It was slightly disturbing how much fun I had watching Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s grimmer-than-grim, fact-based interpretation of the 1981 Irish hunger strike to protest the political status of IRA members imprisoned in Northern Ireland. “Fun” maybe isn’t the first word you would associate with such a stone cold bummer of a film, but somewhere amid all the brutal prisoner abuse, body horror, and shit-smeared walls, the film helped me forget my own troubles, and, perversely, helped cheer me up. When people talk about film being an escapist art form, I guess what they usually mean is something fun and frothy involving Avatarism or Hogwarts or whatever. But sometimes something as miserablist as Hunger can be just as effective.
While back in Utah to visit the family over Christmas, a cheerful outing to the ol’ ski hill quickly turned into a thrice-fractured shoulder, emergency surgery, and twenty thousand dollars of medical bills not covered by my insurance, which was due to be activated-I shit you not-THE VERY NEXT DAY following the 30 day waiting period for coverage for new employees at my new job. I know, I know. Boo fucking hoo. But there’s more. The day I flew home, my girlfriend was in a huge car wreck on the 405 and was spirited away via ambulance to Long Beach Memorial. I rushed directly from the airport to the hospital in my narcoticized, oxycodone-addled state to the hospital busted wing and all to find my best friend/life partner laying flat on a backboard, neckbrace on, face covered in blood (she was ultimately OK, thank God).
Also, I broke my glasses and my cat was mildly sick for about a day and a half. So far, 2011 = total fucking clown party.
Which is why it was such a relief to dial up Hunger on Netflix Watch Instant. Sometimes you watch a film for the right reason, like to educate yourself about important goings-on in recent world history, or to feel inspired by the depths of one man’s total devotion to a single cause, even at the expense of his own life. But other times you just wanna see somebody get their shit wrecked even harder than yours did. And in Hunger, protagonist Bobby Sands and his IRA cohorts get their shit wrecked wrecked. We’re talking brutal beatdowns at the hands of overstressed, ill-tempered prison guards. We’re talking damp, dirty jail cells caked in urine and feces. We’re talking indelicate anal cavity searches. We’re talking suicide via the most protracted, painful, and aesthetically upsetting means possible.
Hunger depicts suffering with the kind of fetishistic detail not seen since Mel Gibson’s The Passion, which is why I found my response to it so odd, and maybe a little disturbing. Was it schadenfreude? Or was I just relieved that my situation wasn’t that bad. It’s comforting to know that, despite how profound your own psychic and physical pain may feel to you, you’re usually only scratching the surface of human misery. Maybe that’s why, as I sat in bed hunched over my laptop, Netflix open, unable to move even one inch for fear of sending tendrils of pain shooting through my entire body, I finally, for the first time since the accident, felt… OK.
But maybe it was just the simple pleasures of watching a well-made movie. Cinema’s ability to distract is the primary component to its appeal. At this point in popular culture, the examination of entertainment’s narcotic-like effects is an entire sub-genre unto itself, turning up as the key plot point in both David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and William Shatner’s TekWar, the two most important literary works of the last 25 years. Generally, these works take a reliably critical attitude toward the idea of turning off one’s consciousness in favor of being swept up in Entertainment’s loving, smothering embrace. But sometimes escapism is necessary as a survival mechanism.
But conversely, the virtues of escapism have themselves become cliché. Think Jonathan Pryce’s fantastical flights of fancy in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, or the imaginations of the young heroes (?) of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. These films act as antidotes to kind of anti-entertainment paranoia on display in such techno-thrillers as Strange Days and 1995’s era-defining TekWar: The Movie, starring William Shatner. Neither Days nor Creatures end well for their protagonists, but each film illustrates what is beneficial about leaving your earthly worries behind in favor of immersive fantasy narratives. Both films are, at their core, movies about escapism.
But what is escapism, and how does the term apply to Hunger? For most, a film’s escapist value is directly proportional to its ability to create an immersive, wholly-realized word as separate and distinct from the viewer’s own reality as possible. This is because most people’s lives are shitty and boring. Even people with awesome lives think that their lives are boring and shitty, and if they don’t, they usually have some sort of major personality disorder. This is why audiences generally prefer to spend time in places with names like Pandora, Middle Earth, and the Grid. Places without office parks or Buffalo Wild Wings. Places without Lady Footlocker. Places where every moment is thrilling and every action meaningful. This is usually what we mean by “escapism.”
But if you’re like me (and probably like you, too, if you’ve read this far in an article on fucking Battleship Pretension), you’ve wasted the best years of your life and a huge chunk of your parents’ hard-earned/inherited money attaining a certain degree of film literacy. And once you reach a certain level of film literacy, an expertly crafted movie becomes its own kind of thrilling adventure, regardless of the content of the narrative. For most filmgoers, the enjoyment derived from a movie is based solely on the film’s ability to wow them through a handful of flashy, turbocharged action set pieces. But a film nerd delights in excellence in every discipline involved with filmmaking: acting, direction, sound, costumes, production design, etc. Some people get excited by explosions; I get excited by the texture of wallpaper on a well-built set.
And Hunger is all about amazing textures. If you didn’t already know that director Steve McQueen came to film from the world of visual art, you may have guessed, given the film’s careful production design, framing, and lighting. One shot lingers on the wall of a prison cell covered is dried shit smeared into a spiral. A hose is turned on and, slowly, the shit flecks away to reveal the surface underneath. In other shot, prisoners empty their bedpans into under their doors into the hallway, flooding it with piss. The camera holds on the empty hallway. All at once, liquid pools under the row of doors and bubbles out into the hall, pools gradually connecting to cover the smooth concrete surface. Another shot later on reverses the process, with a lone custodian sweeping the hallway clean of pee. These moments are all about texture and surfaces, and are, for all their inherent ugliness, both beautiful and hypnotic.
But what, you may ask, is the metaphorical significance of all this piss-and-shit business? Well, I could sit here and conjure up some pile about how it all represents the cleanliness of the soul transcending the limitations of the flesh or something, but I’d be a liar. I don’t know that any of it means anything. In a way, Hunger is a film less about protest and political struggle than it is a film about scabs and bruises. It’s a film about the moist center of the open sore and its dry, flaky outer ring. It’s interested in the body as architecture, as a structure on the verge of collapse. It’s not a biopic about Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender in a fearless, Christian-Bale-in-The Machinist-esque turn that no doubt upset his mother very much), but rather a film about a group of desperate people who turned their bodies into a weapon simply by pressing the self-destruct button.
In a recent episode of BP, Tyler and David discussed whether film is inherently a storytelling medium, or if it is simply the art of pairing sound and moving image, with its narrative capabilities being mostly incidental. I tend to favor the latter point of view, which is another reason why I found Hunger so resonate. I enjoy when filmmakers don’t try to fit difficult material into the sort of neat little story arcs advocated by screenwriting books like Save the Cat. It’s frighteningly easy to imagine a glossy, Miramax-style version of the Bobby Sands story, complete with a script by Akiva Goldsmith and a Best Supporting Actress turn by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Irish accent as Sands’ steadfast gal Friday on the outside. But McQueen’s film is not a Bobby Sands biopic. It’s an impressionistic portrait of events told through a series of highly stylized, stand-alone vignettes. It reminded me in ways of François Girard’s cubism-influenced Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. There are long takes, flashbacks, dream sequences, and in-camera SFX sequences. There’s even one moment of unexpected and, for lack of a better word, awesome violence that wouldn’t feel out of place in something like Out of Sight or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Like all great films, Hunger casts a spell. It was a spell powerful enough to transport my mind elsewhere and allow me to forget my problems. The destination may have been a cold, damp prison where terrible things were going on, but it was still somewhere I was relieved to be for 90 minutes. But I suppose the oxycodone didn’t hurt, either.