Immersion into the Work of Steve McQueen

What typifies Steve McQueen’s work in film and how does McQueen import those distinctive features of his artwork into his first narrative feature? A degree of expressionism suggests an answer which is applicable to many of his films.

A few years ago the Art Institute of Chicago had a retrospective installation of Steve McQueen films, one of the most all-encompassing looks at his work. Ultimately, though, I was frustrated by the lack of an exhibition DVD and was stuck with a paper program. The majority of McQueen’s work is site specific. His most powerful works have to be projected floor to ceiling, or require two projectors to display superimposed slides, or are built into custom furniture. You could hardly get the effect of McQueen’s films outside the gallery.

Nevertheless, McQueen’s first narrative feature, Hunger (2008), conjures the sort of abstract expressionistic effect of his installation films. That is Hunger often strikes at the audience in a manner that is comparable to McQueen’s installation films. Bolstered by techniques typical of narrative film, Hunger conjures much of the same experience of a gallery, like an engrossing closeness which flies in the face of the realism McQueen is known for. Although Hunger represents a departure for McQueen from the art world to Hollywood, compared to his other mainstream films, Shame (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), Hunger is distinctive because it relies on expressionistic, experimental techniques which McQueen has abandoned.

Three Darks in Red (1958) is a color field painting by Mark Rothko, an exemplar of mid-centrury abstract expressionism.

There are two key filmmaking techniques which create the abstract expressionism of Hunger which can be counterposed with the techniques relied on in Shame and 12 Years a Slave. First McQueen uses abstract expressionistic visual elements. There are shots which rely on the visual interest and the emotional impact of textures, color fields, and to some degree gesture. Second, Hunger loads these visual elements with choice reaction shots and draws attention to minute aspects of a performance with negative space. McQueen primes his audience for mirroring a reaction to fairly abstract visuals. These approaches are overlooked compared to a stunning long take which is now a hallmark of McQueen’s films.

Color Fields

Hunger follows a 1981 hunger strike among Irish Republican prisoners in Belfast, and it’s known for a breakout performance from Michael Fassbender. Hunger is notable as strong social realism, it shows the realities of the prisoner’s lives and, doesn’t shy away from depicting very realistic violence and conditions of the protests. For Fassbender’s part, he lost 33 pounds for the role.

Realist as it may be, the most affecting shots for me in Hunger are intensely nondescript. McQueen is a minimalist filmmaker, but he isn’t often seen as an expressionist. Minimalism and expressionism are compatible, but the two don’t get applied together to filmmakers often, and less so with the more exclusive labels like realism and narrative drama. Nevertheless, in Hunger there are shots throughout which are traditionally abstract expressionistic in the sense that these shots are dominated by color and textural elements rather than being obviously figurative.

When I watch Hunger many of the most memorable shots are ones which are essentially color fields. The most prominent of these shots prefaces the introduction of Fassbender’s Bobby Sands, and it features a sort of circular motif rendered in what is supposed to be feces, part of a no wash protest.

The cell wall in Hunger (2008) reflects color field paintings.

The circular gesture on the wall is highly suggestive, but above this is an image which swallows the viewer up. Interestingly, this shot of the cell wall also effectively conjures the experience of standing next to one of McQueen’s floor to ceiling installation films. It’s large, scatological, implies a gesture, and above all, on its own, is ineffably moving.

There are a number of other, similar shots which rely on materials being shown not as obviously representational but more in relative abstraction. For instance, in one scene where chamber pots are emptied under cell doors, the audience relies on the context of the narrative to understand what it is that creates an otherwise abstract pattern on the floor.

This shot of liquid on the ground from Hunger (2008) is more similar to Jackson Pollock paintings than to conventional social realist filmmaking.

Reaction Shots

Rather than leave an image overly ambiguous, McQueen uses the collision of shots, the narrative montage of Hunger, to impact his audience further with his expressionistic imagery when it arrives. Narrative provides a much needed context for abstract shots and set pieces. There are two key elements at play in McQueen’s use of highly abstract images in montage, reaction shots and negative space.

For instance, preceding the shot of the cell wall, McQueen sets up the moment with a reaction shot of a man in a hazmat suit in a brief moment of shock at what he’s seeing. Paired with the shorter lens and movement towards the camera this becomes a pretty unambiguous albeit subtle statement. Taking off the plastic mask manifests a gestural element in itself, another key aspect of abstract expressionist art. This reaction to the cell wall hits its mark pretty well and precedes the audience’s feeling of shock and awe at an image which is otherwise hard to characterize.

Even showing just the actor’s eyes, Steve McQueen primes an emotional response to an abstract frame in Hunger (2008).

Second, and less buried in the edit, is McQueen’s stylish use of the negative space created by these fairly abstract designs and textures. Using a lot of negative space in the frame draws attention to the minute details of this film. In this case, when McQueen uses an abstract visual for negative space, generally the audience gains a high degree focus and a vast sense of scale.

As the figure in the hazmat suit approaches the cell wall with a power washer, the audience is overwhelmed by the scale and tenacity of the abstract image. The moment elevates the sense of awe already generated in this scene. The figure in the hazmat suit appears stark against the wall. It grabs one’s attention.

Hazmat suit and cell wall together conjure a sense of scale similar to installation films.

The command of attention is the most powerful aspect of using negative space. As a minimalist, McQueen does everything he can to direct attention to the one or two important aspects of a given frame. For instance, when Fassbender lies on the floor against matte black, McQueen draws attention to the minute details of the performance. Throughout McQueen doesn’t over complicate Hunger in the visuals, or the edit, or in any other aspect by using similar shots.

Throughout their collaboration, Steve McQueen has found creative ways to highlight the greatest subtleties in Michael Fassbender’s performances. In this shot from Hunger (2008) the expansive black floor directs attention to strained muscles around Michael Fassbender’s eyes and mouth as he rolls over in pain.

Long Takes

The paradigm example of avoiding unnecessary cinematic elements can be summed up in the old maxim “never cut unmotivated.” Hunger deploys this maxim with a 17 minute, static long take. In such a take, again, the exacting details are really laid bare because they are open to a great deal of scrutiny. There’s time to consider the performances.

Somewhat disappointingly though, the long take is the most purely narratively driven device McQueen uses here, rather than the techniques which intimate his abilities to use abstraction and expressionism. Disappointing only in this case because it doesn’t reflect McQueen’s other abilities as a filmmaker when it comes to framing action and conjuring emotion, but moreover because it has become something of a director trademark in his mainstream films. Hunger has the most stark and arguably most powerful long take in any of McQueen’s films, nevertheless, it is the most obvious technique used in Hunger which carries over into Shame and 12 Years a Slave.

Nevertheless, I think that there are some fairly distinct differences in the quality between the long take that makes up the middle part of Hunger and particularly the long takes which characterize 12 Years a Slave, McQueen’s most widely seen film. The difference between these uses revolves around the sense of immersion in the scene. Again, there’s a lot of emotional manipulation coming through, but a fundamental difference of approach between long takes in Hunger and 12 Years a Slave stand out more than their similarities. In essence the difference is between one locked down tripod two-shot in Hunger and a number of what are essentially tracking shots in 12 Years a Slave.

In Hunger the audience is really left to ponder much of the character interactions and the details in the performances. The scene is understated. The cut, which moves from a wide two-shot into an extreme close-up of a pack of cigarettes, isn’t jarring but it’s sudden and highly contrasting. The narrative moment is one of punctuation. Indeed, the remaining minutes of Hunger are already determined. At this point McQueen is only introducing a new stylistic flourish which typifies the last 30 minutes or so of the film.

The long take in Hunger (2008) lets the audience take in details in the performances like how the actors hold their cigarettes.

By contrast the static shots of corridors, walls smeared with feces, and a bludgeoned Bobby Sands swell to engulf the audience in Hunger with little or no camera movement to provide a sense of space. As described above, the gestural and textural elements are more evocative of an ineffable emotion than provocative for their formalist content. Paired with reaction shots that McQueen is open to in a narrative film, these more expressionistic shots are fairly unambiguous to a savvy viewer. These techniques, like the long take in Hunger, draw attention to detail. In these ways Hunger immerses viewers, expressionistic shots paired with loaded reactions, and long takes which demand scrutiny draw the audience in to an otherwise clinical film. It’s not unlike having your field of vision immersed by standing at the foot of a floor to ceiling projection.

Long takes in 12 Years a Slave (2013) are no less character driven, but often track action to create an immersive geography.

12 Years a Slave uses long takes to immerse the audience, but the quality is rather different. Here, long takes conjure the experience of brutal action and of a specific place. These shots move around through rooms in a house or around the stake in the yard in a way that isn’t documentarian so much as it is highlighting the specificity and often the figurative qualities of this time and this place. Additionally the approach makes 12 Years a Slave a powerful period drama, but only with some reflection along the lines of asking “how many houses looked like that?” and “how many times was this same brutality wrought on another individual?” 12 Years a Slave is specific and immersive, but highly figurative which is a departure from Hunger. Shame falls somewhere in between.

Back to the Gallery

Seeing McQueen’s installation films, they are stark but also fairly expressive, much like Hunger. Many of his films are inaccessible, either literally because they are not shown outside a gallery like one at the Art Institute, or more on principle because they are disorientating and often explicit in content. But seeing all of McQueen’s work offers a sense of what this artist is working towards, which is to wrap an audience up in some kind of aesthetic experience.

Thus, a key feature of McQueen’s work comes with being immersive. Standing in the presence of a floor to ceiling projection of one of his installation films is simply an “I can’t explain it and I can’t look away from it” dive into a moving picture. Watching Hunger is really the closest film there is to that experience. Hunger is at times inexplicable, often expressionistic, mesmerizing but also cold and explicit. These qualities, a contrast between being detached but also affecting, typify McQueen’s work.

Shame (2011) uses negative space and a wandering camera movement together.

Shame is far and away McQueen’s literally most explicit film. It is, after all, one of the most noteworthy NC-17 releases in recent years. Shame is also a movie which surrounds the audience with emotion and occasionally with expressive shots mostly clarified by how sexually explicit the content is. For better or for worse, but by no means undermining the brilliance of McQueen as a director in the gallery or in theaters, Shame also indicates the movement away from what really establishes McQueen as a brilliant artist.


Author: Peter Hogenson has been writing about film for ten years, most recently as a student at the University of Minnesota and as the Editorial Intern at Facets.

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