Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: The Cinematic Endurance Test

This week, Landon looks at Hunger and asks why we watch movies that are hard to watch.
By  · Published on April 13th, 2009

Two weeks ago I watched Hunger, a criminally underseen film about the 1980s IRA Hunger Strike lead by Bobby Sands (played brilliantly here by Michael Fassbender). It was, quite simply, one of the most affecting, haunting, and distressing films I’ve seen in quite some time. Rather than portray the strike as a collective social moment through the “objectivity” of documentary realism, first-time director Steve McQueen (yes, that’s his real name) lays the form and style on heavy as he depicts, without restraint, how resistance is enabled by and how it effects the human body, with often gruesome results. Feces, blood, torture, and starvation are all accompanied here by a camera that, instead of remaining at a respectful objective distance, pulls you into every grisly detail, complete with its confrontational and foregrounded sound design. But amidst (or because of) all its formal intervention and a thorough depiction of events that leaves nothing up to the imagination, Hunger achieves a unique form-heavy status as an art piece all its own, regardless of its content, that rarely finds an equivalent with films dealing with reality-based subject matter. Manifested literally in one scene, Hunger makes art out of shit.

But this film made me think of a far inferior film that used prolonged and gruesome depictions of violence through dense strategies of form to emotionally affect the audience. The Passion of the Christ’s preoccupation and detailed depiction of the destruction and limitations of the human body through heavy stylistic choices is certainly comparable, at least on the surface, to something similar taking place in Hunger. But this begs the question, how does enduring Hunger feel like a profound and enlightening cinematic experience, while The Passion feels like cinematic flagellation? With endurance-testing films of challenging content, where is the line drawn between affect and manipulation?

Hunger is unique for a debut film not because of its sheer formal ambition, but the success of this ambition. Often when a filmmaker uses such heavy style in their initial outing, it either comes off as an overt attempt to establish themselves through unique and repeated visual signposts or a cheeky, overly ambitious display of all the tools they learned in film school. Hunger, on the other hand, comes across perfectly. It feels like all the tools of the medium are productively used to accompany the visceral experience of the horror we are witnessing, but this comes across through risky stylistic decisions that could have caused the film to fall on its face had they been executed differently. Nowhere is this seen more instructively than the 17-minute long take in the middle of the film.

Of course, one of the most apparent forms of cinematic endurance is temporal endurance, or the long running time. But Hunger’s modest running time of 93 minutes does not make the film any less challenging to endure. But smack dab in the middle of the narrative, used to separate the prison resistance that occupies the film’s first part from the intimate account of Sands’ starvation in its second, is an astoundingly long shot featuring a conversation between Sands and a priest. On one hand, this shot isn’t particularly challenging to the viewer, as it finally relieves them from the prolonged depictions of bodily resistance and torture witnessed thus far, replaced by a conversation that permits some much-needed exposition and gives political context for their actions. It is the only point in the film where dialogue is the major means of cinematic communication and meaning-construction. On the other hand, this scene propositions the viewer to decide whether or not they think Sands’ proposal for a hunger strike is justified, and foregrounds the further tests the spectator will have in enduring, in great detail, what effects Sands’ decision will have on his body. The temporal endurance signals a no-turning-back moment. That this shot is completely static brings this point home even further.

Two other films come to mind when discussing the static long take, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (both versions – 1997 and 2007). With Irreversible, the long take displays endurance in style and content, as a ten-minute shot depicts a horrifying rape scene (the whole film is made of digitally manipulated long takes, but this is by far the film’s most notorious). This shot dares the viewer to endure, while at the same time gives them every reason to leave. While the film’s ethical and artistic merit have been debated since its disastrous first screening at Cannes, there’s no denying (whether or not Noé intended this or was simply showing off his style) that this scene/shot is particularly challenging because it implicates the viewer in the action—or, forces the spectator to question why, and to what purpose, they are continuing to witness the action. In Funny Games, the static long take occurs when Paul and Peter have finally taken a break from torturing the family and Ann and George helplessly and pathetically try to free themselves from their bondage. Funny Games has deliberately challenged the viewer to no end by this point, and this scene either works as 1) a break from the torture and an induction of false hope in the mind of the spectator that the husband and wife could be saved, 2) one of Haneke’s many “oh shit” moments that allows the spectator to consider what they have witnessed up to this point, or 3) challenging the viewer to get up and leave as “nothing” seems to be happening.

What both these films have in common is that they present their formal tests of audience endurance self-awarely, front-and-center, in tandem with their content. While any long take is a deliberate formal decision, McQueen’s long take in Hunger reads almost like a break from form, or at least prevents the form from interfering with its content. While we are constantly aware of Hunger’s formalism, these decisions strengthen rather than interfere with the experience of the film.

The justification for such use of form is often inextricable from its content. We as a culture endure the gruesome depictions of violence within war films and Holocaust movies because we believe their content is justified by their purpose, and such films are rarely questioned as being manipulative or exploitative. The polarized reactions to The Passion of the Christ are a good example on how this process works differently depending on your personal and ideological perspective, as the film’s two-hour endurance test depicting the methodical ripping apart of the human body reverberated as absolutely necessary for some while also being read as utterly exploitative and problematic for others.

Hunger perhaps gains justification points for its formalism as it is an account of real events (Irreversible and Funny Games are fictional narratives, and this, for some reason, by comparison renders their challenging form and content more arguably justified). But such stories are usually depicted through documentary realism, like the recent Italian mafia movie Gomorrah, which was no doubt an account of heavily researched “truth”, but for me its objective camera failed to enmesh the viewer in the events being depicted. Documentary realism is also often used for the type of war and Holocaust films previously mentioned. Yet we often forget that realism is still an “ism” in itself where deliberate formal decisions are always made. After all, how is the shaky camera and desaturated palate of Saving Private Ryan, or the use of black and white (and red) in Schindler’s List in any way “realistic”? Realism is the impression of the real, not the documentation of it—yet formalized depictions of violence get questioned because we assume there exists a manipulative intervention taking place that realism supposedly doesn’t have. Realism, in this sense, can be more dangerous for the average viewer because of this popular but misguided assumption that realism is free from formal intervention, that it is “objective” and thus somehow more “real”. Hunger, on the other hand, makes its use of form abundantly apparent (without interference) throughout, and can be more honest about its formal intervention because of its very transparency.

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