What’s conjured in the mind when someone mentions Steve McQueen?
If you were born in the 80’s, probably not a whole hell of a lot.
If you were born before 1965, most likely some of the following; Vietnam era anti-hero, Bullit, The Thomas Crown Affair (actually, you probably think Pierce Brosnan for that one…hopefully not the same person who comes up now for Bond though), The Towering Inferno perhaps?
Well in all likelihood, in the coming years the aforementioned Steve McQueen will be replaced in the collective consciousness with the following Steve McQueen;
Who is this Steve McQueen?
An award winning video artist turned feature film director who dropped out of the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU because, ‘they wouldn’t let you throw the camera up in the air’.
He’s the director of the powerhouse 2008 film ‘Hunger‘.
This Steve McQueen is likely the most talented director you’ve never heard of, at least not yet.
I have no reservations saying Hunger is unequivocally one of the greatest and most unflinchingly brutal films ever produced.
Not that I need my opinion validated by critics, but they happen to resoundingly agree.
Hunger is 1981-set period piece documenting Irish republican Bobby Sands as he leads the inmates of a Northern Irish prison in a hunger strike.
Sands is played impeccably by the walking miracle that is Michael Fassbender who pulled a Christian Bale-ian weight lose feat for the role, dropping 40 pounds, made even more impressive by the fact that the film was shot in sequence, which required a 2 month shut down of production for Fassbender to drop the weight.
What’s so brutal about the film is the fact that none of the incredible violence is stylized, it’s gut-wrenchingly real in a wholly un-Tarantino way and McQueen somehow inflicts that pain viscerally on the audience.
However bold those choices were, the decision to use an unbroken 17 minute shot is what sets McQueen apart. This wasn’t a 17 minute shot rife with explosions and action like the brilliant 5 minute take in Atonement. This was a static two-shot of a conversation.
The. Exact. Polar. Opposite.
For those not in the know about film-making and directing, in principal, one shoots what’s called coverage of a scene, usually being at minimum three shots (a wide shot and a shot/reverse over the shoulder shot of a conversation scene) for editing purposes. If for nothing else, just for safety.
I watched a pre-release screening of this film with a small audience in Columbus, Ohio with McQueen introducing it and answering questions following it. In regard to the 17 minute shot, he said producers insisted/begged he shoot coverage, he gave in to their desires.
Halfway through one take of an over the shoulder shot, he yelled ‘cut’ and said he was moving on.
Don’t get it twisted, that is an assured move of extreme, unyielding confidence by a director.
His decision to do one take is brilliantly explained here.
Steve McQueen won the Camera D’or at Cannes, awarded for the best first feature film, for Hunger.
So that was 2008, in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of world, what has McQueen done lately and was all the previous just a really long introduction to the actual point of this article?
He made a new movie…and yes. But you really wanted/needed that info to get excited about his new film.
What’s of note is that Fox Searchlight picked up the film after a screening at the Telluride Film Festival knowing full well it would unquestionably be slapped with a NC-17 rating, in film lore, the kiss of death for any hope of commercial success.
The last film of note to be branded with the scarlet letter was last year’s Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams vehicle, ‘Blue Valentine‘, which was purchased by the Weinstein Company who successfully appealed the rating without having to alter the film. ‘The R rating overall makes it a broader picture’ according to a Weinstein exec.
Good for them.
Fox Searchlight president, Steve Gilula, on the other hand, thinks, ‘…NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner,” says Gilula. “The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It’s not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It’s a game changer.’
Fox Searchlight is the same company that took the difficult Aronofsky-helmed Black Swan and brought it to commercial and award show success.
A potential TV ad campaign is difficult because even if the commercial is clean in terms of content probably won’t play until late at night because of station standards.
Fox is banking on glowing reviews and award season buzz to help the movie promote itself.
Either way, this could definitely be an important turning point in film history, if Shame is able to shift the perception of ‘NC-17’ from snuff film to film for adults, we may soon see a dearth of powerful films with equally powerful images.
Not to say that in order to be successful a film must push the bounds of taste, but certain subjects, to be explored completely, need to use uneasy images not as provocateur but as medium for the message itself.
I say, bring it on.
More from Reuters
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A review from The Guardian