Harassment, bullying, torture, murder, oppression and alienation all appear in unflinching form in films by the artists Anna Odell and Steve McQueen. Axel Mörner takes a closer look at how their craft influences their approach to uncomfortable subject matter that’s often avoided by conventional film-makers
It is 1999 and I am standing in a dark room at Tate Britain in London, watching a film that is projected on one of the walls, reaching all the way to its edges. It’s in black and white with a sepia tone; it shows a man standing dead still in front of a house. Suddenly, the wall of the house falls down, but miraculously he is not hurt: there is an empty window in the wall, making it possible for him to remain unscathed. The scene is repeated over and over again, shot from different angles and with close-ups on the man’s face and shoes while the wall falls down; he hardly moves while the wall falls with full force. The film, Deadpan (1997), by (and starring) the artist/director Steve McQueen, is a re-enactment of the storm scene in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928); it lasts 4 minutes and 35 seconds.
The exhibition I am attending is of works by the four shortlisted nominees for the famous Turner Prize, which includes the controversial and media-attentive Tracey Emin. McQueen won that year, to Emin’s dismay, although her unmade bed made many appearances in the press.
The art and attitude of McQueen is apparent in his film: the artist put himself at high risk doing the stunt. He looks quite stern, not flinching at all when the brutal force comes down around him. It is a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense style that appeals to the viewer. McQueen is the kind of artist who is totally convinced and confident of his work. Being of a Caribbean descent and brought up in London there is always a discussion of race, class and uncomfortable truths in his work.
In his short film Charlotte (2004), 5 minutes 42 seconds, we see a close-up of the actress Charlotte Rampling’s eye; the image has a red tone, the kind of tone you get when you are in a photographer’s dark room with the red light lit. A finger (the director’s) moves around the eye, strokes it, but there is a creepy feeling that something is about to happen. Suddenly, the finger pokes the open eye, right on the iris. Like torture or an unpleasant occurrence that you have to take part in, you continue to watch as the eye blinks in surprise.
For Giardini (2009), a 35mm dual projection that was commissioned by the British Council for the British Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale, McQueen chose to film in the Venice Giardini (the site of the Biennale’s pavilions) during wintertime, when it was off season and everything was closed down. The stationary camera made long recordings of the abandoned pavilions, the stray dogs looking for food and details of the confetti from the city’s famous carnival. The dual projection makes for a widescreen reminiscent of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, but with different content. The scenes are beautifully composed and the takes are very long – a trademark of McQueen that he also uses in his feature films.
McQueen graduated from London’s Goldsmiths in the 1990s along with other artists from the YBA generation. Conscious of being associated with this highly visible group of artists, McQueen kept a low profile, working seriously with his films and exhibiting occasionally at prominent museums and galleries. He was unconcerned with making a name for himself in the commercial art market and securing high-paying clients, choosing instead to focus purely on what he wanted to do.
In 2008 he entered the more commercial world of feature films with the project Hunger, a story about Bobby Sands, the imprisoned IRA terrorist who led other IRA prisoners in a hunger strike at Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in 1981. For this, McQueen initiated his collaboration with the method actor Michael Fassbender, with whom he established a professional relationship, too: they both understood how the scenes should be made, as well as the importance of a serious work ethic. The film contains a series of scenes depicting brutality and violence meted out towards the prisoners who were not willing to conform to the rules. Fassbender lost a considerable amount of weight to look the part of a ragged, skinny prisoner – so much so that the crew became concerned about his health.
In creating Hunger, McQueen implemented the practice of producing long scenes with a fixed camera, which is unusual for feature films; also, there is an evident lack of dialogue in the film – it only occurs when absolutely necessary for the story.
In his second feature film, Shame (2011), Fassbender is cast as a successful advertising executive with a sex-addiction problem who appears quite disturbed and is losing control over his life. McQueen draws up a dark and sordid scenario from which there is no sign of escape for the involved parties.
The social realism continues in his third feature film, 12 Years a Slave (2013), his most ambitious project to date. It tells the true story of the free and educated Solomon Northup from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was abducted and sold as a slave in the American South in the 1840s. This time, Fassbender is cast in a supporting role, while the enigmatic Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the devastated family man in this harrowing tale. Presenting a balanced story about slavery might be a hard thing to achieve, but McQueen does a good job. Drawing heavily on his resources as a craftsman and artist he has created a truthful and realistic picture of the drama, letting the audience witness horrible wrongdoings towards the slaves on the plantation. Fassbender, meanwhile, deftly conveys the plantation owner Epps’s abhorrent attitude to fellow human beings, showing the true depths of his alcohol-fuelled, disturbed hatred. It could be easy to go totally overboard in showing the crimes carried out during this period in history, but McQueen has the ability to remain completely honest and truthful; there is almost a documentary style in this work. McQueen has put the whole important discussion of slavery on the front pages, so enlightenment will prevail. The film has since been nominated for nine Academy Awards.
Anna Odell (b. 1973), an artist residing in Stockholm, Sweden, caused a media storm in 2009, while still at Konstfack art school, when she staged a fake suicide attempt for her graduation-show work Unknown, Woman 2009-349701. Now she has made a story about alienation and harassment, again using herself and her background; it is her first major artwork since graduating.
The film, The Reunion, tells the story of a group of old classmates that has a class reunion after 20 years. It is divided into two sections: the first is about the actual reunion dinner, in which Odell acts as herself, giving a speech in which she explains that she had a terrible time in school and was totally alienated by her classmates. She continues to talk about her experiences in a more aggressive manner and points out her tormentors, demanding answers from them. After violent outbursts from all parties she ends up being thrown out of the reuinion.
The second part is a mockumentary of the making of the film (the first part). Odell discusses the process of contacting her old classmates, with the actors from the first part of the movie acting as themselves. When she meets up with some of her real classmates they are also played by actors. It can seem a bit confusing but it works well in the movie. Her classmates are interested in the project at first but, except for a few of them, they decline to take part in any interviews. Odell shows them the film and demands some sort of explanation for their behaviour, this time in a civilized manner. They cannot grasp that she had such a horrific time at school and refuse to admit that they took part in the alienation process. She also confronts the ringleaders themselves in order to get some straight answers but they stick to avoidance tactics and it becomes evident that, once you have been a bully, you are forever marked as one.
Odell’s movie has a vital freshness and directness to it that makes the viewer understand how important it is to talk about this common problem. As she is talking about her own horrible childhood experiences – and it is clear she has suffered for a great deal of her life – we are reminded of how seldom it is that we see so clearly how the rules and hierarchies of one’s school years can scar people for life. The Reunion was voted Best Film and Best Screenplay at this year’s Swedish Guldbaggegala.
Words by Axel Mörner
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