Easy Rider, Raging McQueen

by Tindara Sidoti-McNary

A New York story: Steve McQueen's 'Shame'

Back when I realised that artists were making movies, I felt a real frisson of excitement. Films! Only in a gallery where you can watch as long as you like. Reminds me of the old days at the cinema when dad took us to see Annie and we got there half way through. We went to the next showing and stayed till the exact moment where we got in; remember when you could do that? For many going to galleries these days, the moving image artwork has become normality; the reassuring familiarity of film or television never far away. There’s a palpable sense of relief when you get to the part of a show where there’s a film, particularly one you can sit down in front of. Ah, I know what to do here. Sit down on this hard bench, let the flickering pictures wash over, let your mind drift to a place where images of Hollywood or European films sit like better-looking family photos. They hook you in a much more visceral way than a painting or sculpture.

When artists Douglas Gordon and Candice Breitz used recognisable film footage in their work, this cross-pollination was evoked in a conscious manner. So, it’s no surprise that moving image artists are now turning to feature films. Six years ago, Douglas Gordon and Philipe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) was perhaps an extension of their gallery installations, Mark Kermode calling it “a conceptual art installation posing as a movie.” Perhaps it was a stab at dragging the formal tradition of portraiture into the cinema. Post Zidane, though, there has been an interesting move into narrative cinema with artists Sam Taylor-Wood, Steve McQueen and others, making feature films. What does this mean for art and film and how do they fit in to the canon of cinema? Perhaps it’s wrong to categorise. After all, there has always been a strand of experimental art film, right from Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol to performance artists such as Marina Abramović and Vito Acconci.

Recently, it was Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011) that made me contemplate this. I’m used to thinking about art in terms of the influence of cinema, no doubt about it, but McQueen is an art maverick; a black British artist and filmmaker working within a distinctly American canon. I would even say his style is borne of the seventies, that era of the facially hirsute director with paranoid visions. Shame’s descent into the protagonist’s dark night struck me as a direct descendant of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). Except this time we have the internet and laptops rather than elaborate listening devices. Brandon cannot connect with anyone on an emotionally intimate level, preferring porn or meaningless sexual encounters. Harry Caul, Gene Hackman’s character in The Conversation becomes obsessed with his own privacy, as he watches and listens to those around him. McQueen and Coppola are observing the internal breakdown of two psyches.

But it’s not just the disillusionment and alienation that makes this hark back to a seventies American aesthetic, it’s the look of New York. Every now and again, McQueen give us a glimpse of the place we are used to seeing. Hang on. Wait. Are those the bright lights of Broadway? Why, yes they are. But Brandon carries on running, slipping into a dark alleyway. And so do we, back into the real heart of the film, a grey quotidian existence punctuated with sexual highs. I’m making it sound awful. It’s not. It’s quite a hopeful film, ultimately.

McQueen recently spoke about his summers with relatives in New York when he was a child, and his fascination with the city. Yet when asked whether he was being courted by Hollywood he says “I could never make American movies – they like happy endings. I made Shame in America, but it’s not a Hollywood movie.” It’s not a Hollywood movie. But it is borne of an American tradition that encompasses New York filmmakers like Coppola and Martin Scorsese rather than Federico Fellini or Jean-Luc Godard. And it’s this that I find fascinating about British artists moving into feature film. It seems the most prominent director right now is challenging audiences by circumventing European art film tradition. McQueen is the bastard offspring of Derek Jarman and those “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”, the sex drugs and rock and roll directors of the seventies documented by Peter Biskind.* They certainly didn’t like happy endings and were self-consciously masculine and unflinching in approach, but still concerned with a linear narrative. McQueen retains some techniques from earlier installation works, holding shots for longer than other directors, and vast acres of film with hardly any dialogue, but this just adds to the intensity of the thing.

Steve McQueen, 'Bear'

So, what’s next? A project about slavery guaranteed to piss Americans off according to McQueen. He has them in his sights. McQueen has dealt with issues of race in previous work. In Bear (1993) a pair of black men – one of them the artist – wrestle naked. McQueen using the imagery to point to stereotypes of the black male, while showing their physiques to full effect. The film recalls Raging Bull (1980) as well as the hero worship of actors like Steve Reeves in the sword and sandal epics of the fifties and sixties. I’m eager to see how McQueen will tackle this issue in the context of a feature length film. Will McQueen focus on one story and short space of time, as he did with Bobby Sands in Hunger (2008)? Whatever happens, it sounds like McQueen will give artists and filmmakers plenty to think about.

* Peter Biskind (1998). Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. New York: Simon & Schuster

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