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Film Festival Today

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The Flowering Of A Film Artist

Written by: FFT Webmaster | December 9th, 2011

Perhaps no other film this season is sparking the kind of intrigue as SHAME, the latest from British artist-turned-director Steve McQueen. In only two feature films, HUNGER (2008) and the current SHAME, he has become a major film presence, with a career that could be long and productive and continually fascinating. His artistic influences are his great strength and his adeptness with actors have produced performances of the highest caliber from both leads and supporting players. In particular, McQueen discovered the supremely gifted Michael Fassbender, whose gritty and heartfelt performance in SHAME won him the Best Actor Prize at last summer’s Venice Film Festival and could well make him an Oscar nominee this year (not bad for an Irish-born actor who had no international reputation just three years ago until his role as an imprisoned IRA activist in HUNGER made an instant sensation). Director McQueen seems serious about his film work, with the new project TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, a film about a freed black man in the 19th century who is sold into Southern slavery, set to premiere next year with a stellar cast that includes McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor. McQueen has also been named as the director of FELA, an adaptation stage sensation about the seminal African musician and social activist Fela Kuti.

Born in London in 1970, McQueen was interested in fine arts at an early age and eventually enrolled at the Chelsea College of Art and Design and also studied fine art at Goldsmiths College, where he first became interested in film. He left in 1993 and then studied briefly at New York University’s Tisch School Of The Arts in Manhattan.  He apparently found the approach there not experimental enough for him, so he returned to London to focus on making art videos and installation pieces that incorporated painting and sculpture. His videos, typically black and white and minimalist, were influenced by the look of the French New Wave and the early films of Andy Warhol. He often appeared in the films and videos himself. His first major work was BEAR (1993), in which two naked men (one of them McQueen) exchange a series of glances which might be taken to be flirtatious or threatening. One of his best known works, DEADPAN (1997), is a restaging of a Buster Keaton stunt in which a house collapses around McQueen who is left unscathed because he is standing where there is a missing window. These two early pieces were both silent, but eventually McQueen used innovative sound in his film, the first being DRUMROLL (1998), in which he created a collage of multiple images by tying a camera to the front of an oil drum which filmed streets scenes in Manhattan. The artist’s fame was growing, particularly after he won the prestigious Turner Prize in 1999.

In 2006, he went to Iraq as an official war artist. The following year he presented Queen and Country, a piece which commemorated the deaths of British soldiers who died in the Iraq War by presenting their portraits as a sheet of stamps. His 2007 film, GRAVESEND, depicted the process of coal refinement and production, which produces both an eerie beauty and an environmental fiasco at the same time. McQueen was now ready for a bigger budget film, where he could bring out a coherent story using established actors. The film HUNGER, set in an Irish prison in 1981 where IRA activists are held and brutalized, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, where it won the Camera d’Or, the prestigious honor given to a first time feature director. Michael Fassbender, an Irish-born actor who had spent part of his life in Germany and the USA, made an instant impression as the imprisoned IRA firebrand who goes on a hunger strike to protest the prison’s harsh conditions. The film and the actor who a major sensation on that year’s festival circuit, winning award after award, including the 2008 Diesel Discovery Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, the New Generation Prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Best Film honors at the London Evening Standard Film Awards.

McQueen’s second film SHAME is set in contemporary New York City, a place still scarred by the echoes of 9/11 and the crash-and-burn Wall Street ethos that has brought the country to its knees. SHAME focuses on a 30-something sex addict named Brandon who has trouble managing his sexual impulses once his willful sister moves in. Michael Fassbender returns to play the troubled ad executive who uses sex to pacify his feelings of pain and loneliness. Carey Mulligan gives a performance of raw power in a gritty key we have not yet seen from the young actress as Fassbender’s suicidal drug addict of a sister. Both sibilings are therefore addicted to things that make them high and make them forget…..perhaps an abusive childhood, which is alluded to (but not shown) in the film’s ballsy script. The film is currently in theaters via indie powerhouse Fox Searchlight, although it has gotten somewhat mixed reviews, praising the director’s visual style but also chastising him for his lack of finesse with the actors. With actors, cinematographer and director possibly up for Oscar nods, the film is certain to be a much talked about sensation, which most definitely earns its steamy NC-17 rating. Like his colleague and friend Julian Schnabel, another fine artist who has made a name for himself as a film auteur, McQueen seems destined to have a career that may not always include audience favorites but which will renew enthusiasm in the medium’s potential as a visual art form.

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