Monday, January 31, 2011

Lonely Journey

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)

I don’t think there’s ever been a time when our public discourse seemed to me so off the mark. The news media talk with proper gravity about economic crisis and its human consequences, then in the next breath move on to octuplets or bong-smoking swimmers or other sub-trivia you couldn’t bring yourself to utter if you properly believed something big is happening. Assertions about stimulus packages, bail-outs, rescue packages, another ten billion here, another fifty billion there, come and go, swept away as the successive layers of our accumulated disaster bloom and get surpassed. Talking heads spout predictions, seldom with the appropriate humility. And things just get worse and worse. Some people say this kind of apocalypse talk is itself the enemy, that we’re worrying ourselves into a hole; recovery depends on regaining our collective confidence - however ill-informed or self-destructive. Of course you always enjoy the party more if you don’t think about the next morning.

The Creative Economy

As I write this, a new, much-heralded report says our future lies in the “creative economy.” Certainly I agree that education, technology-enabled flexibility and a common commitment to pragmatic reinvention will serve us better than trying to hang on to old paradigms. But I also agree (regretfully) with the Globe And Mail letter writer who said this concept “relies on two extreme and temporary economic distortions. The first is the availability of almost free manufactured goods from Asia. The second, which to a fair degree has made the first possible, is the printing of tens of trillions of dollars pushed into the ‘creative’ end of the economy by a completely out-of-control financial system. Neither of these trends is sustainable…”

The world we’ve built is so tangible and, for all its unknowns, so familiar and enveloping, it’s unimaginable to most of us that cyclicality and adaptability won’t ultimately keep things much as they are. So we endlessly defer the even more major problems that we all know loom ahead, or assure ourselves for example that an “Earth Hour” constitutes a meaningful “first step” toward solving a problem that demands renovating all of our minutes and years.

It brings me back to what I wrote the other week, about the consequences of our overvaluing the recent past as a guide to our likely future, of failing to adequately price uncertainty itself as a component of policy-making. I think there is going to be a lot of self-examination over the next few decades (hopefully of a progressive kind, although I wish I was more optimistic about it). As I’ve been complaining lately, current cinema hasn’t been contributing much to depicting, let along understanding or resolving, any of this. But Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy And Lucy is an exception, and an achievement rare in any era – a small, highly specific and localized narrative of enormous, terrible implications.

Wendy And Lucy

Wendy, played by Michelle Williams, is a young woman traveling in her beaten-up Honda Accord from Indiana to Alaska, where she hopes to find work. Her traveling companion is her dog Lucy, a half-retriever mutt; we first see them playing in the woods outside a dead-end Oregon town, observed in the middle-distance via a long tracking shot. It’s almost idyllic: she’s self-possessed and in control of her situation, optimistic about her destination and meticulous about her habits and her expenses. Trains and railtracks figure prominently in the film, evoking classic archetypes of frontiers opening up; early on it evokes the hippie counter-culture too. It’s always been one of the validations of America’s bloated sense of itself – that the myth of mobility and renewal can at least sometimes be true.

In just an hour and a quarter, the film shows how little room remains for such dreams. She ties Lucy to a rail outside a grocery store, where she’s caught shoplifting some dog food; when the police let her go, the dog’s missing. At around the same time, her engine gives out. Now her stop-over becomes a potential abyss, rapidly exposing the limitations of her resources and of her emotional (and perhaps physical) safety. Without mobility or a fixed address or even a cell phone, the basic logistics of finding a lost dog loom like impenetrable mountains.

Reichardt made the film before the worst of recent events, but it definitely gains extra resonance from the timing of its release. With plummeting oil prices, the bloom is off Alaska, as it is Alberta. Wendy’s journey, likely always a myth, was a creation of momentum and quiet optimism; when that’s stalled, there’s almost nothing left. In the end, her situation is much clearer, and (no real spoiler here) not for the best. The very last shot reminds us of the dark side of that romantic view of the railways.

Selfless Love

Some people would say I’m over-emphasizing the film’s gloomy aspects. Rick Groen, in the Globe and Mail again, gave it four stars (the film won the Toronto film critics’ award for best picture and actress), while emphasizing its upbeat or redemptive aspects. He describes the ending thus: “..the weakest among us delivers a lesson in uncommon strength – a pure act of selfless love, with none to bear witness and no reward in sight. Then, alone, she passes through.”

There’s a religious undercurrent to that reading of it, implicitly linking the film to the likes of Tsotsi or (in a trashier vein) Slumdog Millionaire, where isolated moments of grace or transcendence at least momentarily transform the deprivation giving rise to them.

Needless to say, I don’t see it that way. Uncommon strength and selfless love…you can call it that, but isn’t it the raw material of survival every day at the very bottom of the food chain, that people somehow keep going, way beyond a point that (to those of us who’ve never lived under such limitations) seems impossible. It’s not selfless, it’s just the best self there is. The ending, I’d say, is a pure tragedy, a capitulation to a horrifying dead end.

Wendy And Lucy is a superb exercise in form reflecting content. It’s quiet, precise, careful, and desperate, taking on, without any cinematic ornamentation, a sense of escalating threat. I’m afraid there are many Wendys among us, most of them probably not even possessing as promising a narrative as the film’s Wendy starts out with, but experiencing as comprehensive a downward evaluation. And there is no “creative” solution to this, no easy “bail-out” that can keep her physically alive and safe at even a low level while allowing her a personal narrative that nourishes her. Reichardt’s film will likely be one of the year’s most significant, but for those in the eye of the storm, I’m almost reluctant to recommend it. Maybe for some viewers the film can be the truth that starts to set them free, if there’s still enough room (economic, social, psychic) for mass freedom in this world.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Backdrops of Tragedy

The Star’s Peter Howell concluded his review of Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light by saying it “may just be the most profound movie I have ever seen.” Which made me wonder…if you were a newspaper editor, and your senior writer, someone with huge exposure to cinema, truly thought the most profound film of his life might have just opened, wouldn’t you at least put that on page one of the entertainment section, rather than burying it somewhere inside? But you suspect Howell’s applying a pretty commoditized notion of profundity, much as you might remark that someone may just have the whitest teeth you’ve ever seen, a remark based entirely in the dazzle of the moment, which may or may not carry either objective validity or lasting impact.

Nostalgia for the Light

He bases the valuation in part on the assertion that Guzman “simply shows the truth,” a bizarre thing to say about an essay film plainly driven by a point of view and a conscious joining of dots. The dots relate to Chile’s Atacama desert, a location of unusually low humidity and therefore cherished both by astronomers (because of the clarity of the local atmosphere) and archaeologists (for its low erosion). During the Pinochet years, there was a concentration camp in the desert, and the bodies of many of those murdered (according to one source, at least 3,200 deaths and disappearances) were buried there; even more than thirty years on, a few women spend a large part of their time scouring the terrain, searching for the bones of vanished relatives.

The film is of course a tribute to the fortitude of these women and a memorial to those who were lost. It reaches higher though, extracting from the desert a generalized theory of existence: as it facilitates our views of stars dying and reborn, and the core matter of the universe arranging itself into new objects and configurations, it allows us a perspective articulated by the now-adult daughter of two of the missing, that nothing really comes to an end. An earlier interviewee has emphasized how the external present doesn’t exist, in the sense that everything we see is always separated from us by the duration of the light’s journey; even in the internal present of our consciousness, our thoughts always lie in the past by the length of time incurred in their transmission through the neurons. “Those who have no memory don’t live anywhere,” says Guzman, referring both to this helpless dependence on the past, and more broadly to the diminished weight of a life lived in ignorance of history, its crimes, and their continuing price.

Showing the Truth

The film is handsomely contemplative, its overall tone forged less by pain and atrocity than by the desert’s inherent tranquility, the glory of the cosmos, and Guzman’s memories of an unexceptionally happy childhood before the country’s descent into hell. It’s plainly an admirable piece of work, but I think it’s a considerable stretch to cite it as an advance in profundity. At the risk of seeming like a philosophical lowbrow, I find the observations about our lack of a present, for instance, unarguable, but also inconsequential as an input into how to live our lives. We must obviously respect the woman who finds comfort in astronomy, but again, little about her own form of rationalization and coping provides a mechanism that might be more generally applicable or instructive.

None of this amounts to “simply showing the truth” – the appeal to notions of rebirth and universal linkage is plainly a spiritual construction of some kind, even if not an explicitly theological or denominational one. And the suspicion arises at certain points that Guzman is prioritizing aesthetic facility (such as a shot of one of the lonely searchers, framed in silhouette against the night sky, and in particular with a kind of snow globe dazzle effect that occasionally cascades down the screen) over more strenuous considerations. Put simply, shouldn’t the most profound film ever made be, you know, just a bit more like heavy lifting?

London River

Coincidentally or not, Nostalgia for the Light opened at the Bell Lightbox on the same weekend as London River, also built around people missing in the wake of violence (the film started screening on SuperChannel more or less simultaneously, and is also already out on DVD). London River (directed by Rachid Bouchareb) is a fiction though, set against the 2005 transport bombings which killed fifty-two people. Brenda Blethyn plays a distraught mother, suddenly unable to reach her daughter, who comes to the city to find her; Sotigui Kouyate (a remarkably moving and dignified performer, who died not long after completing the film) is an African Muslim living in France, similarly searching for his son. Because the two kids were living together, the two parents soon cross paths, with Elisabeth’s initial hostility toward Ousmane evolving into sympathy and even affection.

As the plot summary probably conveys (and I didn’t even mention the rather cruel twist toward the end), the film is unlikely to strike even its greatest defenders as being particularly profound. It’s the hoariest of devices, of course, to use a complex and sprawling tragedy as backdrop for a representative human story, and Bouchareb appears to be knowingly embracing the conventions - for example, even given their common purpose, the two protagonists bump into each other with absurd frequency – perhaps viewing this as a device to humanize and demonstrate the common purpose beneath the new Europe’s multi-cultural surface.

But their story just doesn’t seem rich enough to support the project, and while there’s some interesting material around the edges – glimpses of the outreach community surrounding a modern-day mosque, the Caucasian police inspector who off-handedly identifies himself as a Muslim – this too often carries that same feeling of over-calculation. Blethyn does a good job of conveying the mother’s initial quasi-revulsion at what the world seems to be coming to, but then she softens too quickly, as people do in movies (and having her live in isolation on the island of Guernsey is perhaps an overly symbolically remote starting point).

As a consequence of all this, the bombings sit rather uncertainly in the background as a thing that happened, an atrocity of horrible cost, but one that doesn’t implicate our collective goodness nor anything about the way we’re headed, and out of which some deeper mutual tolerance can emerge (again, a common blueprint in dealing with wrenching events, and not just in cinema). Obviously, no dramatic film would ever meet Howell’s benchmark of simply showing the truth, but what London River shows us is so tangential that you might conclude it amounts to a lie.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Spike Lee

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2008)

I’ve always kept the faith with Spike Lee, although it’s often been a lonely place. I absolutely loved Bamboozled – I actually consider it one of the best American movies of the decade. The film is a satire of the modern media, built around the outrageous notion of an ambitious young black TV executive reviving the minstrel show (along with blackface make-up, plantation setting, and every possible offensive cliché) – he thinks it will fail obnoxiously, but it becomes a cultural phenomenon.


The film was either derided or ignored, and much about it seems careless or under-developed. To many people, using the long-gone minstrel genre was an instant wrong move, being barely relevant to whatever the real contemporary problems of African-American media representation might be. But I think Lee’s movie carries the thrust of a desperate archaeologist – he sees a status quo rife with contradictions and persistent belittlements, often exacerbated by iconic black figures misdiagnosing their own success and influence. There’s a college textbook crammed into his film, but also a great deal of outrageous, scintillating invention (and Lee isn’t usually given enough credit for how much he gets out of his actors).

I also mean to go back and view again one of his subsequent films, She Hate Me. This one lost even Bamboozled’s shallow support, but to me suggested how rich Lee’s investigative method could be. With the feel of a voyage through purgatory, the film pushes untidily toward the possibility of a new paradigm for black men – positing that corporate conformity, homophobic unease, fading historical memory and cultural clichés might fuse into some kind of transcendence. But Lee hasn’t returned since to that line of investigation. He made the powerful and rightly acclaimed documentary about New Orleans, When The Levees Broke, and then scored his biggest box-office hit of all time with Inside Man, which I don’t think I really got.

In a recent New Yorker profile, he comes across as contrary and feisty as ever, still seeming pervasively mistreated and marginalized (and making the reader believe it, at least fleetingly) despite his huge success and access. After Inside Man he had ideas for projects based on James Brown and Rodney King, but ended up taking on an earlier sore of black history – the undervaluing of the African-American contribution to WW2 (a subject on which he’s traded some widely-reported shots with Clint Eastwood). The resulting film, Miracle At St. Anna, is now out, and it’s a major disappointment, but fascinating for what it tells us both about Lee’s vision and his limitations.

Miracle At St. Anna

It starts with an old war film – John Wayne and a bunch of white guys - viewed on an old black guy’s TV screen; “We were there too, pilgrim,” he mumbles. The next day he goes to work, doesn’t like the face of one of the guys in line, pulls out a gun and shoots him dead. A young journalist, on his first day on the job, persuading a hard-bitten cop to give him a break, gets access to the perp’s apartment search, where they discover an ancient stone head, quickly identified by a local expert as an Italian artifact missing since WW2. The news travels round the world – an amorous woman throws the Herald Tribune out the window as she climbs onto her husband; the man down below, seeing the story, spills his coffee. The journalist visits the guy in jail; eventually he breaks his silence; we flip into flashback mode and the story proper.

This entire preamble virtually begs to be thrown out the window, along with the newspaper. The opening, frankly, stinks. It’s contrived, badly written, badly acted, maladroit in all respects. It’s interesting to wonder why Lee didn’t throw it out, along with the matching bookend at the film’s conclusion (which, if anything, seems even worse) and just present the historical story. And I think the answer would be, in essence – why shouldn’t the black war movie have the sprawl and eccentricity and lasting ripples that a movie about white soldiers might have? Why confine it to an act of commemoration? In a way, the more wayward and even goofy Lee’s movie gets, the more meaningful the tribute – like a badge of authenticity.

The film consequently confounds almost every expectation. The flashback takes us to 1944 Italy, to four soldiers in the all-black 92nd Division, advancing on a German position. The four are separated from their unit, and hole up in a tiny mountain village - one of them sleeps with a local girl, another develops an almost mystically close bond with a young boy. Italian partisans intervene, with a captured Nazi. At one point Lee takes us into discussions within the Nazi brigade; at another he inserts a flashback within the flashback, to depict the prejudice back home in Louisiana. Despite the fraught situation, the four experience a form of liberation: the mechanism of subjugation (illustrated mainly via their ignorant immediate superior) falls away and they function just as men against the elements. Through some elements of magic realism (focusing on the aforementioned stone head), Lee even brings a transcendent aspect to the implications of all this.

Shallowness of the propagandist?

It’s all very convoluted and complicated, although it does ultimately just about hang together. The four soldiers are fairly blandly portrayed, and what individuality they do have is tritely conceived. The film feels as if its maker were constantly losing concentration, wandering off in one direction and then another. Lee doesn’t show much facility with large-scale logistics – that first sequence in the story proper, inter-cutting the two opposing sides along with “Axis Sally,” whose anti-American propaganda blares out from loudspeakers, is a considerable mess. The film is heavy with redundancies – the Louisiana sequence, for instance, is a laborious cliché. And implausibilities and unanswered questions pile up like body bags.

As you can see, I don’t think the film has very much specific merit at all. So what does it tell us about Spike Lee? Well, I recently listened for the first time to his commentary on the Bamboozled DVD, and was surprised how little he really had to say about his intentions. Beyond some personal anecdotes and score settling, it often felt as if he were doing cheerleading for someone else’s movie. It’s not uncommon, of course, for directors to be less literate than their films. But then reflect on how Stanley Crouch, in that New Yorker article, says that Lee’s career is marked throughout by “the fundamental shallowness that you get from a propagandist.”

That’s the problem with Miracle At St. Anna – it’s a continent wide and an inch deep. On Bamboozled and others, Lee may have been as undisciplined, but the basic premise was tight enough that any misdirected energy mostly bounced off the walls and reflected back into the mix. Removed from the home ground of his influences and resentments, it’s rather shocking how quickly his artistic force dissipates. Which for an artist who's obviously itchy to grow, is a real problem.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saving The World

Writing on The New Republic’s website, David Thomson recently suggested “we are at a point in our history of wondering what the movies have become and what their place is in our world.” Musing on The Social Network, he said: “It is fascinating, informative, and it’s surely current. But it never rises above a pitiless display of unpleasant people profiting from minor cruelties and indifference…This may be an era when the movies have to decide whether their subject is self- loathing or human aspiration.” To which some of us might say, well, we can have both – that’s the exact mixture that defines my personality! And maybe Thomson is too much of a romantic to acknowledge this is what attainable human aspiration has mostly come to represent – forging minor, unheroic adjustments to the existing body of things and hoping they somehow tap a lucrative commercial vein (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg indeed being the ultimate practitioner).

Blue Valentine

Anyway, most human aspiration as depicted in movies is simply idealistic fluff, or at best hardly relevant to most of our lives. Thomson reveals the confusion of his thinking in the same article when he says “the deserved success of The King’s Speech testifies to our appetite for small human achievements in well-told stories.” I like The King’s Speech too, but any film focusing on, you know, the King of England by definition represents a pretty esoteric laboratory for depicting “small human achievements” (and in any event, citing a single film’s actually fairly modest box office achievements as testimony of anything seems like shaky rhetorical practice). Still, if Thomson’s specific argument makes little sense, we can probably sympathize with the fatigue behind it.

The new film Blue Valentine wouldn’t seem likely to fare well against his vague criteria: the people are at least occasionally unpleasant (just in the way we all are), cruel and indifferent, and if the film depicts any human achievements at all, they’re of the most mundane kind. Still, it illustrates something central to my own passion for cinema – its continuing capacity, in the right hands, to illuminate complexities and mysteries in even the most familiar human mechanisms and institutions. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a couple in their seventh year or so of marriage, with a daughter of that same age; she’s a nurse and he’s a housepainter. The initial playfulness and mutual delight (flashbacks show us how they met and married) has congealed, but they keep going, no better or worse off than many others. Until one day - not because of any great drama, just because this is the day it happened – they hit the wall.

Green Zone

The film maintains a narrow focus, relying heavily on the two actors, both of whom are just about perfect. Director Derek Cianfrance cites John Cassavetes as a key influence, but the film doesn’t feel like a Cassavetes picture – the protagonists are just too modest and humble. Like his films though, it easily elevates itself from the pack of small-scale, humanistic cinema, primarily I think for its success in subtly but unmistakably organizing itself around a rather chilling thesis: he always loved her more than she loved him, and only won her in the first place because of being in the right time at the right place; ultimately, she was always going to evolve beyond him. Without a hint of didacticism or over-elaboration, Cianfrance and his actors make the emotional terrain devastatingly clear and believable.

On a very different note, I caught up with Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone, which came and went quickly last year and is now playing on cable. Now here’s a study in human aspiration, of a particularly distorted and dastardly kind. Greengrass’ first professional life culminated in Bloody Sunday, a stunning recreation of the 1972 clash between Irish marchers and British police; in his much more visible second act, he’s used his enormous technical prowess to elevate the Jason Bourne movies (although opinions may differ on whether the material ultimately warrants the elevation). Green Zone feels like a Bourne film for much of the time, especially with Matt Damon again in the leading role, but returning to more explicitly charged political material – the Iraq war’s criminally murky foundations. As such it’s one of Greengrass’ most fascinating films, although it’s unclear whether the impact is quite as he intended.

Damon plays an army officer increasingly frustrated at finding rubble and pointless danger instead of WMD (it’s set in 2003); following a trail of instincts and tip-offs, he’s soon operating in quasi-renegade mode, contrasting in particular with the bureaucratic party line embodied (in a witty piece of casting) by Greg Kinnear. The narrative, once you look through Greengrass’ customary kineticism, is pretty straightforward, one thing uncovers another, until the corrupt heart of things just lies there bleeding in the open, for all to see (although the film ends without addressing how much the world cares about seeing). As such, the film made me think – to my own surprise – of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, as another piece of historical wish fulfillment. Tarantino, no doubt, rewrites history much more radically than Greengrass does. But Green Zone ends up seeming almost as transgressive, because it’s not as obviously stylized, and because it’s barely even history – the war continues (although you might often forget), and its legacy is still being written.

Rolling the Cigarettes

As I mentioned, Damon is frequently again in Bourne-like motion, whipping against the clock through a blur of landscapes, but this time his hyperactivity is much more metaphorically charged, reflecting how substance and culpability - even for the great consequential crimes of our time - so easily blurs into positioning and political momentum (the financial scandals provide another prime example). The best Iraq war films so far have illuminated military atrocities (Battle for Haditha) and the shameful exploitation of American soldiers (The Lucky Ones) but Green Zone arguably embodies something more existentially meaningful and horrifying – that such a cataclysm could matter so little. Damon’s final statement, about the need to get the story right this time, sounds superficially like a clarion call for truth, but the film actually embodies the opposite, endless malleability. If you see it as performance art, the commercial failure is the perfect final piece of the installation, confirming the public’s inattention and thus the ease of its bamboozling.

Still, that metaphor should convey a certain academic, transient quality to my liking for it. Many years ago, rhapsodizing about Howard Hawks, Thomson praised the veteran for pursuing a guiding principle that “men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world.” It’s as true as ever – we’d better find the truth of ourselves in those small things, because for most of us the truly big ones will remain beyond our grasp. Fear not, for as long as cinema generates films like Blue Valentine, prodding us again to examine how we roll those cigarettes and what it does to us and those we think we love, it will always have a place in our world.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Jean-Pierre Melville

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2006)

Two of my favourite recent DVD purchases came about rather by surprise. Very occasionally, I get it in my mind to buy a movie without having anything specific in mind (always a rather surprising impulse given the lengthy wish list I maintain on the computer, strategically located where my wife can stumble across it in the run-up to Christmas and birthdays), and thus browsing Bay Street Video one day I saw Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai on the shelf and thought: Well, there it is. I'd seen the film a long time ago, but remembered nothing of it except the image of Alain Delon in his trench coat. Among other things, I thought it was in black and white, and was quite astonished when the movie started up in colour. It’s possible I saw it even longer ago than I think, at a time when I could only catch late night movies on a small black and white TV in my bedroom, which between the poor picture quality and having to keep the sound down low (in case my parents got wise to this illicit activity) would have made even The Wizard Of Oz seem ghostly and nourish.

A Delon Trilogy

Anyway, I thought Le Samourai (made in 1967) was terrific, and the next time I was in the store I made a beeline for Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, the movie he made right afterwards. I first saw this a bit more recently than Le Samourai, during a Melville season at the Cinematheque, maybe eight years ago or so. I was there with my wife, and I recall we both spent the better part of the movie asleep and absorbed nothing of it. I think maybe we were jet-lagged from a recent trip – clearly we shouldn’t have bothered. It certainly can’t have been a reflection of Le Cercle Rouge, which is almost as mesmerizing as Le Samourai, and even more intriguing in some ways.

As I write I clearly need to take the next step and buy Un Flic, the film Melville made afterwards, which completed his unofficial Alain Delon trilogy. At that point I will already be done, for Melville died soon afterwards. He had made nine films prior to Le Samourai, although only one, Bob Le Flambeur, seems to be currently available on DVD (it was remade a few years ago by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief). Melville was born in 1917 in Paris, served in the French Resistance, and made his first feature film in 1947. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, but he renamed himself after Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick. One of the extras on the Cercle Rouge disk, a 1970 documentary, shows him turning up in his big American car (fitted with all the modern conveniences, points out the voice over, such as a cassette player), with a Stetson and dark glasses (although no cigar). It portrays him as being as much businessman as artist; he founded his own studio early on, and then built it up again after it burned down.

I have not seen as many of his early films as I should have done – as I said, I think I was away during that Cinematheque season. David Thomson, for one, would say that I have therefore not seen the director’s best: the late thrillers, he says, “are virtually interchangeable, for the environment and legend are important above everything else. It was an independent path, very entertaining, but not as demanding of Melville himself.”

Always False

Indeed, the films generally feel sublimely calm, both utterly in control of their genre mechanics and yet composed to the point of abstraction. In Le Samourai, Delon is a lone contract killer who has both the police and his employers on his trail after there’s an eye witness to one of his assignments; the film has an almost unequaled sense of cool, distanced fatalism. Le Cercle Rouge widens the parameters to include Gian Maria Volonte and Yves Montand, teaming up with Delon to carry out a big jewel robbery, again with the law closing in. Not quite as coolly insinuating as its predecessor, and not quite tapping the same philosophical dimensions, the film is nevertheless a fascinating creation of considerable scope, striking me at various points as being the Heat of its day.

In reading the material accompanying the DVD’s, and reading a little bit elsewhere on Melville (as for many other things, I highly recommend, he starts to strike me as one of those directors whose claims (or disclaims) for his own films should not be taken entirely seriously, and may as well have been delivered while winking at the interviewer from behind those dark glasses (Le Samourai opens with a quote from the Japanese Book of Bushido, which turned out to have been made up by the director). This isn’t so uncommon among old-time filmmakers – Howard Hawks, whose avoidance of sentiment and affinity for depicting men defined by what they do came to mind several times while watching these films, is the all-time great example. But what about this line of Melville’s for a head-spinner: “I am careful never to be realistic…What I do is false. Always.”

Depending how narrowly or broadly one chooses to read that statement, it might mean something, or might merely be a mundane acknowledgment of something basic about cinema. And I think that’s at the heart of the films’ mystique: they’re simultaneously highly precise and considered, depicting events such as police interrogations (in Le Samourai) and the heist in Le Cercle Rouge with virtually real-time fastidiousness, but they never seem tethered to their particular time or place (for a while I thought Le Samourai – particularly regarding the nightclub where much of the action takes place – had qualities of an iconic 60’s film, but later I decided it was barely identifiable as belonging to the decade at all). Regardless of those modern conveniences in his new car, Melville seems repelled by the bric-a-brac of gesture and expression that we recognize with hindsight as belonging to a certain fashion.

Impossibility Of Love

Critic Tom Milne wrote that the key themes of Melville’s work are the “impossibility of love, of friendship, of communication, of self-respect, of life itself.” I watched Le Samourai the day after rewatching Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, and the contrast was fascinating – an intently regimented, analyzed physical and moral space in Bresson’s film followed by something much cooler and resigned and more linear (although both films have in common that the protagonist’s striving is somehow psychically incomplete in the absence of the law as an intervening force). I think it’s likely that one could watch Melville’s films in proximity to those of many other directors, and glean something new from them every time. I hope I work my way through his other works, but if it turns out I stop at these two, I'll still feel thrilled by the encounter.

(2011 postscript - the majority of Melville's other films are also on DVD now; I've seen them all; they're all as great!)

Truer Grit

The first film version of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit, made in 1969, is a “classic” of sorts, but it was never much more than a romp, standing out from John Wayne’s flabby crop of late pictures only because it somehow rose from the pack to get him his Oscar. Almost any of the movies he made for John Ford and (especially) Howard Hawks would have been a more deserving vehicle – Wayne was capable of real subtlety and nuance, but director Henry Hathaway took the easiest route through every scene. The film slides entertainingly along of course, drawing on a strong basic premise, a cast (including Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper) with enough hindsight resonance of its own, and nice (if, again, indifferently photographed) scenery. But it rarely hints at the artistry that reportedly characterizes Portis’ work.

The Coen Brothers

The Coen Brothers’ True Grit specifically isn’t a remake of the film, but rather a return to the book. The plot is the same: a teenage girl, Mattie Ross, sets out to find the man who killed her father, employing veteran US marshal Rooster Cogburn to track him down and then stubbornly insisting on going with him to see the job done; a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, is on the man’s trail as well.

I’ve acknowledged here before that the Coens aren’t too prominent in my own cinematic scheme of things; I’ve seen all their films, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt the desire to see any of them twice (except maybe The Big Lebowski, for the same reasons most people watch that one again). I found the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men affected and borderline boring, and their most recent A Serious Man, while very skillfully mocking the notion of transferable meaning, duly ended up pretty meaningless. Ironically, I preferred the one that came in between, Burn after Reading, essentially another riff on the subject of how lightweight everything is, but powered by greater peppiness and an evocative Washington setting. I suppose the Coens are good at suggesting a particular thing (life itself, or a subset thereof) may be bleaker or more nonsensical or whatever than we customarily think of it as being, but their films therefore feel in a sense like endless subtractions from what we started with. Which just isn’t that galvanizing.

Stripping Away

Their version of True Grit takes a different tack on things. Whether or not they spent much time thinking about the first film, it’s as if they set out to chip away the excess paint and ornamentation and to reclaim the original, darkly beautiful craftsmanship (I was surprised how much of the dialogue I remembered from the first film, but it rings very differently here). Hathaway’s version opened with the Ross family and dramatized the father’s murder; the Coens dispense with all of that in a voice over, commencing directly with Mattie’s arrival to claim her father’s body and to ensure justice is done. The earlier version took more time to set up the Cogburn character, placing him in a comic living arrangement with a Chinaman and a cat; here the Chinaman is barely glimpsed and the cat is absent. And so on.

The reclamation culminates in a radically different final passage (readers wary of spoilers should stop here). In both versions, the job gets done, but Mattie is bitten by a rattlesnake. Wayne’s Cogburn rushes her to the nearest doctor, later seeing her fully recover to pay his fee (and a bonus for saving her life) and then accompanying her home to the family burial plot, where she says she’ll mark out a space for him. Declaring broadly that he’s not ready for it yet, he rides heroically away. In the new version, Cogburn still (barely) delivers her to the doctor, but her voice over informs us that when she woke from her coma (having lost an arm) he was gone, never claiming his fee; she receives an invitation years later to visit him at a travelling show, but he dies before she arrives, and she buries the body in the family plot.

In other words, any sense of triumph and celebration is extinguished; justice is done, but grimly and at a price. LaBoeuf and Cogburn simply pass out of the film (which somewhat reminded me of the protagonist’s startling off-screen demise in No Country for Old Men). The film doesn’t debunk notions of courage and fortitude – both men indeed demonstrate their grit at various times - but it’s skeptical of personal myths (early on, we see Cogburn skeptically cross-examined while giving testimony, and he in turn pokes at LaBoeuf’s stories, and then survives long enough to become a carnival attraction). Jeff Bridges’ interpretation of Cogburn is far less ingratiating than Wayne’s, and the film holds him at a greater remove. Likewise, Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie much more starkly than Kim Darby did (the contrast between Matt Damon and Glen Campbell likely speaks for itself), and the final glimpse of the older Mattie confirms she’ll evolve into a stiff, isolated woman.

Such Small Portions

Surrounding all of this, the Coens provide none of the filigree we might expect from them; one could easily take the film to be directed by someone else, such as the Tommy Lee Jones who made The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. At this point I could get drawn into a reviewer’s version of the joke about the women who complain that the food is awful, and such small portions: notwithstanding my reservations about the Coens, I guess I initially felt some disappointment there wasn’t more of them here.

But on greater reflection, I think this may be their most mature version of the theme I referred to above. Their True Grit isn’t in the least affected or forced; they didn’t cut off the Henry Hathaway flabbiness merely to replace it with their own elaborations. This restraint supports a subtle but surprisingly comprehensive portrayal of a country and an infrastructure in formation. Already, law enforcement is tangled in competing jurisdictions and priorities; trade and commerce is a fully developed trap for the unwary. The bickering between Cogburn and LaBoeuf about their past and current allegiances feels harder-edged than in the first film. And although for now concepts of legality and individual rights are in their formative stage at best, the epilogue – again - establishes the imperfectly assimilated Rooster as a dying breed.

These concepts aren’t new of course, but True Grit suggests the Coens might be profitably evolving into a more soberly diagnostic or forensic vein. Of course, executing this project in a purely historical setting, and one well suited such stripping-down, is one thing. I wonder if they can do it in a contemporary setting.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Western Morality

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2005)

I have much affinity with commentators who wondered about the discrepancy between the huge outpouring of support for the Indian Ocean tsunami victims, and the relative lack of resources we make available for more endemic forms of deprivation. I saw Colin Powell on Meet The Press, ably handling the dumb questions about whether the United States responded quickly enough (neither Bush nor Martin deserved this sententious, hindsight-driven rap), and I was intrigued by the simplicity of his formulation: of course the United States would do what it had to do, he said, because this was a matter of people suffering. But I doubt there's a clear moral distinction between the lives lost or devastated in Indonesia or Sri Lanka, and the millions in Africa who die even more dreadfully or survive even more marginally. I think the support for the current crisis is wonderful, but it has its illustrative dark side in showing how our collective morality relies on easy identification. I think the tsunami constituted a narrative that played to Western dreams of upward mobility, family, property values and lush recreation; whereas Africa allows us no such point of entry. It is simply beyond comprehension; huge, terrible, deprived.

Hotel Rwanda

I’ve read some criticism of Terry George’s film Hotel Rwanda for its reliance on a single atypical protagonist, albeit that the story is based on fact. Don Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, a house manager at an upscale Rwandan hotel. At the start of the film we see him running round procuring fine cigars and alcohol for guests and instructing others on how to grease the wheels; he ingratiates himself with army chiefs and other power figures, figuring he’s building up personal capital for the future, a wise move in such a volatile country. When the 1994 genocide explodes, Cheadle throws the hotel open to hundreds of refugees, hopeful that this will be a short term haven until Western troops restore order. But as Western disregard becomes clear, he finds himself as the refugees’ only possibility of survival.

In the film’s most moving scene, Western soldiers escort European nationals onto the buses that will take them away, while the abandoned Rwandans look on. A further party of refugees arrives, led by white priests and nuns believing they can lead their charges to safety. Cheadle is breathtaking in his businesslike control of the situation, disabusing the white protectors of their illusions just as he’s discarded his own, separating the groups into the privileged whom he herds onto the bus, and the dispossessed; he’s grasped that for the Rwandans to have any hope of survival, they must first cast off the illusion of external intervention (would this be any different in the wake of George W. Bush’s new proclaimed commitment to “freedom”?).

When the buses drive away, there’s a sombre shot of the assembled Rwandans looking on in the rain. But to return to the common criticism, Cheadle stands in front of the others, and then an aide comes from the hotel to cover his head with an umbrella. The image stamps his leadership and authority, and while that’s valid in the context of the film, it also marks a convention that’s disappointing no matter how well executed, that our primary sympathies are localized to the immediate concerns and experiences of a few people, potentially diluting our sense of the broader issues.

Commercial Necessities

Still, I guess it’s a commercial necessity, and Hotel Rwanda probably negotiates it as well as any film. It’s disappointing that so much of the film depends on Cheadle using his wits to negotiate a series of narrow escapes, and when we’re told at the end that almost a million people were massacred, it only underlines the arbitrariness of our submission to the dynamic of a specific personal crisis. This problem seems particularly acute at the film’s ending, when two family members who were feared lost are discovered in a refugee camp. But I think George is sensitive to the fact that the uplift of this rediscovery constitutes just one of many stories, many of which ended far less happily, and his camera does not make the mistake of reducing surrounding refugees to mere extras. We identify with the immediate personal fulfillment, while remaining aware of (sad to say) its relative immateriality.

In this sense, if memory serves, Hotel Rwanda is far less objectionable than a film like Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, in which the film’s self-righteous nobleness of purpose is odious both on its own terms and, in particular, when refracted so melodramatically through an inappropriate focal point (in that case, a film supposedly about apartheid, choosing to spend most of its efforts on the personal travails of a white journalist).

In my summary above, I avoided using the terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi,” but obviously these definitions are inherent to what took place. The Cheadle character is a Hutu; his wife and most of their neighbours are Tutsis. Historically, the Tutsis formed the Rwandan ruling class and the Hutus were subservient, and this structure was reinforced by the Belgian colonizers (the film suggests in one dialogue that the Belgians almost arbitrarily created the two divisions, based on their own notions of desirable physical characteristics, but that seems to be a slight overstatement). Hutu rule started in the 1960’s but with frequent ethnic conflict, and when the president was killed in a plane crash in 1994, the genocide erupted.

People’s Choice

Whatever the West’s measure of culpability for these events may be, it’s clear that its response in 1994 was craven and cowardly, and continues to undermine any proclamations of global citizenship or moral leadership in other areas. In Canada, of course, the main focus of this failure has been General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN peacekeeping force, broken by the disregard of his superiors and by his inability to intervene. He’s represented in the film by Nick Nolte (one of my favourite actors, but perhaps not best utilized here). Overall, the film is an effective enough indictment of the West’s role. (It also includes the pathetic US State Department news conference where a spokeswoman dances around the phrase “genocide.”)

Hotel Rwanda won the People’s Choice Award at last year’s Toronto film festival, which places it in a questionable tradition of uplifting crowd-pleasers like Life Is Beautiful and Whale Music. I think the film is more rigorous than that though. It’s a humanist work of course, but aware of its own compromises as such. Director Terry George is an Irishman who was arrested in the 1970’s on suspicion of IRA-related activity; he wrote In the Name Of The Father and dealt with similar material in his directing debut Some Mother’s Son. These are credible political credentials that don’t seem to have softened too much as his career moved toward Hollywood.

Compared to an indigenous African film like Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade, the film has a limited sense of Africa – you don’t feel the air, the heat, the culture, the poverty. But in the circumstances, the film is probably as good as one could possibly have hoped for. As I’ve pointed out, its challenges to the audience are compromised, but I think they’re clear enough to sweep aside one notion – that writing the occasional cheque for disaster relief, even a big one, will absolve the Westerner’s moral obligation to the rest of the world.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Incoherent and intolerable...

I don’t know if I’d find any filmmaker harder to write about with any degree of concision than Jean-Luc Godard. I consistently return to his films more than almost anyone else’s, but seldom feeling I’ve engaged adequately with them. They are, by any measure, “difficult” – assessed as narratives it’s often unclear what’s happening, or what it represents; the films pose a deliberate challenge to our concentration. Godard sees the complexity in everything – sexual relations, human interactions, politics, language, thought, cinema – although his focus, and the severity of his engagement, have varied over the long span of his career. His work doesn’t eschew beauty or sensual pleasure – actually he’s been responsible for some of the most gorgeous imagery I can recall – but even as he satiates our senses, he’s likely to criticize us for our unthinking capitulation. He’s one of the century’s great compilers of aphorisms, but they contradict and confuse as much as they illuminate.

Jean-Luc Godard

80 years old now, he may still be best known for his first film, A bout de souffle (Breathless), which at the time seemed to exemplify the freshness of the French New Wave. Many of his earlier films starred his gorgeous wife Anna Karina, and draw poignantly on their decaying relationship. But the Godard of the last forty years has usually been a sterner taskmaster. Numero Deux, made in 1975 – which I select from the pack only because it happens to be the last one I rewatched – has the sense of probing the very heart of how meaning is created and transmitted in a fraught economic and cultural time, portraying the nuclear family as a near-repulsive wasteland, excavating squandered historical possibilities, seeming to suggest cinema may contribute to our collective redemption, but without any false romanticism about the likelihood of its success. The film, I suppose, is depressing, but only in that apprehending what we’ve made of ourselves allows nothing else.

Godard won an honorary Oscar last year, but it’s a real shame that the occasion did very little to prompt a broader appreciation of his achievement, in particular because commentators got sidetracked by reporting his (at best) ambiguous attitude toward Judaism (which seems undeniable, but also isn’t exactly news to those paying attention, and anyway says nothing about the films except to emphasize their unreliability as objective diagnosis, which in any event was never in doubt). This is Now’s Norman Wilmer on his new work Film Socialisme: “incomprehensible, incoherent and intolerable…hollow, lacking the emotional immediacy of his greatest work.” Which, like much of what one might say about Godard, may already represent falling into a trap: what is “emotional immediacy” in cinema if not the drug that dulls our awareness, facilitating our surrender to the governing ideology?

Film socialisme

It’s divided into three broad sections – the first on an ocean liner, the second rural, the third a collage of political and filmic reference points. There’s little in the way of conventional narrative, and in any event, the film only subtitles a fraction of the conversation. It contains some pristine isolated moments, but at other times looks rough and low-grade. I don’t know if I’d say I enjoyed it exactly (and I wouldn’t like to bet the other eight people in the audience did either) but again nothing about the film suggests we’re meant to. Instead, I think, Godard intends to lead us into the desert at the far edge of understanding and identification and even tolerance, forcing us to our knees, in the hope the impact may open our eyes and allow us to take our first steps into the light.

The film closes by declaring that if the law is not just, then justice before the law; immediately undercut by a final “no comment.” Godard, I think, no longer trusts himself, no matter anyone else, to change the world by telling people things – his films used to overflow with intellectual one-liners and analyses and statistics, but Film socialisme has the sense of such agitation having reached the end of its tether, where even token coherence barely emerges from human chaos. The film still retains some hope I think for cinema and image-making, but without any youthful idealism – contrasting the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin with scenes of the modern-day steps themselves, it seems to be positing how even our established triumphs of evocation and representation only lead us away from productive engagement. And yet the film doesn’t feel defeated – it has moments of tenderness and delight, and if the context for those remains unclear, then perhaps that’s a comment too on the bankruptcy of the social contract that generates our perceived pleasures. In other words, if we view the world as anything other than incomprehensible, incoherent and intolerable, it’s only because we’re insulated from it all, floating deadeningly along on our ideological ocean liner.

How Do You Know

It’s just out of sheer perversity, really, that I tack on some words about James L Brooks’ How Do You Know onto the end of an article about Godard (I don’t know if Godard ever saw a Brooks film, but you’d have to guess he’d be unimpressed by it). Brooks is no master of cinematic writing, and if his work is at all analytical, it’s confined to analyzing what seems most pressing from the plush vantage of a Beverly Hills mansion. His achievement, I suppose, is in persuading us to take such laborious fluff seriously, and by that measure he has an impressive batting average: three Oscars (and four for his actors, including two for Jack Nicholson) from just six movies.

The secret sauce is missing this time though, since How Do You Know is remarkably uninteresting and misjudged. It turns on a team USA softball player needing to move on with her life, living on and off with a millionaire baseball player while flirting with a fired executive accused of securities fraud. The film intends, I suppose, to reflect on the mysteries of relationships, on the minor adjustments and internal reorientations required in charting one’s optimum course in life. But to say the least, it’s a halting and trivial treatment of this theme. The actors are mostly miscast and then poorly directed to boot; of the stars, Owen Wilson as the empathy-challenged baseball player is the only one demonstrating a vaguely coherent comedic approach to the role. Reese Witherspoon, sad to say, comes across as a total pill, and Paul Rudd exudes gooey sensitivity to a degree rendering him implausible as a participant in either human or financial commerce.

I did find it intriguing how much time the Witherspoon and Rudd characters spend riding the bus (in this context a major concession toward social realism). But if not actively intolerable, How Do You Know is, in all the ways that count, incomprehensible and incoherent, and for no productive purpose.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Immaculate Suffering

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2009)

James Gray’s Two Lovers may sound conventional and inherently minor, but I was enthralled by it. Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard, living with his parents in a New York Brighton Beach apartment, working in their dry cleaning business, dabbling in photography on the side. On the same day he tries and fails to kill himself, he meets Sandra, also a dry-cleaning heiress, who quickly falls genuinely in love with him. He sleeps with her and manifests all signs of entering into a real relationship, but meanwhile obsesses over Heather, a neighbour (Gwyneth Paltrow) tortured in turn over her affair with a married man.

Two Lovers

Put that way, it sounds like a classic choice between responsibility and recklessness, not so far removed from the virgin or the whore. It seems plain to me, and rather shockingly so, that Leonard really doesn’t love Sandra at all, or perhaps even particularly like her. He seduces her on impulse, almost certainly thinking of the other woman (as they lie in bed afterwards, the camera drifts away through the window and traverses the building towards Heather’s apartment); he disregards her, breaks appointments, and seems increasingly willing to cause her immense pain apparently without even registering it. The cruelty is all the more striking since Leonard’s past suicidal depression flows from a failed engagement, and at other times he’s remarkably empathetic, playing the idealized (implicitly, perhaps, gay) male confidant to Heather. It’s certainly one of the sharpest recent films about the human (particular male, I guess) capacity for compartmentalization. Phoenix perfectly pulls together Leonard’s complexities; it’s probably his best performance (and by the way, my money says he’s just teasing us with all the recent weird stuff) – the same might go for Paltrow too.

At the same time, Two Lovers has the feeling of a profound existential mystery. The elements of Leonard’s life are vividly rendered: the cluttered apartment, looking like a Jewish heritage museum and smelling, as Heather mentions (as if we couldn’t guess) like mothballs; the dry cleaning milieu; Leonard’s photographs, mostly of desolate urban landscapes; the Rear-Window like use of the building’s topography; rickety Brighton Beach contrasted with the gleaming promise (no matter how false) of high-end Manhattan, where Heather works; text messages and ring tones and Internet searches. The film is extremely meticulous (some might find it lumbering) in charting all of this; as arbitrary and ill considered as Leonard’s actions might be, there’s a strong feeling of predestination, almost like a heavily displaced version of Antonioni’s The Passenger. It’s further flavoured by the pervasive sense of arrested development – the protagonists (or the actors anyway) are all in their 30’s, but still either living with their parents or at least dominated by them, implicitly having let too much time and too many options get away from them already.

This culminates in a superb ending where, depending on your reading, Leonard either finally attains some rationality and maturity, or else utterly loses his soul. Or, of course, both. Gray’s last film We Own The Night had lots of points of interest, but the logistical demands of the sprawling melodrama seemed to drag things down, and it was hard to grasp the director within it. With Two Lovers he finds, like so many fine filmmakers before him, that there’s frequently greater profundity in the small machinations of conventional lives than in trying to save the world.

Shall We Kiss?

There are only a few weeks a year when a big-star American film is substantially more scintillating than a French one on vaguely similar lines, but this is one of them. Un baiser, s’il vous plait (Shall We Kiss), written and directed by Emmanuel Mouret, stars Mouret as well as a man whose platonic long-time friend (Virginie Ledoyen) agrees to sleep with him to help him over a bad patch. Unexpectedly, they develop the hots for each other, then decide they’re truly in love, but she won’t move in with him until her quietly loving husband is set up with someone else. This is all in flashback, told over dinner by a woman to a man she just met, and from whom, she suspects, just one kiss might set off a similar narrative.

It’s a sterile film, consisting for long stretches of contrived, stilted exchanges between misdirected actors; I’ve never seen Ledoyen so dull in particular. It does have some structural interest, evolving in a modestly unexpected, and moderately bleak, direction. But Mouret just doesn’t evidence any intuitive feel for the complexity of human interactions; it often feels like a computer program carried out a big chunk of the behind-the-camera responsibilities. Well, maybe that applies to some of the acting too. All of that said, if you like this kind of French stuff (and I do), this is probably the kind of thing you like.


Hunger is the first film by artist Steve McQueen, and it’s a remarkable debut. The setting is Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in the early 80’s. A group of Republican prisoners, mere criminals in the eyes of the British government, insist on obtaining political status. They protest by refusing all hygiene, and later through a series of carefully coordinated hunger strikes.

The film is wrenching at times: the beatings by the guards and the ultimate starvation of the lead martyr Bobby Sands are as painful to watch as in a documentary. But it also resembles an immense multi-faceted art installation, with numerous points of entry and exit. The first ten minutes or so focus on one of the prison guards, unflinching in carrying out his brutal duty, but bleeding an inner sense of loss and fear. The next twenty minutes belong to two other prisoners, before it later shifts to Sands. A long central conversation between Sands and a Catholic priest suggest a different formal and tonal road not taken. The film sometimes recalls one of Kubrick’s filmic labyrinths (The Shining or even 2001) but without ever bastardizing the potency of the central human experience.

McQueen also brings to this a tough-minded awareness of how the extremes of human suffering and ugliness shimmer with iconographic possibility. The ultimate example, the crucifixion, is referred to several times here, and no question there’s a knowingly Messianic aspect to some of the captives’ suffering. In that exchange I mentioned, the priest’s upper hand on rationality seems merely facile set against Sands’ burning, primal conviction. Even the prisoners’ most self-debasing behaviour, such as their excrement-covered cell walls, show an attention to composition; perhaps the most compelling proof that theirs is an act of principled objection rather than savagery.

In the end though, Hunger is a serious work of historical reconstruction, for example putting up a closing series of captions (as would a more conventional film) reminding us of the grim facts. Even here, McQueen’s judgment is immaculate in refusing to draw too explicitly the links from the hunger strikers’ sacrifice to later peace-process breakthroughs. Startlingly well balanced, his film uses their story in immense, audacious ways, without getting tangled up in political or artistic grandstanding.