In light of director Steve McQueen’s recent surge in popularity with the release of increasingly mainstream films like Hunger and Shame, it’s worth considering McQueen’s humble yet promising beginnings as something of a documentarian with an avant-garde sensibility. Western Deep, shot in 2002, is documentary in form, but experimental in terms of its aesthetic heritage. In it, McQueen follows the quotidian underground descent of a group of miners into the three-mile abyss of South Africa’s deepest gold mine. McQueen shoots the film without the use of additional lighting, casting much of the film in near-total darkness. Only the light from the miners’ headlamps provides intermittent relief. Considered in this context, light and color become abstracted into hauntingly beautiful displays, showcasing McQueen’s ability to locate the extraordinary within otherwise everyday experiences. Similarly, nature and industry are pitted against one another in post-production; sounds from underwater creeks are juxtaposed ex post facto with the constant churning of mechanical cogs. Periods of visual clarity become moments of solace, with the soundtrack dropping out entirely. But for all the beauty found in the image itself, the picture of Man seems to vanish amidst the assemblage of light, color, and raucous noise brought on by the Machine. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s penultimate scene, in which an army of black men exercise in a mandatory step-up routine ad infinitum, with their pace dictated by the incessant drone of a wall-mounted alarm bell.
Harkening back to the films of Andy Warhol – which considered mundane activities from the indifferent vantage point of the camera – McQueen’s consideration of an ordinary “event” can be understood as being just as unsympathetic and objective as Warhol’s. However, Western Deep carves out its own place in cinema history by marrying this uniquely modern sensibility with anachronistic aesthetic elements. His use of chiaroscuro lighting, for instance, and almost “sculptural” use of sound – in the words of one critic – effectively brings the French New Wave into dialogue with the Baroque. This creates a palpable sense of tension between the radical techniques of the modern avant-garde (to which McQueen, is by his own admission, deeply indebted) and the formal compositional beauty on display in, say, Renaissance art. In this sense, what sets McQueen apart from many of his cinematic predecessors, is his willingness to portray modern subjects in an almost classical light.