Monday, April 6, 2015

Close Analysis of Steve McQueen's Hunger

March 16th, 2015.
Wei Lee

In terms of mise-en-scene, the director Steve McQueen applies a realistic style to this film. Firstly, I would like to discuss the lighting. Although we would imagine there must be plenty of artificial lights in an airtight place as HM Prison Maze, the filmmaker chose natural lights over the artificial, which brings out a realistic style. In the 17-minute long take of the conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest (45.35-1.09.55), the sunlight pours in from the window on the top of the wall and becomes a natural backlighting. In regards to the camera framing, McQueen did not adopt shot reverse shot for this act, which most mainstream films would embrace for the purpose of continuity editing. Instead, the two characters are in a wide-angle shot, and the camera becomes the third person as a witness of this debate, sitting right next to them. In this case, this technique creates an incredible tension between the two characters and because it is a static single long take, the viewers are able to pay close attention to the dialogue. I contend the classical shot reverse shot would be totally unnecessary for this scene. If the dialogue of screenplay is meaningful and has substance, a long take does not bore the audience. The Average Shot Length of this film is 11.1 seconds per shot, which is noticeably longer than a regular feature film. The pacing is generally slow. And from the overall film and the 17-minute long take I mentioned previously, we could see McQueen is not a filmmaker that likes assembling brief shots into a montage. Nonetheless, the ASL of the scene I chose to do the shot-by-shot analysis is only 2.21 seconds per shot (37.00- 37.55), and it is the turning point of the the story. Why is there such a dramatic transition in this scene? Firstly, this scene functions as an introduction in the whole riot segment. And secondly, I believe McQueen changes the pacing of this segment in order to build contrast and make it stand out from other segments. However, the pacing is not the only technique that McQueen plays with. In this scene, McQueen only shows the riot in the cell but not the prison guard's response to it. Instead he put two insert shots of the empty hallway. The fear of human beings is often originated from our own imagination. Therefore, the viewer perceives that something is going to happen without necessarily seeing what is happening on the other side.

Subsequently, the overall choice of the camera lens is less noticeable and the framing is fairly neutral. For instance, most of the close-ups are used when there is a detail that needs to draw the audience's attention, or when the IRA prisoners are looking outside of the window in the second segment. McQueen also adopts close-up shots of details in the first segment to portray the prison guard and his daily routine. Surely, Steve McQueen tried not to overly expose the emotion of each character. Another example is the scene of the riot officer where the young armed police is weeping on the other side of the wall while his comrades are beating the prisoners (43.05-43.18). It starts with a relatively simple medium close-up which last for 4 seconds and then cuts to a 9-second medium shot. In addition, the camera angle constantly shifts between high and low angles depending on the subject. The camera angle certainly represents the director's perspective. In the scene of the forced haircut and shower, the camera is always positioned in a high angle when Bobby Sands in the shot, conversely, the viewers see the prison guards from a low angle through the camera. Aside from that, let us examine the depth of field of this film. I believe there is not a marked preference for staging in depth or shallow depth compositions, nevertheless I noticed that McQueen employs a deep focus for the last shot of the film (1.30.31-1.31.28). I thought it would be a static shot and then cut to another one, surprisingly when two prison guards pushing the car that has Bobby Sands' body on it to almost in front of the camera, the camera pans to the right and follows the guards walking to the outside. Then the camera maintains the same position, observing the whole process from a distance. After Bobby Sands' death, the camera steps back to a straight and wide-angle position.

There is always a reason behind Steve McQueen's choices of camera movement. Following the scene of the riot in HM Prison Maze, it is the arrival of the armed police. From the moment that the riot officers start beating the IRA prisoners (40.48-42.49), I noticed that the camera switches from a static composition to a mobile frame. It is a 2-minute handheld take and the camera is constantly moving, following one prisoner to another. This choice brings a vivid and chaotic feeling to the viewers and it is emotionally very powerful, as if we are in the riot as well. It is also the first time the camera captures this incident and becomes more expressive. The framing of this sequence contains all wide-angle, medium and close-up shots. Regarding the film's audio-visual relations, the dialogue is mostly truncated except for the conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest. Nonetheless, I would like to point out the two inserted speeches of Margaret Thatcher in the film, which is a significant use of non-diegetic sounds. The first part goes “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status” (9:24-9:42) , and the second part “Faced with the failure of their discredited cause, the men of violence have chosen in recent months to play what may well be their last card. They have turned their violence against themselves through the prison hunger strike to death. They seek to work on the most basic of human emotions—pity—as a means of creating tension and stoking the fires of bitterness and hatred.”(1:12:54-1:13:25) While the film remains disconnected from the larger political situation, focusing on the specific living conditions of those imprisoned in the Maze, these are the only two times that the audiences learn responses from outside of the world. Through the whole film, we do not see any images of Margaret Thatcher or the British government, only the voice vibrating in the ghastly prison and the guards mercilessly executing their mission as an embodiment of inhumanness.

Hunger follows the principles of mainstream editing, and it does maintain continuous and clear narrative action. The film starts with this following structure: we are introduced to a middle- class, middle-aged man. We learn after that he’s a prison guard at the Maze, and see him isolated from his colleagues, seemingly emotionally wounded by his job. There is basically no dialogue in the first act. Then the film’s perspective shifts to the side of the prisoners, where it will rest for the remainder of the film until the death of Bobby Sands. Here comes a new prisoner who refuses to wear the prison uniform. We then get glimpses of what life is like for prisoners in the Maze. Following the previous act, this is all presented with very limited narrative or character development. We merely observe the prisoners in action.

Why McQueen chose to interpret this film in a realistic fashion? I believe we can sense it simply by looking at the title of the film. First of all, the film is not called “Bobby Sands” as it may be if it is an biographical film. And indeed is it not. There is no myth nor exaggerated emotion in this piece. Many believe it is not a conventional plot to draw us from beginning to end. Nevertheless, McQueen uses this techniques that enable Hunger to surpass the limits of traditional cinema, which is he lets the image tell the story instead of giving a verbal explanation, allowing an emphasis on one element. The viewers are forced to concentrate on every detail in each scene. McQueen refuses to let the formalist get narratively comfortable. By taking such a harsh attitude, Hunger also shows that traditional films, especially Hollywood films, seem to believe that audiences will not be able to comprehend if the exposition is not presented in an extremely obvious way. The result not only disrespects the audience, but more insults the film’s intelligence. Sadly, more and more people treat film merely a tool of storytelling but not an art form.

What relation does the filmmaker hope us to have with the characters? Are we asked to identify with characters or to share their experiences? In narrative terms, McQueen holds an objective perspective and our access to story information is restricted. In this film, we are merely an observer who walks through the story with the characters, following the Director's mise-en-scene. The story of Hunger concerns the fierce battle between the Irish Republican Army and the British government. Steve McQueen is not trying to have his audience choose one side from the other. And the film is not necessarily about the rights and wrongs of the British in Northern Ireland, but about inhumane prison conditions, and the conflict between the adamant determination of IRA members and the refusal of the British government that was led by Margaret Thatcher. There is hardly a sentence in the film about Irish history or politics, the ideology involved is not even mentioned in the long dialogue scene. In fact, for an audience like me who did not know much about the history of this period, I did a background research after watching the first 30 minutes of the film. Another obscure concern of this film is the disagreement between the priest and Bobby Sands. The priest discusses the hunger strike entirely in terms of its utility and futility, never once mentions suicide as a sin. In opposition, Sands believes starvation to death will have an impact. The priest foresees that if this action does, Sands will sacrifice himself in the end. Certainly, Sand's willingness to die reflects his inveterate beliefs as an Irish Republican, yet Sands' death is shown in an illustration of increasing bleakness. Looking back in history, did the hunger strike eventually achieve its goal? After the number of victims climbed to 10, the Thatcher government finally compromised and granted the prisoners political recognition, although Thatcher never said so out loud. Today there is peace in Northern Ireland, but the island nation is still divided. And Bobby Sands remains dead.

1 comment:

alfred said...

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