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Steve McQueen Touches History in “Hunger”

Steve McQueen Touches History in “Hunger” (photo)

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Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen’s films aren’t usually projected in movie theaters but on gallery walls, so it wasn’t shocking that the British artist’s directorial feature debut — a horrific yet lyrically abstracted depiction of the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike in Northern Island’s Maze Prison — was artful enough to win the Caméra d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Unveiling characters and story through details, “Hunger” is also sparse on dialogue, except for the film’s ambitious centerpiece, a 15-minute conversation on morality (in just two shots!) between strike figurehead Bobby Sands (boldly played by Michael Fassbender) and his priest (Liam Cunningham). During last year’s New York Film Festival, where the film had its North American premiere, I chatted with McQueen about memory and senses, history, actors’ words — plus a touchy subject I maybe shouldn’t have addressed.

In your director’s statement, you said you wanted to show “what it was like to see, hear, smell and touch in the H-block in 1981.” How do you approach the “smell and touch” part of that in this medium?

Well, it’s just a case of being particular with detail. It’s all about the essence of situations that can translate to audiences, using the camera in a way that’s almost like being blind. What I mean by that is using the camera like fingertips, feeling your way through a situation in order to make language as such. [With] a camera, you can address information that usually doesn’t get looked at. It’s about how you want to illustrate rather than investigate. For example, when Raymond, the prison officer, is eating his breakfast, we cut to him brushing the toast crumbs off of his napkin. Another example: the maggots, [seen] when one of the prisoners is sleeping. Another example is the colorization of film stock. These little details within the film translate hopefully into something bigger than what has been shown on screen. It’s a trigger that hopefully relates to your memory or your own recent past.

Speaking of which, you came to the project based upon the image of Bobby Sands that you remembered as a kid. Do you regularly attempt to realize your own cloudy memories?

No, things can go in different ways. It certainly resonated with me. The situation wasn’t, as a child, a clouded memory. As a child, it is a sensation. Someone appears on the TV screen, with a number underneath his image, and every day that number gets higher. The whole idea that this person could allow this through not eating was odd for me at 11 years old. Nothing going in, but could go out. So it’s one of those situations where it resonated. I think most artists, filmmakers, and writers have something that sticks with them. Maybe it’s as an 11-year-old or as a 38-year-old man, it doesn’t matter. It has to stick.

Impressionism. Minimalism. Do you feel these words typecast your work when people write about your work?

I believe in cinema. I like the word cinema. [laughs] You know, whatever works. Cinema is what works, it’s not a movement or particular strategy. If it works, it works. Minimalism, hmm. Expressionism, hmm. I think you can find both of those words in westerns and John Ford movies. You can find those words in Antonioni movies. You can find them in Spielberg movies. To me, the word is cinema. That’s the most important word.

03172009_Hunger2.jpgOne of Bobby Sands’ goals with the hunger strike was to get people’s attention. Could you discuss your thoughts on film’s importance as a proponent or tool of recording history?

It’s not of much importance at all. What it does is stretch [history] for an hour and a half, and then moves on. I mean, this is not a historical record. This is not a truth and reconciliation. The situation is not quite as important, far from it. It’s a bit of entertainment. Hopefully, a little bit of higher thinking entertainment. That’s about it. It stretches for an hour and a half. If it raises a debate, well great, but as often is the case, it just passes through and that’s it. Maybe it knocks people’s memories and brings back certain thoughts, but that’s as much as it possibly can do. I don’t have high hopes for this movie in any other way than to engage people for an hour and a half, and then get back to their daily lives, getting kids to school and going back to work.

It’s a very tricky script, told from a fluid array of different perspectives, and the near-wordless third act must’ve been hell in the editing room. Were there any creative goals that you strove for in attempting what could be called an experimental take on the biopic?

Again, it’s very simple. It was a very organic situation, I just did it. I don’t know scripts. I don’t work with scriptwriters. I worked with a playwright and myself, who wrote the script. It wasn’t a case of “tricky,” it was just “let’s get on with it.” I’m not trying to make it modest in any shape or form or whatever, that’s just how it was. Is there a right way or wrong way to write a script? I don’t know. And if there is, I’m not interested. I just do what I have to do. As far as editing was concerned, it was hunky-dory. I have no interest in how things are supposed to be. I’m interested in how one can use film as a medium, which can, of course, incorporate a narrative into it, but more importantly, in cinema.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.