Steve McQueen

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The director and artist Steve McQueen is a dizzying, demanding, daring talent, doing a rare thing in these times: making films from an adult perspective. Two excerpts follow from a new Financial Times profile by Peter Aspden, one about his allegedly irritable personality, and the other about his depiction of male sexuality in Shame.


The best way to describe the relationship between the two means of expression, he says, in a comparison he has made before, is that “the movie is the novel, and art is poetry. Not a lot of people appreciate poetry, and it is the same with art. It is a more specialised form. That’s the difference.”

But the two impulses are forever “expanding and contracting” in his mind, he says. I ask if it is difficult to shift between genres. It is the rarest of things for a video artist to convert to Hollywood film-making. “Not at all. It is not as if I am jumping into different states of mind. It is all about finding what you want to say, and then how you want to say it.” Is that very clear to him straightaway? “Oh yes. But these things are incubating in my mind for a long time. I am in 2007 right now.” I look for a hint of a smile as he says this but he appears deadly serious.

McQueen, who turns 45 this week, is routinely described as a prickly man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but I wonder if that is confusing his seriousness and unrelenting intensity for a kind of social awkwardness. He gives every impression to me of enjoying the interview process, watchful and concentrated while he is listening to the question, like a batsman steadying himself during a bowler’s run-up. When Kirsty Young brought up the same subject in a recent edition of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, asking why he was so unfairly portrayed, he replied simply: “I am a black man. I’m used to that. If I walk into a room people make a judgment. I don’t care.


He seems to relish plunging into controversial subjects, I say. Shame, his second feature film, was an extraordinarily candid view of the unheralded extremes of male sexuality. “That’s still not sorted,” he says quickly. “That is unfinished business. I really want to come back to that.” Why was that? “It is an extremely fascinating subject. But no one talks about it. Let’s get real! So many important decisions in the world are connected with the sexual appetites of important men. Whether it is JFK, or Clinton, or Martin Luther King. That is what we are. That is part of us. But sometimes people are embarrassed by their pleasures.

‘It is a huge subject. So many people came out after that film and sent me anonymous letters, a lot of thank-yous, and some crazy stuff too.’ What did women think of it, I ask? ‘I don’t know how much women know, or want to know, about men’s sexual appetites. A friend of mine went to see it with his wife, and she asked him, ‘Do those things really happen?’ And he was, like, ‘No, no, it is just a fantasy, it is just the movies.’” McQueen’s laugh suggests otherwise.•


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Steve McQueen’s brilliant 2011 drama is upsetting, unpleasant and even revolting, but it’s also subtly hopeful. It imagines a Western world in which not every antisocial behavior is meant to be celebrated, commodified, exploited, packaged, marketed and sold. Perhaps that’s still possible..

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful suit in New York City whose fancy clothes can’t cover, at least not for long, the damaged sexuality within. Prostitutes, one-night stands, Internet porn and disposable income allow Brandon to live out his every fantasy, but he’s not having any fun. He feels no satisfaction–just desperation. His computers are filled with viruses and his head with guilt.

Complicating matters is the presence of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a cabaret singer who’s similarly fucked up, who has unexpectedly come to live with him having nowhere else to go. It’s not so much that she drinks nonstop or sleeps with his creepy, married boss that bothers him, but that he is forced to stare into the mirror image of himself. And perhaps that she has greater understanding of who they are. “We’re not bad people,” she tells him. “We just came from a bad place.” Brandon knows she’s right but is helpless to change course, his spree growing ever worse.

Doesn’t it seem sometimes that Monica Lewinsky was the last American to have shame? Didn’t it hurt more than help her? Haven’t celebutantes with sex tapes profited handsomely from boldface indiscretions ever since? There must be some middle ground between people being fitted with scarlet letters and rewarded for blue films. In the world view of McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan, there is still room for the moderating forces of emotion, a possibility that we can use bad feelings to make ourselves betterWatch trailer.


My Perestroika
Robin Hessman’s uncommonly perceptive film documents the experience of a group of Russian schoolmates who came of age at the outset of Perestroika and Glasnost, that stunning period between Brezhnev’s folly and Putin’s sham, when the former Soviet Union was suddenly a cultural and political void to be filled by the will of its citizens. 

It was a heady time, but the shift left these now-middle-aged Muscovites on the other side of an odd historical chasm, having had all of the “truths” of their childhood carried away in a tidal wave of reform. Their past has been disappeared and they are forever strangers in their own home.

One of the principals, now a schoolteacher who knows the disconnect deeply, explains how difficult it is to explain collectivism and other remnants of the past to modern students with cell phones and other swag. “One of the hardest things,” she says, “is how to explain Soviet history to children.”

Equally difficult is for some of the children of Gorbachev and Coca-Cola to comprehend how their brethren can rewire themselves from communism to capitalism without missing a beat. As one explains: “What’s in their heads? I mean, how did it work in their brains that they were able to shift like that? For me, that’s a mystery.” Watch trailer.


Thoughts about other recent films now on home video:


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The race car driver as philosophical hero, realizing the mission at hand, though repetitive, is essential. Steve McQueen, Le Mans, 1971.


New DVD: Hunger

Michael Fassbender is wholly convincing as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

The British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen brings a painterly meticulousness to the bracing 2008 drama, Hunger. The movie tells the story of IRA member Bobby Sands, who died at 27 during a hunger strike that protested the treatment of Irish political prisoners in Britain’s Prison Maze.

Much of the film traces the largely wordless degradations and punishments administered to IRA members. These scenes build to a tense centerpiece in which a disapproving priest engages in an extended conversation with Sands (Michael Fassbender) about his planned hunger strike.

The effects of the deprivations on Sands’ body are depicted with grueling verisimilitude, as he becomes a bloody, emaciated Christ figure stretched upon a symbolic cross. Fassbender matches McQueen’s artistry with an excellent performance, and their creation is as enthralling to watch as it is difficult to stomach.

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