Friday, November 26, 2010

"Hunger" (2008)

"Business of the soul" they say. 66 days hunger strike. Bobby Sands dies alone. All men die alone. The only political status a man has, when all else is uprooted and thrown away, is self-representation. If a man's right to political status -- to voice and speech -- are taken away, then his body remains the last site of jurisdiction. Visible suffering; but also: internal suffering. Business of the soul. The right to wear one's own clothes. The right to spend one's time as one wishes (to meditate, to do nothing, to sleep in peace, to smoke cigs). The right to converse with other men, other prisoners, and to pursue self-education, recreation, advancement. The right to read letters addressed to oneself, and to receive the gifts of goodwill from the outside: family parcels, lovers' griefs, children's pictures. The right to receive remission when opportunities are pirated away by the leadership. The central command of shield-banging; black boots and the gauntlet of masked aggression. Against such facelessness there is but one solution: the right to self, and that self an Irish self. Northern Irish, but of one Ireland. Catholic but also Protestant. Irish but also not-British, subject to neither the Crown nor to Maggie Thatcher. One begins with a comrade; one ends with a dream of youth. Cross-country runner, Bobby was, the best of Belfast. The endurance to persist in the cold frost of a morning, when he last remembered the light of a chill sun and the frightened sparrows rush out and fall away into airy patterns, was what he envisioned at the moment his soul fled away into a dark grove. They wheeled poor Bobby out, champion runner, on a stretcher, and tears could not have pooled at the corners of his emaciated face. What eyes he had were the sores on his back. "Jesus had backbone." So did Bobby when his skin and muscle sunk and wrapped for dear life around it.
The film is worthy of study chiefly for its structure, besides the acting; this is where McQueen's training as an artist shines through. The film is divided into 4 parts: the prologue, prison life, interview/confession, hunger strike. The Prologue (not truly a prologue but I call it so because its power lies in its ability to conceal the inner chambers of the film and rather hints at the violence to come) has us contemplating the routine life of a nondescript, well-fed, well-dressed, seemingly honorable man who happens to be a prison guard. McQueen focuses not only on the trifles of his passing hours but most expressly on his bruised hands, which the prison guard constantly has to submerge in a sink of warm water to soothe their swelling when we see that they are freshly cut and bruised time after time. What does he do that hurts his hands so? Rather, who does he hurt to make his hands hurt so? This recurrent image is powerful enough -- of an irishman hurting, as we assume, other irishmen, and ends up bruising himself -- and its strength of expression gains resonance by indirectly suggesting an unseen, off-screen violence. The 2nd part, which I call Prison Life, follows a fresh prisoner into a cell where we are cast with him into the shit storm, literally. We're gradually made aware of the absence, the delayed introduction, of Bobby Sands: neither of the two young men with whom we inhabit the 2nd part of the film is Sands, and this makes the everymanness of the prisoners' ordeal poignant. When Sands is finally introduced we don't immediately recognize him: hardly any one in the film is referred to by name or cast into sharper light by dialogue: speech among the characters is sparse, arising only in the necessaries of actual human functions, when something vital has to be said. Who in prison would waste the energy to blabber when everything is at stake? The prisoners/rebels are displayed to us like monks in a cloister who practice the virtues of silence, endurance and forbearance; not merely because they are rebels thrown into the pen, but because they are irishmen sworn by blood to their country; something greater than them is in peril, must be preserved. The 3rd part, by which time we know who Sands is (played imperiously, magnificently by Michael Fassbender) leads eventually to the extended dialogue scene involving Sands and a Catholic bishop. This scene, acted with virtuoso solemnity by both parties, weighs everything down, and leads theoretically to the actual hunger strike, of which we see only Sands' martyrship. The ending, having nothing to do with the beginning (except in terms of cinematographic light, in their share of color and tone), flares out in birds and death; Sands' martyrship stays with us until the last credit rolls, and all that had happened before doesn't come full circle as other films do, and instead spirals outward into a haunted sky. What was done is done. "It is finished."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971)

Stripped down to the essentials: chassis, engine, oil, water. Machine and fluid; so too is man his matter and the aqua vitae. The classic Cartesian Dichotomy returns in the form of a pulp film: Mechanic and Driver. (The characters have no name, not even the girl, who plays the romance interest, who is simply "The Girl"; or Warren Oates, credited as "G.T.O."; because man is the sum of his parts, he is his car; in action, at rest.) The beginning credits, no music, neither the ending credits; the film begins in a blur of pavement as the camera zooms by, and the movie ends in a dissolve of celluloid, as the grey 55 Chevy speeds toward the unknown distances, into the oblivion of pure velocity. The nothingness of racing.
"I'll tell you one thing, there's nothing like building an old automobile from scratch and wiping out one of those Detroit automobiles. It does give you a set of emotions that stays with ya. Know what I mean? Those satisfactions are permanent."

They are permanent because they are ennobled beyond the ordinary measure of practicality. Immeasurable because they are fast and constant.