Francois Truffaut once wrote that while a director’s first and second films are exercises in self-discovery and improvement, their third feature, in its refinement of content and form, is the first that’s truly fair to judge. Critics, of course, rarely abide by such a principle — I’ve doubtless written enough pans of directorial debuts to prove it — but there does seem to be something about a third film that provokes consideration of the artist as fully formed auteur. You begin to see a kind of arc forming: after three films you begin to get a sense of a coherent voice, its interests and obsessions, its tenor and inflection. Three is enough to sense consistencies of style and theme. For a critic, the temptation to use a third feature as a platform for either lionizing or dismissing a director’s newly minted body of work too often proves irresistible, which is why you’ll find no shortage of sweeping declarations come film number three’s opening weekend. A third film may not be the first that’s fair to judge, but it provides a fair opportunity to judge the person who made it.
British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s third feature film, the tremendous “12 Years a Slave”, opens today, and the declarative overviews have already begun to appear. Those who find McQueen’s brand of decadent stylization somewhat spurious have taken the occasion to write off his efforts as the work of shallow posturing (not a position I personally hold, mind you). His proponents, meanwhile, have rallied to pronounce him a master, galvanized by the greatness of “12 Years” into breathless critical zeal. You come to expect this sort of thing, which is not without its merits. But McQueen is a strange case. It has been widely reported since even the release of his first feature, “Hunger”, in 2008, that McQueen came from a background in visual art and video installations — work which won him international acclaim before he ever thought of making a narrative film.
Now, this history is often mentioned in relation to McQueen’s overall sensibility as a filmmaker, as if it had informed his thinking around the practice in the same way that, say, Stanley Kubrick’s roots as a still photographer had influenced his approach as a director. And yet McQueen’s early work strikes me as considerably more significant to his development as a film artist, not least because the work itself was essentially cinematic — his video installations are, in a sense, short films themselves, designed for and presented within galleries but otherwise functioning as cinema. It is with this in mind that, in lieu of deciding authoritatively whether McQueen is a genius or a hack, we have decided to take a look back at some of the key works of his pre-cinematic career, describing their style and content and thinking about how they might relate to his work as a whole.
Perhaps the most well-known and well-regarded of McQueen’s video projects, “Bear” finds the artist exploring many of the qualities toward which his features would eventually come to gravitate: an intense physicality, an acute appreciation for the politics of the body, the conflation of sexuality and violence. The ten-minute film, shot in black and white and on 16mm, portrays two nude bodies, both black men, engaged in a kind of ritualized boxing match in high-contrast shadow and light, their movements edited together to suggest an almost abstract arrangement of limbs in motion. Like many of McQueen’s installations, the context of viewing is essential to the effect: presented as a floor-to-ceiling video loop in a large black room at the Tate Modern, the image is reflected along the heavily polished floor of the space as a way of enveloping the viewer within it. What’s more, the film itself is completely silent, creating a sort of sonic vacuum in the space meant to emphasize the viewer’s presence before the work. You can see this confrontational impulse in McQueen’s film work, from the alarming degradations on view through “Hunger” to the uncompromising brutality of “12 Years a Slave”, in all cases intend to puncture the apathy of an audience and convey something intensely.
Steve McQueen won the Turner Prize in 1999 on the strength of this silent 4-minute installation, shot once again in black and white on 16mm film and projected transferred to video. The work is, of all things, an homage to Buster Keaton: repeating a famed sight gag from “Steamboat Bill, Jr”, McQueen adopts the silent great’s famously tragicomic register and drains it even further of affect, not only mimicking the stone-faced reaction but, in a step further, presenting the stunt itself as stark and violent rather than funny. The effect is oddly disquieting: there’s something off-putting about the stillness and sudden motion, the repetition of the trick, the recontextualization of silent film form in a modern art context. Like much of McQueen’s work, it is an exercise in precision and control, artfully composed and meticulously choreographed. And yet, like “Hunger” and “12 Years” especially, there is nothing remotely cold about his formal rigor, the style channelled into something affecting.
You can actually watch Static in its entirety on YouTube — somebody rather boldly recorded it at the gallery and uploaded it from their cellphone — but these are hardly ideal circumstances. What distinguishes even the most cinematic of McQueen’s work from his feature films proper, after all, is that the parameters of their presentation have been carefully planned, not only in the sense of the ‘gallery experience’ but, more thoughtfully, in terms of scale and scope and silence. Static seems utterly simple removed from its original context: a seven-minute helicopter pan around the head of the Statue of Liberty, the film is remarkably straightforward in style and tone — it’s even, rare enough for McQueen, in sound and color. But the effect is a purely visceral one, heightened by circumstance: closeups of the statue are underscore by the overwhelming sounds of the chopper, reconfiguring a benign public image as somehow portentous. A clear invocation of 9/11, Static shows McQueen once again attempting to engage directly with political strife and national trauma, taking a large-scale tragedy and reckoning with its emotional and psychological fallout through art.
Those who accuse McQueen of empty provocation may find, in this striking short, something of a preemptive riposte from the artist himself: in it, the director shoots the eyeball of Charlotte Rampling in extreme closeup, the lot of it bathed in deep red light, before his index finger protrudes into the frame and pokes her in the eye. Let it be said that McQueen, despite his apparent pretentions, is not without a sense of humor about himself — here he is making a pretty direct correlation, among other things, between the production of art and the act of jabbing somebody else unflinchingly in the eye. It’s a wonderfully punkish gesture: a confrontation that’s almost a dare to keep watching, despite the obvious and immediate discomfort. Rampling keeps her eye open as it’s being prodded. McQueen wants to know, as he does throughout his films, if you can manage to do the same.