An angel...drowned in tears

Maybe it's because he came from the godless no man's land of video installation art, which most critics view with the same contempt that Graham Chapman's King Arthur holds for Camelot, but no one I've read ever seems to talk about Steve McQueen's influences as a filmmaker. People are quick to reference other films on the subjects he tackles (addiction, slavery), but no one I've read has delved into how he came by his technique, at least not in the cinematic tradition. Having seen most of his stunning gallery work, it's easy enough to say that he just figured out in small doses how he wanted to show the world. Certainly one could look at Giardini, his half-hour split-screen effort that covers a neighborhood and its silent occupants over the course of a few quiet days, as a test-run for Shame's microscopic investigation of a man's routine, upset by intrusion and leading to self-destruction. The name most frequently dropped in discussions of 12 Years A Slave is Spielberg; Schindler's List, Amistad and The Color Purple are easy points of comparison but I don't think the two Steves have much in common as directors. In order to figure out where McQueen's roots are planted, look back further to his earliest short films. Look at the dark drawing room wrestling match in Bear, or the dreary countryside all around the stonefaced director in Deadpan. It's the same countryside that Michael Reeves and Piers Haggard used to haunt. The wrestling match may be in slow-motion and narrative-less, but it's quite clearly an re-staging of the centerpiece of Ken Russell's Women In Love. He and Russell share a fascination with the body and everything it can endure. Not to mention they're both fearless.

This is an English tradition from which McQueen's patience seemed to displace him. After all, the camera's movement is all but invisible when it does show up in Hunger, Shame and 12 Years, and Reeves and his generation could barely sit still. Russell in particular redefined where a camera could go and how fast it could get there. But you don't have to squint to see Michael Reeves in McQueen's cinema. The IRA soldiers of Hunger look an awful lot like the bored mods of The Sorcerers, notably Ian Ogilvy, who haunts the city at night like Michael Fassbender in Shame. The monster-under-the-surface theme propels both Shame, The Sorcerers and The She Creature. Most importantly, there's an awful lot that connects 12 Years A Slave to Reeves' magnum opus Witchfinder General

Witchfinder General has an interesting reputation. I think it's thought of mainly as a horror film and having Vincent Price at his most sincerely evil would appear to validate that, but it's something different. Looking explicitly at the practice of burning innocents as witches to keep religious authority on its pedestal, Witchfinder General or The Conquerer Worm as it was called in the US, is one of the harshest looks at English history ever filmed. Matthew Hopkins, played by Price, was a real figure who killed something like 300 women in his lifetime. Here he stands in for the worst traditions of the English government; scholars have pointed out there was little accuracy in Reeves' depiction of Hopkins practices but that's hardly the point. Reeves was more interested in the feeling of truth. After all, being burnt alive hurts, trial or no trial. Reeves' depictions of the hangings, beheadings, burnings and drownings are still unbearably cruel today. The mass drowning in particular still curdles my blood. Reeves managed to tone down Vincent Price and get one of his iciest performances as the deceiving Hopkins; I don't think he ever bested his work here. Reeves never directed another film and this is justly the film he's best remembered for; it kicked off a wave of politically charged witch-burning films in the 70s that acted as mirrors to the modern era's repressive status quo. That sound familiar?
12 Years A Slave takes a very similar approach to its era and subject matter and is also based on a book, though it's much more closely adheres to provable fact than Witchfinder General. Solomon Northrup's book of the same name is based on his experiences as a kidnapped slave, an invaluable document that means the script already has the authenticity missing from Witchfinder General, but the important thing is the overlap in execution. Sometimes it's simple; a few beautiful shots of the countryside, of the indifference of nature which goes on being splendid no matter what man does to it, to break up the horror of humanity. But more often it's rougher than that. Reeves and McQueen want to put you inches from the whippings and brandings, to remove any chance of ironic distance. The events are in the past, but the pain should be present-tense. Reeves fought a very public battle with censors over the violence in Witchfinder General because he needed it to tell the story, the same way McQueen spares no whipmark and lets the weeping and wailing of bereaved mothers go on through multiple scenes. The horrors of Reeves' first two films were big and colorful; if he was pushing the envelope in Witchfinder it wasn't just to get a rise out of thrill-seeking audiences. He was trying to be honest and make English audiences realize what had happened to its people before things had become 'civilized.' Perhaps sensing that that particular story had been told, set his sights on a chapter in dire need of revisiting. McQueen can't help but render things beautifully but like Reeves his direction never feels less than totally honest. They went back in time to tell stories, not indulge their muse. Shame and The Sorcerers represent their respective artistic ids, untethered and pure. The scene of Karloff eavesdropping on the young couple swimming has the same cold sensuousness as Fassbender renting a room to try out 'normal' sex with a co-worker. An aside: Ian Ogilvy and Karloff represent both sides of Fassbender's psyche in Shame. Ogilvy slowly falls under the spell of Karloff's witchcraft and can't control his body. Fassbender wants to behave normally and rid himself of his vices but they hold him down and make him act against his best interest; he can see his idealized self just out of his grasp but can't reach it without self-destructing.

Both Reeves and McQueen shoot faces with rhyming clarity but also know when to cut away. They know precisely how much to show and how to get away with it. Both films have conflicting moments where the male hero is tortured by proxy, using a female intermediary at the hands of the sadistic overseer. In Witchfinder, Hopkins kidnaps young lovers played by Ogilvy and Hilary Heath, who've caught onto his witch-kiling scheme to stay above the law. In order to harm Ogilvy and get him to confess to bogus witchcraft so he can be 'legally' executed, Hopkins stabs Heath in the back repeatedly with a thin needle, a sight I have to watch through my fingers. In 12 Years, Fassbender's drunk slave owner Epps wants to punish the woman he loves, one of his slaves, and himself while he's at it but makes Solomon whip the girl on his behalf to make sure he isn't the one who walks away with the most damage to his mental health or pride. Solomon knows that Patsey would rather be whipped by a friend than by her master and rapist but he's been able to keep a certain remove from himself and his captors. Epps wants to remove it and break Solomon just as Hopkins wants to force a confession from the young soldier. The pain is only symbolic as both Hopkins and Epps both know that they're going to inflict the damage one way or another. They want pain to mean something because it's how they relate to the world. It's what keeps the illusion of their power alive. Also noteworthy is that in both films, our heroes are allowed to have revenge against their tormentors (Chiwetel Ejiofor whipping the overseer played by Paul Dano, Ogilvy overpowering Price with an ax), but it's fleeting and unsatisfactory. Anything more than that would be to cheat the past and have their heroes sink to a place where audiences can't follow them. The most memorable torture follows each; Solomon's day spent hanging from a tree, only his toes keeping him alive, and Ogilvy's screaming incoherently at being robbed of real vengeance, which would have truly put him on Hopkins' level. Ogilvy's impotent ravings are some of the most psychologically damaging sounds you'll ever hear. Just try and scrape them off your brainpan. Their almost as rough as the weeping mother in 12 Years.

McQueen also has a very important precedent in the work of Reeves' American counterpart, Curtis Harrington. Like McQueen, Harrington got his start making avant-garde short films that heavily influenced the feature films he'd make in the 60s and 70s. They essentially approached features from inverse angles. Harrington went from shorts to work-for-hire, turning sci-fi potboilers into Kenneth Anger-inspired (the two were good friends) pop-art subterfuge. His first assignment for American International Pictures were reshoots to turn a russian sci-fi film called Planet of Storms into Voyage To A Prehistoric Planet. My favourite addition involves Basil Rathbone being forcefed life-giving pills from his robot doctor in the middle of an interplanetary storm. This was the first clue that Harrington was in no way an ordinary director. McQueen worked the other way around, independent financing and picking stories he can organically apply his style. What they have in common is aesthetic control. They've each produced a handful of tableaux that I'll never be able to forget that lift their films above more ordinary takes on the same subject. Put Queen of Blood, Harrington's second sci-fi thriller, next to Space Probe Taurus, They Came from Beyond Space or one of Antonio Margheriti's Gamma One films, all roughly of the same vintage, and Harrington's strengths as a director stick out like a sixth finger. Similarly, place McQueen's Hunger next to Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father and McQueen emerges as an artist interested in appealing to more than just our love of a compelling story and/or our consciousness. Harrington and McQueen both share an interest in psychosexual tension and power structures, specifically social ones. Games, Harrington's third film, bears marked thematic similarities to the ground covered in the Epps section of 12 Years, and the brother-sister relationship in Shame, though Harrington's playing with a loaded deck and for much lower stakes.

The work that Harrington got out of Dennis Hopper is not dissimilar to what McQueen has been able to get out of Michael Fassbender. The cocksure but sensitive sailor in Night Tide feels like a cousin to the Fassbender persona, like his quietness, his indecision, his compassion to a fault raised the three characters Fassbender plays in the McQueen films. Both actors sense an opportunity to grow while in the hands of artists they knew and trusted. In Queen of Blood one can see Hopper working out his own method; so much broils under the surface. Similarly Fassbender couldn't quite keep his southern accent together for all of Ridley Scott's The Counselor, but really makes the effort to maintain a consistent dialect in 12 Years A Slave as the monstrous but clearly conflicted Epps.  Harrington and McQueen both had to keep a number of plates spinning and clearly had less interest in designing the life out of the performances, especially when dealing with the likes of Hopper, Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Basil Rathbone and Brad Pitt, respectively. They let their actors breathe and find their own way through complicated and/or well-worn character types. They've gone the trouble of producing the most visually awesome versions of the stories being told (Slave narrative, sci-fi/horror) so it wouldn't do to hamstring their performers. Queen of Blood is perhaps Harrington's most sumptuous production, every shot art directed to look quite unlike anything ever attempted in American popular cinema. It most resembles Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires, another AIP production from the year before, but Harrington has such a bizarre, ethereal approach to his set-pieces that the whole thing floats by. Bava's compositions are sturdy as a pair of steel-toed boots, keeping the central mystery grounded the whole time. Harrington aims for the stratosphere and unsurprisingly flies right through it. McQueen's dramatic structure takes a similar tack. We know how long Solomon is kept in bondage, but McQueen hops around the timeline, focusing on the most important and harrowing representations of his experience. Like Harrington's astronauts, we float through Solomon's nightmare (McQueen's camera only occassionally feels as rooted to any particular spot as, say, Bava's) always a few feet above or below Solomon and often a far enough distance away that he can track a lengthy action scene without breaking continuity. Take for instance the scenes where Epps takes his aggression out on Solomon when he can't bring himself to harm Patsey. He chases Solomon around and through a pig enclosure, and McQueen stands back, letting us know exactly how far away from each other they are. It's distant but keeps the scene from feeling exceptional - this is what Solomon dealt with every day. Chasing him with the camera would have felt like undo emphasis. It also keeps it as dirty and absurd as it would have been, with both men sliding around in mud and being separated by the woman of the house like children. And so we drift from scene to scene, preserving the illusion of 12 Years passing without fretting over lost time. Harrington's approach to the deaths of major characters has the same sense of gliding. These things happen. He also loses a lot of time in the many months spent traveling to Mars' moon Phobos in Queen of Blood, but you never notice or mind because the journey is so full of his unique design. There's a mountain of difference between the two approaches, but they produce the same effect; integrity of momentum preserved by acute, confident visuals. When both filmmakers pause that motion and present us with firmly composed looks at the people who occupy their worlds, the effect is devastating. For a moment, a masterpiece painted just for us. They litter Queen of Blood, but the best of them lies in 12 Years when Solomon and a host of other slaves have just disembarked from a steamship. They sit in differently colored, dirty, faded clothes, their faces masks of exhaust and pain. 
These connections aren't intended as keys to the McQueen puzzle, indeed 12 Years A Slave could hardly be a work that stands more firmly on its own terms. But placing him in context has helped me like him as a person, as well as an artist. I can imagine his journey from installation virtuoso to internationally lauded filmmaker with unprecedented access to an international dream cast. I love the work that Reeves and Harrington did in the 60s and 70s, but I think I like them more because I know about their lives and the artists they were indebted to: Harrington owed much to his peer Kenneth Anger while Reeves found Don Siegel at his home to tell him he thought he was the greatest director alive. This puts more life into their films for me and the chill one gets from watching Shame or 12 Years A Slave can be warmed by knowing McQueen is part of a long tradition of artists who did great work as feature directors. I for one can't wait to see what he does next. After their third films Harrington turned increasingly to TV movies and Reeves passed away, far too young. I can't wait to see what McQueen does next. Might I suggest he follow in Reeves and Harrington's footsteps and give horror a chance?

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