Having a body in the films of Steve McQueen inevitably leads to misfortune, and little else. In Hunger, Shame, and now 12 Years a Slave, the body is a site of suffering, lingered over usually far too long to be comfortable. But the most successful of McQueen’s characters and films manage to make that body and its pain into an instrument, coming to own their unfortunate flesh.
Hunger, McQueen’s first feature, is the story of the power that unfortunate flesh can hold. (It’s about the 1981 Irish hunger strike in the Maze prison.) Fassbender pushed himself towards starvation in making the film; the limits and power of the body is not simply an aesthetic exercise, here. If defiled bodies are the only ones that exist in McQueen’s films, Fassbender’s – Bobby Sands’ – this film exists only to make that point; which applied just equally in the Ireland of the early 80s that the real Sands was starving himself to death in and for. It is an excruciating film: the long, slow shots of self-torture; the fetor of death that haunts the whole film; the awareness that there is only one way that it can end.
It established the signature brooding McQueen shot – not just on the approach of death on its central character, but (for example) one that shows a guard cleaning a corridor and lasts for far too long to be comfortable. In Hunger first and foremost, but all of McQueen’s films really, one is never short of time: often the only thing you can look at or think about during those long pauses is the usually decaying body left in front you, as you cycle through pity/disgust/sadness/boredom/irritation/distress/whatever. This move is potent in Hunger, but it sometimes goes awry. By the time of 12 Years a Slave, McQueen has mastered it.
In one scene, relatively early on, one character attempts to lynch Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He is interrupted and does not succeed – but Northup is left hanging there, feet just close enough to the mud below him to keep himself alive, but barely. Slowly children emerge from the houses behind, without blinking an eye; the prolonged torture of this scene is of gruesome and grotesque interest to McQueen’s camera – and his audience, whether they like it or not – but barely registers for those around him. Later, Northup is forced to whip a young girl by Mr Epps (Fassbender, again), the owner of the plantation on which he’s living. It lasts too long: long enough that the skin begins to leave the young girls back; long enough that you are given time to cycle through the feelings described above and more, and return back to that chain to think about why exactly you’re feeling them. (McQueen has spoken about the thinking behind the hanging and whipping scenes.)
The scenes are undeniably horrific – if you haven’t seen the film, it’s likely they’ll be the bits that will have been described to you; if you have, I imagine they haven’t left you since. And that kind of horror, over such time, shot in such minute and particular detail and with beautiful cinematography, it forces one right up against the ethics of film-watching. Because of the excess of the depiction, you’re taken well beyond pain for narrative or story-telling’s sake and into pain-as-pain and not much else. There are few people who will enjoy that; but everyone in my screening stayed to watch.
But, through this process, McQueen is doing something else. He’s giving time to the real bodies of those that have become symbols. That process was part of Sands’ aim: in choosing to force his own body to die, he became one of the most potent symbols of Irish republicanism. Every body that is given any real screen time in 12 Years A Slave is black (and enslaved) – and there are lots, including lingering meat-market sequences where (eg) Paul Giamatti’s character is selling naked slaves like livestock. Bodies are tools of others as much as our own – especially when they are made into either political statement or tradeable commodity – and McQueen returns them to their owners, through that painful, lingering process. He liberates his characters by making them human again.
Shame sits a little outside of this story. It is, funnily, the only one of McQueen’s three feature films not based on a true story, and happens in the present, or something like it. So Fassbender’s character (there he is again) begins life with none of the complicated connections to real life that the main characters of the other films have. But – for me (it’s worth noting here that I wasn’t sure about Shame, while I thought the other two films I’ve talked about were fantastic. But hopefully that doesn’t make any difference to what I’m about to say) – it’s partly that sense of body-as-body and not much else that makes Shame a little different, a little less clear.
Fassbender’s character is a sex addict. He doesn’t like himself. And so his body becomes less a tool through which larger, real concerns can be articulated or understood. Instead it becomes a channel through which his own suffering runs. It is little more – to Fassbender’s character, but also to McQueen and his audience – than an instrument to express and accentuate internal pain. He wants it to be beaten up, to be mistreated, because it will become a way of affirming that upset. That’s true of Bobby Sands, too, but while Hunger seems to propose a way that the body (for better or worse) can become a way of making a statement on its owner’s behalf, Shame‘s bodies seem instead to be making statements to the characters.
For that reason, though all of the films are in some way hopeless, the world of Shame is more nihilistic than its counterparts. Brandon (Fassbender’s character) might have the most ostensible control over what he does, but it’s actually he that’s most in thrall to the demands of his own flesh. The lingering shots here are of Fassbender’s naked body, sometimes having sex, not receiving any horrific injustice or demonstrating any special nobility. (Here, if you’re interested, are some pictures from Google Images – very NSFW.) Ireland in the 1980s and the US in the 19th century made various clear and unjust claims on the body of those living there; the present has changed its demands, and its methods. The body is still a terrible thing to have, or place to be, but Shame suggests there is little you can do about it.
It’s that which allows 12 Years A Slave to find its success: it combines the misfortune of bodily form of Shame with the kinds of noble but horrific reaction to it that can be found in Hunger. Bodies are inevitable misfortune – but the very knowledge of that is a kind of luck, one that all of McQueen’s films attempt to celebrate, grotesquely and gruesomely but powerfully, too.