Blair Mclendon, WKCR Arts Programmer and lover of obscure cinema. (Forgive the blurry iPhone photo.)
Fellow Cinephiles — here’s a chance to hear me spout off in a different medium. An interview will air tonight (September 9th) at 9:30 pm on 89.9 FM and online at wkcr.org (click on the “listen now” button in the upper right hand corner). Topics covered include Steve McQueen’s Hunger, “Slow” cinema (more satisfying than slow food), auteurism, Cassavetes, you name it.
Blair Mclendon, who invited me to be on the program, is a diehard cinephile from San Diego who is taking a class with Andrew Sarris this semester — I have to admit I’m a little jealous. Anyway, have a listen!
Steve McQueen’s Hunger comes out on DVD today from Criterion, and I can’t think of an art-house title from the past year that is more deserving of the “Criterion” treatment (including what must surely be a harrowing Blu-ray release). A video artist turned feature filmmaker, McQueen refuses to talk about his work in convenient, journalist-friendly soundbytes, or define what it’s about for the viewer. In an interview, he cites a conversation between Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard as a source of inspiration for Hunger:
“I found this interview that Godard did with Pauline Kael two days after Bobby Sands died, where Godard essentially said, “The reason why Bobby Sands is important is because he’s childish.” I got this image in my head of this child sitting at the table with some food, and the parents saying, ‘You’re not leaving this table until you finish eating it.’ The kid says no, wrongly or rightly. What time a child goes to bed, or the clothes a child wears, those things are dictated to by experience, and it’s a common situation that the only power a kid has is to refrain from eating. It’s a situation all of us know.”
I love how that one word “childish” spurs an image that allows McQueen to take a specific historical moment — the hunger strike of Bobby Sands — and translate it into a common experience. Here’s what Godard said in the actual interview (Pauline Kael is asking him about film being used a a political weapon):
JLG: …I think a good example is La Chinoise…It was made in 1967 before the 1968 events in France, before the Weatherman here, before the Baader-Meinof in Germany, or the Red Brigade in Italy. At the time it was hated by the left, who said, “These people are ridiculous.” And today, after seeing it fifteen years later, we discover that all of those people, even Bobby Sands a few days ago, are childish, and it’s because they are childish that they are important people.
“Childish” here isn’t used as pejorative — Godard seems to be using it as an adjective to encapsulate a strength of conviction, an uncompromising will, and a sense of stubborn refusal. In La Chinoise, there is a pivotal scene in which the university student Veronique has a conversation with Francis Jeanson, a leftist professor. He repeatedly questions her morals, her anger, and what he considers to be her childish revolutionary actions.
It is evident that the second part of Hunger, in which Bobby Sands confronts a priest who tries to dissuade him from becoming a martyr, is directly inspired by this train conversation. Like La Chinoise, they argue in a very long take, almost in silhouette, forcing the viewer to focus on the dialogue.
Other McQueen news: I recently dropped by his show at Marian Goodman, and despite having missed Yoko Ono by mere moments, I was a bit underwhelmed by Giardini (his film from the Venice Biennale). There is a lovely piece called Static in which McQueen circles the the Statue of Liberty from a helicopter, that transforms the tourist trap back into an object of awe and wonder. It’s a must-see for video art enthusiasts and McQueen completists.
His next project? A biopic about the Nigerian singer Fela Kuti, which will hopefully sidestep the clichés of the genre and will undoubtedly be visually and sonically arresting.
Dennis Lim’s review of Hunger in The New York Times
A nice breakdown of important moments in McQueen’s career from New York Magazine
Move over, Ryan Trecartin: Omer Fast is the current video artist taking over New York. His solo turn at the Whitney, combined with a show of recent work at Postmasters, reveal that he is eminently qualified and more than ready to undertake a feature film. Like the British video artist Steve McQueen, whose Hunger wowed the film world, Fast’s work deserves to be seen by a wider audience. His work is largely in the vein of simulated social documentary that exploits the surface effects of the Hollywood film, pushing the format to a well-tempered extreme to strengthen the irony and distance from that which it critiques. Fast doesn’t shirk from the big issues of today: the aftershocks of war and combat, refugees and displaced persons, racial stereotyping, and the tyranny of the modern police state. But the worlds that he creates are marked by reversals, distinctions, nuances and contradictions, and thus his work does not fall prey to the trap of the “issue” film. Technically accomplished, his films evoke more than they explain, in keeping with Fast’s multi-layerd approach to his subject matter. Formally Fast makes use of split screens, green screens, lush film stocks (most of his work is shot on Super-16) and exaggerated sound effects: this is film-as-artifice, all the way. Yet it is so much more than that: each film manages to probe its connections to mainstream media stereotypes, fictions of the self and nation-state, and constructions of a linear time unburdened by memory.
A still from Nostalgia, 2009. In a hypothetical role-reversed future, an English man is being interviewed for asylum in an unspecified African country.
Fast’s multi-channel pieces, taken together, are approaching feature-film length. I really do think we have the next important auteur on our hands here, and Fast’s quick ascent in the art world closely mirrors that of McQueen. Other potentially useful comparisons: he addresses social concerns similar to the Dardenne brothers. His hybrid approach resembles Isaac Julien’s melding of fiction and documentary. And he is skillful at invoking a self-reflexive critique of media discourse that adds another layer of interpretation to the narrative, like almost all the work of Amos Gitai. Omer Fast is too prodigiously talented to be confined to the white walls of the art world — let’s see his work up on the big screen.
From De Grote Boodschap [The Big Message, 2007]. A Belgium beat-boxer is a unnerving combination of both man and machine.
Holland Cotter’s review of Fast’s two shows, from The New York Times
An interview with Fast and a clip from The Casting, his tour-de force at the 2008 Whitney Biennial