The unflinching intensity of Steve McQueen

Posted on Fri 3 Jan 2014
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave

Mark Cosgrove, Cinema Curator, Watershed

The work of artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen can be recognised by its unflinching intensity. In his installation Western Deep (2002) he explored mineral mining in the world's deepest mine where it takes the workers three hours travelling deep underground in cramped conditions before they start digging. In Deadpan (1997) McQueen restaged the famous visual gag that Buster Keaton performed in Steamboat Bill Jnr (1928) in which the side of a building falls around him whilst the open window perfectly frames and saves him.

In both these pieces - which were short films but shown in a loop - McQueen re-enacts the dangerous physical intensity of the miners and Keaton. The more the viewer watched, the more you became acutely aware of the danger the artist had put himself in and the more one became aware of the extreme physical daily conditions of the miners and the casual life threatening perfectionism of Keaton.

When McQueen moved in to feature filmmaking, many were sceptical of whether the conventional form of cinema would fit this most uncompromising and socially engaged of contemporary artists. His first film Hunger (2008) allayed any of those fears. The film set in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland during the height of the troubles followed one of its most infamous inmates - IRA volunteer and MP Bobby Sands - who died on hunger strike.

Hunger had all the formal intensity of McQueen's installation work - this is perhaps most apparent in the stunning unbroken 17 minute exchange between a priest and Sands. This intensity was matched by Michael Fassbender's extraordinary performance as Bobby Sands - his emaciated, pallid body captured the extreme consequences of a hunger strike.

Michael Fassbender - along with long time cinematographer Sean Bobbitt - form the nucleus of McQueen's creative filmmaking collaborations. Their next film was the forthright Shame (2011), which depicted a successful New York thirty-something advertising executive's sexual addiction. The film's explicitness and openness to exploring the topic caused controversy but those familiar with McQueen's earlier artwork can see the thread of unflinching intensity.

With his new film 12 Years A Slave (2013) Steve McQueen tackles historical slavery through an adaptation of the true story of Solomon Northup, a free born educated African American from New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. Following its premiere at September's Toronto International Film Festival, the film won both the Jury and Audience Awards. It has prompted much discussion in America where it opened on limited release in October last year with some like David Simon, creator of TV series The Wire, saying that "it marks the first time in history that our entertainment industry, albeit with international creative input, has managed to stare directly at slavery and maintain that gaze."

In a recent interview McQueen described his films as like pebbles which are thrown into a pond. It's the ripples they make that are interesting. I would like to share the impact those ripples have in and around Bristol - there are several opportunities during the run of 12 Years A Slave at Watershed for audiences to contribute their thoughts on the film:

  • Short introductions before and discussions after Sunday Matinee screenings: 14:00 on Sun 12, 19 and 26 Jan.
  • Send us a Tweet using @wshed or use the hashtag #12shed during one of our Twitter chats on Wednesday evenings (18:30-19:30, beginning Wed 15 Jan)
  • Join in at one of our informal Café/Bar discussions or post your thoughts on our notice board.

Or you can simply watch and reflect on a film of intense, emotional and compelling power.

Mark Cosgrove / @msc45