[Marxism] Armond White on "Hunger"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 19 11:39:54 MDT 2009

Armond White is a colleague in NYFCO. I think this is a terrific review, 
especially since it jibes with what I wrote here: 

By Armond White

March 19, 2009

Hunger, the first film by British fine artist Steve McQueen, plays with 
Christ-like imagery without Christianity. That probably accounts for the 
film’s enormous praise from today’s secular movie mob (it’s been a 
festival-circuit hit). The story of Irish Republican Army martyr Bobby 
Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), who died in Northern Ireland’s 
Maze prison after a hunger strike in 1981, is used as the basis for 
McQueen’s feature debut—really a series of startling kinetic-art panels. 
Fastidiously conceived and composed imagery (a snowflake melting on a 
cop’s raw, bleeding knuckle; birds symbolically alighting from a dead 
man’s soul) is assembled into a narrative with undeniably strong 
visceral impact. There hasn’t been a cinema/art project this outrageous 
since Peter Greenaway confused big-screen and art-gallery media in The 
Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1987).

It’s the museum charade, not Bobby Sands’ sacrifice, that’s got critics 

McQueen’s film is actually startlingly similar to Mel Gibson’s 2004 The 
Passion of the Christ. Brutal, beautiful and unsettling, Hunger uses 
violence to disquiet viewers’ laid-back movie-going habits. Although the 
film suggests affinity for Bobby Sands’ cause (broadcasts of Margaret 
Thatcher’s refusal to grant political prisoner status to IRA terrorists 
creates reflex sympathy), equal pity is shown for the British guards 
forced into dehumanized behavior. McQueen-the-artiste gives himself the 
luxury of detachment; he looks at cruelty (prisoner degeneracy, 
antagonistic authority) and makes gestures at spirituality, all with an 
art-major’s amoral indifference.

Contrasting a guard’s anguish (he takes a cigarette break between 
beat-downs) with the prisoners amassing food and fecal matter as 
material for protest, McQueen literally combines shit and shinola.

You could use art-major terms like “transgressive” and “body-conscious” 
to justify McQueen’s aesthetic (close-ups of cell walls decorated with 
feces patterned into a spiral like 1980s serialism; studies of Sands’ 
emaciated torso that suggest anorexic Lucien Freuds). But the fact 
remains: Hunger is tough to watch. It merely rewards one’s art-snobbery 
and can only be excused as a series of art postures. And eventually, 
those postures insult the fact of Sands’ death-choice and political 
sacrifice. If McQueen is to be praised as a genuine moviemaker, it can 
only be in the art school terms that critics denied to Gibson’s Passion. 
Hunger lacks the conviction and awe of Gibson’s film.

Instead of professing faith, McQueen plays art-school games. He 
knowingly evokes the actor Steve McQueen’s grandstanding 1973 prison 
drama Papillon as well as Kafka’s famous short story, “The Hunger 
Artist.” These references don’t risk unfashionable Christian piety. 
McQueen uses the spectacle of actor Fassbender’s splendid body wasting 
away past the point of art—doctors and dieticians were on-call during 
production—simply for connoisseurship. After the guards rout the 
prisoners, a widescreen medium shot of a nude, smiling 
Fassbender—blue-eyed and bloody-mouthed—illustrates a perfect petite 
mort. It’s what art students understand as jouissance (combining sexual 
and spiritual pleasure). This does nothing to enhance one’s 
understanding of the Irish troubles. Even a 14-minute one-take 
conversation where Sands tells Rory Mullen’s visiting priest “Jesus 
Christ had a backbone. The disciples and the rest of you are just 
jumping in and out of the rhetoric,” merely offers stylistic bravado, 
not enlightenment. As prison-movie machismo, Walter Hill’s Undisputed is 
better; as visual art, Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments is superior.

Sands is told, “You’d make a good priest: good talker, principles, 
leader of men. You’ve got a big engine on ya.” (Sands was also a 
cross-country runner.) Yet these clues to Sands’ martyrdom (including a 
veritable Shroud of Turin bloody hospital bedsheet) feel exploitative. 
McQueen’s attempts to enlarge a secular story through religious 
references feel superficial. Despite all its meticulous technique, 
Hunger isn’t nearly as powerful as The Passion of the Christ, but 
anti-religious critics won’t say so. McQueen offers the transformation 
of spirituality into Art, whereas Mel Gibson did the extraordinary, 
Dreyer-like opposite. Hunger resembles Carlos Reygadas’ sub-Dreyer 
Stellet Licht—a self-congratulatory art project.

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