertaining as that documentary). Hunger reminds us that while art may be an inefficient way to convey information, it is has other virtues. You'll learn more about the facts and context of the hunger strikes by reading a short encyclopedia entry, but a statement of the facts of, for instance, the "dirty protest" will not convey the feeling of it with the power of the first sequences of Hunger. The production design is so rich, the camera so unflinching, that in some moments it feels like all our senses are being assaulted, not merely our sight and hearing.
Hunger is interesting structurally, too. Where Endgame is a predictable tale of people learning to "overcome their differences" and to respect and care for each other (and in its determined even-handedness sometimes creates the impression that anti-apartheid violence was the equal of the violence committed by the apartheid system), Hunger confounds expectations far more often than not. It does so first with the minimal dialogue and nearly complete lack of exposition in the (roughly speaking) first half hour. Some opening titles situate us a bit, but that's it, and if you know nothing of the dirty protests or this particular period in the history of Irish-English relations, you will have only the vaguest idea of what is happening and why. And that's fine, because what you will have is a reaction to the events and setting. The actions and scenery, removed from any purpose or meaning, are our entry to the film. Deep knowledge of the characters is also kept away -- we know, at most, their names and their place in the situation (some are guards, some are prisoners). We know one of the guards has a family, that he checks his car for explosives before he drives it, and that the knuckles of one of his hands are scabbed and bruised. That's the most we learn about any character's background for quite a while, because what the viewer is invited to do at first is simply to observe.
Words don't matter much in the film until the scene with Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). All the sensual stimulation of the previous scenes grinds to a halt: we watch two men sit at a table and talk to each other. The camera does not move and characters barely do. They begin with small talk, then discuss strategy: the effectiveness and morality of a hunger strike. Our focus is not only on their words, but their determination and commitment -- both men feel deeply and passionately about what they are discussing, and it is clear from early in the conversation that they will not convince the other of their view. The words are helpful in that they provide ideas and context, but the scene, for all its talk, is still fundamentally visual: because it is so static, small movements and changes are magnified.
The corollary for this scene (in my mind, at least) is one other: a long take of a guard cleaning a corridor of urine with a pushbroom. Within moments, we know what is going on in the scene, and we register that it's a dirty job, but long after we have recognized this, we are still in the scene. The sound of the broom's sharp bristles against the hard floor echoes louder and louder. Slowly, methodically, the guard keeps pushing the puddles of urine down the corridor. The effect is a sort of sensory deprivation -- the only change in the image is the movement of the guard, and the sound remains steady, rhythmic, grating. No speculation about what such a scene "means" is as illuminating as the simple experience of the scene itself. It is another element contributing to the immersive aesthetic of the movie.
After the long conversation between Sands and Father Moran, we are plunged once again into a mostly-wordless world. The rest of the film portrays Sands's hunger strike and starvation. It is a wrenching and physical portrayal that is as religious in its iconography as it is political in its topic -- call it The Passion of Bobby Sands. Finally, the viewer exits Sands's body along with him, entering his dying reverie, one not of ideological argument or political autonomy but of birds and childhood, those clichés of innocence. In such a moment, clichés offer something originality does not: communion with everyone else who has ever dreamed such things.