Wednesday, March 17, 2010
"...writing yer name in all those history books..." Part 2
i took just about 2 pages of notes on this; i'll try to summarize the best points without sinking to the point i was at on saturday of lecturing the computer screen. there are lots of questions here: what about prisoners who came off the strike to conform? what about prisoners who came onto the strike, abandoning the uniform? what about the other prisoners in the freakin' jail of whom there were hundreds? what about the other prisoners who were in the prison ira leadership with sands? what about the guards who weren't sectarian fuckheads? what about...what about...what about... but some of these are just me being picky because, well, this is my subject and sketchy treatments of it make me twitch. and some of it isn't relevant to the story mcqueen has chosen to tell but his ignoring of them does his story a disservice. given that the movie he has produced is obviously directed towards an informed audience, they are going to ask these kinds of questions -- i would hope! -- because they are informed.
the movie only really finds a driving force about 50 minutes in. given that it's about an hour and a half long, this might be considered a small pacing problem. from then on in, the prison might as well have been built around bobby sands. i'm sure this is probably how he might have liked to see things (or not -- other prisoners reported him as being somewhat self-effacing), but it isn't true. it isn't even fair to the other dozens -- more reasonably, hundreds of prisoners although not all of them were on either the dirty strike or the hunger strike -- at the same time as sands. making him the centerpiece of the entire thing simply plays straight into the republican tendency to create martyred hero figures.
congratulations, mr. mcqueen; you bought it. it's a great story; i find it hard to blame you. it's seductive; it's powerful; it's black-and-white; it's like a great mythological cycle -- with more shit on the walls. and y'know why? because they've had about 90 years to work it all out.
and i don't think this is self-conscious or knowing, either; mcqueen seems to have genuinely bought into sands's self-representation. in a long static sequence in the middle of the film, a lengthy debate between sands and a priest named moran about the morality and timing of the hunger strike, moran even makes the argument that all sands wants is to "....[write] yer name in all those history books..." after james connolly and terence macswiney -- both of whom earlier republicans who were of key importance to sands in his personal vision of irish republican nationalism. i'd've said this is probably at least part of the truth -- sands did want to be a martyr; he realised fully how powerful they were in terms of irish nationalism and thought that a new generation of martyrs was just what the movement needed. after the collapse of the first hunger strike in 1979, he was heartbroken over the loss of the chance; the new strike in 1981 was fuelled, in large part, by his impatience to create republican heroes for ireland. (this is all a bit slapdash in the way of historical reasoning, by the way; there were lots of other reasons, too. but this is a big chunk of it.)
the movie places great emphasis on the ability of the prisoners to endure brutal treatment -- the sequences of forced bathing and haircutting and the mirror searches are more or less accurate in their deep unpleasantness. there's a really lovely sequence after the mirror searches contrasting sands in his cell, bleeding heavily from blows to the head, and a young riot officer who has had to retreat from the line, unable to deal with the treatment meted out to the prisoners. the officer is lurking behind a half-wall, within earshot of the beatings, tears running down his cheeks, looking as if he would rather be just about anywhere than where he is; sands, on the other hand, looks peculiarly contented, relieved (presumably at having survived what could have been a fatal experience), but also pleased. i'm not sure about the guards -- i don't think many prison officers from the '70s or '80s in northern ireland sat down to write books about their experiences! -- but sands's reaction is certainly in line with the stories he told in writings from prison and which other prisoners recounted in their memoirs or narratives.
possibly the worst problem is that the end of the movie veers away from acknowledged historical medical fact about what happened to sands during his hunger strike (and i really want to know how the prisoners stayed in such excellent shape while being largely confined to cells that are about half the size of an average dorm room with no exercise privileges -- personally, i'd've thought it would be difficult to keep up a six-pack or biceps like a soccer player's, but, hey, what do i know?); privileges him to the total loss of the other dozen-plus men who went on hunger strike, to say nothing of the other nine who died; and descends into inexcusable maudlin sentimentality.
during the conversation with the priest, sands recounts a story about going down to a track meet in the south with some other boys when he was 12. (possibly based on a true event; sands was a track runner until his late teens, apparently a gifted one, and enjoyed playing football, running the track-and-field events, and was a member of several local clubs around his home district of belfast.) the story slides downhill into fairly threadbare symbolism as sands adds on a story about the boys going down to a river near the meet site and finding a foal, starving and half-drowned in the water with a broken leg. sands takes it upon himself to drown the foal as the other boys debate what to do about it. i imagine the audience is meant to take this as evidence of sands's strength of character and determination -- as he himself says it is. i'm not sure about this, really, but that may also be because i'm fairly sure i can see the seam where actual biographical story is hooked into symbolically convenient story and it annoys.
at the end of the film, then, as he lies dying (medically incorrectly but much more attractively), there is a lengthy -- 2+ minutes -- flashback to the boy sands running the course by the river.
it's ridiculous. it's pointless. it's insulting, both to sands and to the audience. really, if you watch the movie, turn it off at about 1.27.00. the last shot of sands in the hospital bed, looking up at the ceiling, would have made a stronger, more telling, more compelling final shot, rather than the rubbishy, saccharine, "it'll all be okay, kids" shot of the boy on the bus, returning from the golden day in the republic.
even an older movie about the hunger strikes, some mother's son, which took more liberties with the prisoners and their stories and played the entire episode more for dramatic tension than for historical accuracy, didn't descend to that level of crayola-style storytelling.