Tuesday, February 24, 2009

HUNGER: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham, Stuart Lohan
Director: Steve McQueen
Country: Ireland
Runtime: 94 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Drama, History

        I noted in my review of Delhi-6 that pursuing cinema for the sake of rhetorical issues is like trying to push the wall. Readers knowledgeable in physics would note that the net work done in the said case would amount to zero. Politics and issues by their very nature are generalizing in nature, and generalization by its very definition leaves the viewer largely untouched, uninterested and unstirred. As Mr. Ebert observes, the more specific a tale the more universal its resonance. Cinema, as most other art forms, works best when understanding humanity, and there’s no better way to that than understanding a human. Here I’m referring to synecdoche, one of the more effective of all tools at the disposal of any art form. Mr. Nolan used it most cunningly in The Dark Knight, where he stealthily placed symbols in place of actual human beings and actually manipulated us into believing we were witnessing a story about real characters in a real world, when all we were being shown was the idea of them and how they struggle in a real world.
        And now, in Hunger, director Mr. McQueen in his first film, exhibits as masterful a command of that tool as I’ve seen in recent times. Often what we see in cinema, in films like The Lives of Others and The Reader, is that the scale has been brought down to a human level but the ambitions and the issues still linger on at the generalized level. I state this not as a criticism but as an observation and my belief that the secret to the longevity of any work of art lay in its degree of specificity. The more the percentage of issue the more the chances of its aging. I believe I’m indulging in sweeping statements and I got to stop now that I have laid before you a fair idea of how Hunger approaches the last six weeks of IRA revolutionary Bobby Sands. It is one of the year’s great accomplishments, and in its unshaken belief in constraining the frame to Sands and the inner walls of the prison lays its immense profundity and timeless understanding of the very nature of protest.
        Let us get into specifics. Of course, to watch the film you really needn’t know anything about Bobby Sands (Mr. Fassbender), or the IRA, or Margaret Thatcher. There have been innumerable films on the revolution, just as there have been on the Holocaust, and just as there will be on Africa. Hunger isn’t one of those films, and in many ways it deconstructs both – those films and their politics. The complacent assumption that a protest brings change, that a protest is the right against a system that is the wrong, and all the romantic notions alluded by it. The revolutionary has always cut such a picture in our lives, so much so that it is politically correct to be on his side. How impossibly tough it is to be such an image, how lonely any sort of real protest is way beyond our comprehension and of many such films. Hunger finds Bobby Sands in that lonely world, far removed from any political upheaval, far from any opinions, far from any voice of support or comfort, as he alone struggles through his hunger strike. There’s nothing grand about it. It is all terribly lonely.
        We meet a guard (Mr. Lohan) at his home, his bruised knuckles cooling off in the sink. He gets ready for work, opens the gate, looks both sides, and looks for something underneath his car. We meet him at the prison where he is found sharing a joke with a bunch of other guards. We meet him again, in the bathroom, his knuckles smeared in fresh blood, and cooling themselves in the sink. The man shares with himself a smoke, and when we find him again amidst a crowd – this time during the lunch – he is lost within himself. We know how those bruises come. The revolutionary does get beaten up during a protest, and in that image we often seem to forget the one who has got the job of doing the beating. He has to bruise his knuckles, his heels, his stick and maybe chips off his soul. Beating prisoners day in and day out might be an irreversible process for a man.
        We meet a new revolutionary arrive to the prison, The Maze. In the prison the revolutionaries seek political status to differentiate them from the other criminals. They wouldn’t wear uniforms. That is their demand. Nobody gives a hoot in a hell about them. They’re left naked in a prison cell stinking with human excrement. We aren’t toured through these cells, and instead the film’s first act firmly chains itself within these walls, amidst these men, so that we gain a firm understanding of their predicament, and when we turn our eyes away we realize how pointless and shallow middlebrow cinema’s exercise of leveraging our emotions by grazing through scenes of brutality and violence is. Can on-screen violence, or sacrifice for that matter really stir us?
        Here we need to understand when portrayal of misery comes around to being kitschy and exploitative. I remember having a conversation with one of my friends post Irreversible, about the need to bludgeon audiences with extended images of violence, something akin to The Passion of the Christ. By putting us through the pain do we gain a greater empathy to the man in the latter, or the indescribable anguish of the woman in the former? As opposite to these films, what of those which merely show obligatory footage of pain and suffering so that we’re never left out of the confines of our comfort zone and can sit through them and ‘feel’? Do any of these two kinds of films help us gain a greater insight? The latter, exploitative, and of course no. The former, which dwell deep within their violence, actually and unknowingly highlight that it is impossible for the viewer to empathize to any predicament involving brutal violence. Or does it?
        Hunger, by the manner in which it presents this historical event and pulls it out of its time, asks such questions. The film marks us as an observer, always. It acknowledges that fact by always presenting both the sides. As Mr. McQueen remarks – “I identify with Raymond (guard) just as much as I identify with Bobby Sands. I identify with him because it's a situation where, no matter which side you're on, you have to make choices. He was a man doing his job." IRA men assassinate cops. The political angle of the larger picture is largely avoided. And what is paid attention to is the very act of human sacrifice. The film’s fulcrum lay in its second act, one of the year’s most brilliantly written, and brilliantly acted sequences of conversation. In a film with the sparsest amount of words, this is the only place where we learn about the ideas of these men. In particular of Bobby Sands. He decides to use his body as a political weapon. He decides to go on a hunger strike unto death, and Father Don Moran (Mr. Cunningham) argues the point of the whole idea. Pay attention to the fact that they just end up talking religion and Christ. Is it possible that the idea of sacrificing himself is frozen there? One can only wonder. Now that the IRA revolutionaries have fought their battle through violence, is turning that violence upon the self the answer to it all? Here, in another nod of acknowledgement of our observer status, we find ourselves staring at the debate between both the sides of the IRA from a singular seated vantage point. It is an extended sequence, and we see nihilism (from Sands) and love (from Father Moran) battle it out on the table between. It is a remarkable debut from a filmmaker we need to keep close eyes on.
        The film’s third act is the hunger. All we see is Sands slowly being wasted away during those 66 days. We see his sores, we see him vomit blood, we see his ribs hanging out and we find him all alone. If he were stirring up a movement or something, I’m not sure he could be aware, or he could draw strength from it. All he has is his belief, that he could be a symbol of change, and we can only admire the courage. For a man to be a symbol is a great contradiction in the first place. If we seek to dwell into the mythology of Batman, it is fascinating how it goes only half the distance in exploring how a man could offer everything that is individual to him and be the symbol for everyone. Because in our world, for a man to be a symbol that catalyzes, he has to be an individual too, with all the human flaws. The superheroes are two-dimensional, and hence they can afford to be symbolic. But a man to be a leader and hope to catalyze a whole movement with his act, when that act is willful destruction of the body, is something that springs a thousand questions. It is easy to gain fame and popular respect by such an act, but can it bring about a change? Can any sort of human sacrifice really? Hunger raises all these questions. How? By portraying Sands as anybody for its entire length, right unto his death, and then appending through a post-text the effect of his act and placing it into a context and making him the somebody he was. I’m reminded of R.K. Narayan’s Guide. And I’m still not sure about Hunger, except that I need to dwell into it more.

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