Nov 08

Just Be Thankful It Is Not Scratch And Sniff

FT10 comments • 212 views

This years winner for the Anti-Date Movie Of The Year at the BAFTA’s is already a given, Steve McQueen’s Hunger will kill that burgeoning relationship stone dead. There is nothing like a dirty protest to turn a date off. But what is interesting about Hunger is the political context of the film. History is apparently written by the winners, but what if there aren’t any winners? The reality of Northern Ireland is a bitter struggle followed by complex but on the whole civilised round table talks. Much as there isn’t a film called CONVENTION, about some white people around a table in Geneva, I am guessing we are not going to see STORMONT, or THE NORTHERN IRELAND PEACE PROCESS. So what good does Hunger do now?

In this controversial piece of op/ed in the Guardian David Cox argues that there seems something wrong about Hunger being funded by mainly British taxpayers money. Whilst I think for once the UK Film Council’s money has gone into a strikingly good film, I do have some sympathy for the argument (less so for the way in which he makes it and his views on torture). There is a feeling that it is a sop to middle class British guilt that paints Great Britain, in their guise as the English/Unionists, as the cinematic bad guys in Northern Ireland. They are the guys running the prison, they are they men in uniform and they are backed by a government. And while McQueen tries very hard to show the futility and provocation inherent in Bobby Sands and his compatriots actions, the film does spend the last twenty minutes lovingly watching someone starve themselves to death* without once referring to any of the crimes committed by the prisoners.

Its not that I am looking for balance in cinema, far from it. And perhaps the balance that these films create make up for the pretty consistent meida bias in reporting the troubles (interesting Roy Greenslade lecture from 1998 on the potential damage caused by the bias). But it will continue to be this way as the IRA and their methods and martyrs fit the cinematic myth so much better than any Unionist tale could (including the one David Cox suggests). I cannot say I ever expected James Bond to go in and sort out Northern Ireland, but even in the throes of the troubles it was hard to paint the IRA in the cinema as wholly bad guys. They are the underdogs, the individuals fighting a massed English army, the rugged individual vs the faceless mass of authority. If Irish baddies were spirited up they were usually too mad for the IRA: Tommy lee Jones in Blown Away, Sean Bean in Patriot Games or Brad Pitt in the Devil’s Own (though he may have been kicked out for a ropey accent). But if the history books are written by the winners, and if both sides have sort of won, the movies seem to be falling solidly on one side only. This isn’t surprising, we tend not to go to the cinema for a complex dissection of a very messy historical conflict. But from a retrospective view via cinema, the Brits are the Nazi’s in this one: you half expect them to break the fourth wall and wonder when they were made the bad guys (its not as if we put skulls on out uniforms!) Hunger tries to touch at some of these complexities – but even in its seventeen minute conversation sequence it is Bobby Sands talking to a Catholic priest, peaceful vs violent Republicans. I’m not sure there is an easy solution to this, though I wonder which British actor would have the balls to take up one of the toughest roles of the 20th Century in PEACE PROCESS as John Major.

*Really, really not the moment to cop a feel of your date. If you still have popcorn left you might just survive.


  1. 1
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Nov 2008 #

    as i recall tommy lee’s accent was worse than brad pitt’s

    one of the most interesting pieces we ran at S&S while i was there was a conversation between movie scriptwriter ronan bennett and the poet critic and minor indie band tompaulin on the michael collins movie

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Nov 2008 #

    also grist to this canon:
    there’s a deliriously anachronistic spaghetti western (“fistful of dynamite aka duck you sucker!”) starrin james coburn as a twinkly and lovable blue-eyed irish bomber and rod steiger as a mexican bandido — spag westerns are hard to place timewise, a kind of primeval american west dreamtime (some of them seem to encompass both the aftermath of the US civil war and the after math of the mexican revolution)

    invention of dynamite = 1864
    end of US civil war = 1865
    little big horn = 1876
    the haymarket bombing in chicago = 1886 — which is (as far as i know)* the first crypto-anarchist bombthrower outrage (though some believe it was a police provocation — certainly there was never any evidence that the anarchists tried and executed for it were a all responsible)
    the phoenix park assassinations = 1888 (emergence of fenians, viz the military wing of irish independence: weapon of choice = a dagger)
    mexican revolution = 1910

    *the palaver surrounding this established mayday as a populist radical holiday as well as the image of bomb-throwing anarchists — it’s basically an idea imported to the world from the US, which everyone then forget was born in the US

  3. 3
    Ben on 11 Nov 2008 #

    Excellent article, although I think you mean “dirty protest” rather than “process” in the opening paragraph.

    Greengrass’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ with James Nesbitt suffers from a similar problem. Whilst there’s no condoning the actions the British Army took that fateful day in 1972, a true historian of the Troubles would note that the circumstances leading up to those events in Derry no doubt contributed to the nervousness of the soldiers and those conducting the operation, a point which the Saville Inquiry is sure to take on board when it finally delivers its report.

    It’s difficult to ever imagine the British being portrayed in a sympathetic light by the cinema when it comes to Ireland. Not that we necessarily should… some of the things that we did in the name of “national security” were truly despicable. But there were bad guys on both sides of the conflict, and it’s important not to forget that when considering a film like ‘Hunger’. Sands was unquestionably a bad man who took a very courageous decision to risk his own life on behalf of his people.

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Nov 2008 #

    the long good friday (feat.bond 5.0 and plus also charlie from casualty as the ira and their allies in london) — a real outlier and weirdly fascinating as it moves out of gritty gangsta-thatcherite london realism into a dynamite-the-capitol dreamtime

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    Pete Baran on 11 Nov 2008 #

    A dirty protest is a dirty process, but point taken.

    The Long Good Friday allows the less publicised aspect of the IRA a bit of free rein, ie the organised crime aspect. Films from the Republic are much more comfortable with displaying that angle (The General, passim Dublin comedies, even Joel Schumacher’s Veronica Guerin).

    The Crying Game does its best to distract your from its Irish baddies by having an Irish goodie and a bird who is a bloke. They also do their best to hide any dodgy Irish accents with Forrest Whittaker’s appalling Cockney. Which then reminds me of For Queen And Country, only tangentally an Irish film in as much as Denzel Washington’s London squaddie is traumatised by his Ulster tour (and the Falklands). So much so his accent wobbles a bit – though of course the estates Denzel returns to will be quite similar to the ones Hunger director Steve McQueen grew up on.

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 11 Nov 2008 #

    i think we are looking at three intertwining Canons That Must Become

    i: outrage bombers as twinkly blue-eyed hollywood heroes
    ii: revolutionary agitation / crime empire — the overlap (the bond franchise as so often in advance of the game here)
    iii: a secret history of very dodgy accents

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    Izzy on 11 Nov 2008 #

    It’s the framing of these stories that makes Brits-as-bad-guys inevitable. Sands’ political conflict is concurrent with his internal conflict against his bodily instinct, and so the audience has to have to have sympathy with him for the latter to mean anything. As the internal conflict is the principal story, that sorts out the sympathies for the political one. For it to be otherwise, you’d have to make Bobby Sands so unattractive that in the internal conflict you’d want him to die – which would make for a film so grim that no-one would watch it.

    You could get a different outcome if you selected a context where the IRA is the dominant political force – one about Robert McCartney’s sisters would do that – their personal struggle against the killers is the principal conflict here, so IRA would fall inevitably into the bad-guy role the political conflict. It’s just that no-one seems to want to hear that story.

    (A similar dynamic is currently on view in the de Menezes inquest. It’s obvious to everyone that in a story about de Menezes the state’s actions are unforgiveable. But retell that story as the Hussein Osman inquest, and it immediately becomes far more difficult)

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    Pete Baran on 11 Nov 2008 #

    Spot on, yes the framing is everything. McQueen tries to muddy the waters with the prison officer protagonist (shot whilst visiting his mother in a home), but because the waters for him are already muddied with his prisoner brutality in the Manichean world of film I am not so sure how much sympathy his murder invokes (in the film world). Part of what is so good about the film is its attemopts to do all of this. We don’t even see Bobby Sands until about thirty minutes in, but the film is all about his actions.

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    Mark M on 11 Nov 2008 #

    British films being sympathetic to the Republicans go back at least as far as Odd Man Out in 1947…

  10. 10
    pete on 11 Nov 2008 #

    Yes I was going to mention Odd Man Out, which also contains much dodgy accenting: James Mason’s IRA member has a very fruity accent. Get a bit of it (and hallucinations to boot) here:

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