Sunday, May 9, 2010


I'm not sure what enthralled me about the 1981 hunger strike at Maze Prison. It may have been part of a general awakening to world affairs that began in my freshman year at SUNY-Buffalo. My arrival coincided with the rise of Solidarity in Poland, and that peaceful revolt was very exciting to watch unfold.

I had no overwhelming predilection for things Irish, other than a couple of Van Morrison albums. But when Bobby Sands began to refuse food on March 1 to protest British rule, I was entranced. Two months later he died and by that time others had joined in the strike. By the time it ended in August, ten men had willed themselves to die.

For some reason I took great pride in remembering the names of the fallen, but that information has long been squeezed out. The lingering effects of that time remain, and when I saw that Steve McQueen (not that Steve McQueen) made a film about it, I couldn't wait until the DVD release.

McQueen is an art gallery filmmaker, but Hunger is not simply an art piece. It is permeated by an aesthetic that is gripping and thought provoking, many times beautiful and always steeped in humanity. McQueen's films were exclusively black and white and silent until 1998, and the absence of dialogue marks the first and third parts of the movie. The centerpiece in a full 25 minute medium shot of Bobby Sands and his priest, sitting at a table talking. Talking, that's it (and smoking). We as viewers have developed the same sense of isolation and loneliness of the jailed and are desperate for conversation. It's a scene that would never work if all that preceded hadn't paced for it.

The director shows depth for all characters: guards, prisoners, riot squad members, parents. That's not to say I felt sympathy for many, if any, of the people presented, but I did get a sense of who they were and how they lived in the world and in themselves. Giving humanity to the seemingly inhuman is no easy task.

Beauty is found in the most unlikely places. Urine, poured from within the cells into the hall merge into an ocean. One guard, smoking outside with his back to the wall, stands immobile as snow falls, its whiteness a stark contrast as it crosses his black pants. Pre-hunger strike, the prisoners engaged in a "dirty protest," refusing to bathe and smearing their feces on cell walls. One maintenance man, charged with the unenviable task of power washing the filth, is hypnotized by the stunning patterns he must spray away. Art through shit.

I'd read about a shockingly violent scene and, I admit, I'm a bit of a baby when it comes to that. I watch few horror flicks, but when I do I fast forward when I think something bad is coming up. Getting a glimpse sans sound takes the sting out. I tried that in Hunger but missed. It is, quite literally, a jaw-dropping moment.

I've been in a bit of a slump with recent movies choices. I saw Nine last night. It was, to be fair, a visual feast, but, vapid and empty. Plus, the songs suck. Hunger is a must-see, a fascinating work of art, deep in content and meaning, unforgettable as a moving picture.

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