Steve McQueen: The Desolation of Man by Chris Flay

Spoilers ahead for McQueen’s films, Shame/12 years a Slave/Hunger

Film is never more personal than when a set of eyes fix themselves to the lens – drawing you in and addressing you, like one of those celebrity PSA videos that make you think, “Beyoncé looks pretty serious right now, I should probably listen to her.”  Around a week ago, I experienced something similar. A music video, directed by acclaimed director, Steve McQueen, for the equally acclaimed producer and rapper, Kanye West, titled, “All Day” and “I Feel Like That”, the two songs explore Kanye’s transition between the braggadocios of his day, to the introspection of his night. We watch from above, a position of power, as he stares with pleading eyes, his breath heavy – and we listen as he reels off a list of his many fears, insecurities and negative thoughts that silently plague him – eating away. Upon seeing the video I began to notice some similarities between itself and McQueen’s three feature films; Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and 12 Years a Slave (2013).

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My first experience with a McQueen film came in the form of Shame, a story of a man’s changing life and mindset, due to the unannounced arrival of his sister. He’s a sex addict, forced to drastically rearrange and sacrifice the normalities of his life, as, for the first time, his carefully constructed seclusion has been compromised. In a way, our lead’s previous life begins to fall away, while his sister’s is doing the same – but he’s trapped in a world rife with sexualisation, which of course, makes it extremely hard for him not to comply.  One of the first scenes of the film shows Brandon (Michael Fassbender) travelling on the subway. A smile is exchanged with someone – a woman.  As he stares, her smile dissolves into a face of regret, or shame, her legs cross tight, and after an uncomfortable forty-five seconds, she stands and walks to the door. On her finger is a ring, presented to us and to Brandon, letting both of us know that she’s taken. Brandon stands close behind her, placing his hand under hers – letting both her and us know, a ring won’t stop him.  Who knows if the next stop is hers? Regardless, she leaves. Brandon follows but ultimately gives up; he’s lost her in the crowds.  At the end of the film, we are in the same setting once again. Across from Brandon is the woman from before, but this time, her smile doesn’t fade. We’re left wondering about what has happened in her life to get her here – she doesn’t feel the guilt anymore. They have both been on a journey. A journey where the life they used to live has collapsed and been rebuilt into something different.  Does Brandon follow her? That’s up to you.

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Released in 2008, Hunger chronicles the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, led by member of the Irish Provisional Army, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). In a much more literal way, he is also trapped – trapped inside the walls of a prison, where he leads the fight for himself and fellow inmates to be considered political prisoners, rather than criminals. As the film progresses, he becomes more and more withered, and despite his obvious falling apart, he continues, soldiering on in the face of his perceived injustice. It’s a hard watch to see a man reduced to an almost skeletal state in pursuit of his personal and political beliefs – but because of this, it’s one of the most powerful and thought-provoking pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. A testament to resilience, you see a man completely engrossed in the war he is fighting, even when it’s quickly destroying him, physically and mentally. Hunger is a must watch.

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Although I personally have a soft spot for Shame, McQueen’s most celebrated film by far is the Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave. It’s also his most recent – released in 2013, it follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a previously free man, who has been kidnapped and sold into slavery. The change was immediate. All respect for him had gone and all freedom taken. Similar to Hunger, the shackles are real – Solomon sits, chained, looking up at the light of a barred window…a victim of the white man’s outside world. He’s now powerless – but in a world that’s doing everything it takes to destroy him, Solomon doesn’t give in. Through being stolen away from his family, being forced to whip a fellow slave, he knows that justice will come eventually. So when it does, it’s even more powerful – to see Solomon arrive home to his wife, son, and his daughter and her husband, who’s standing, baby in arms.  A man, pushed from the top, to the bottom, only to do the virtually impossible – climb back up.

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All three of the films above have portrayed, in many ways, the desolation of humans – showing how fast you can regress into pain and despair, regardless of the place you started.  Bobby (Hunger) and Solomon (12 Years a Slave) were the most literal of prisoners – fighting against those who have imprisoned them and the injustice they have both endured, whereas, Brandon (Shame) is a captive in the world of his own addiction, struggling to break free from it’s grip. In some ways, the video I mentioned at the start shows Kanye West in a similar light – a man who can’t escape his own thoughts, worn down by the flashing lights of the paparazzi, until he collapses against the wall and his mind starts to race. Steve McQueen has proven himself to be one of the most forward thinking directors working today – he is three for three, and I’m looking forward to whatever his next film may be, and seeing whether he continues down this path of darkness or not.

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