Of martyrdom and legerdemain

A lot of reviews have compared Hunger to The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s closer to Bresson’s A Man Escaped, as remade by a drama queen who lingers too long on shit smeared on prison walls so the audience can appreciate the Genet-esque poetry-in-squalor. Although surely no accident that Bobby Sand’s (Michael Fassbender) cheekbones and saucer eyes are as pretty as Falconetti’s in the Dreyer film, I’m not coming down too hard on director Steve McQueen. Hunger is as ruthless and single-minded as The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach’s 2006 film about IRA entrapment at the hands of British soldiers who get (barely) humanized because polemics are so unfashionable in the age of bipartisanship. Hunger‘s justly acclaimed set piece — a very, very long colloquy between a cynical priest (Liam Cunningham) and Sands — relies as much on throwaway gestures like greedily sucked cigarettes and snarled banalities as the non-negotiable political positions exchanged, noted, and, finally, dismissed.

Still, I’m uncomfortable with some of the posturing. The always entertaining Armond White said that Hunger “merely rewards one’s artsnobbery and can only be excused as a series of art postures,” and he has a point: Fassbender’s killer half grins as he gets his beatin’, reminding me why martyrdom makes for compelling storytelling only if, like me, the lives of the Catholic saints fascinated you as a child. As a former “visual” artist, McQueen has more than a few potholes to avoid, like the way in which his ilk (think Derek Jarman or Julian Schnabel) use montage legerdemain to cover up an absence of ideas. From Caravaggio onwards, martyrdom with homoerotic undertones has proven irresistable. Unless I’m remembering it incorrectly, The Wind That Shakes the Barley didn’t emphasize the masochism and self-sacrifice of the IRA (they were rather oafish, actually). A polemic needn’t use martyrdom for effect.

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