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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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