Why We Should Jettison the “Strong Female Character”

The trailer for the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was released last week. Following the success of the revival of the franchise in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, anticipation is unsurprisingly at a fever pitch. As in the case of The Force Awakens, much of the pre-release speculation and comment has been preoccupied with the question of the representation of women and minorities within it. Despite concerns about a male-heavy cast early in the film’s development, the character of Rey in The Force Awakens met with a rapturous reception when it hit the cinemas. Along with the characters of Finn and Poe Dameron, many believe that her character marks a decisive movement towards a more egalitarian and inclusive vision of Star Wars, one no longer so dominated by white male protagonists. Continue reading

“The Seer” Gets Wendell Berry Exactly Right.

I think most readers of Wendell Berry, “The Seer” director Laura Dunn included, start with Berry’s non-fiction. They pick up The Unsettling of America or The Art of the Commonplace and go from there. That’s not how I came to Berry. I started with Jayber Crow, a novel about a small-town Kentucky barber who lived in rural Kentucky nearly his whole life and was in Port William, a small village of several hundred, from 1937-1987. Continue reading

An Interview with Laura Dunn, Director of “The Seer”

Tomorrow I hope to publish a brief review of Laura Dunn’s new film “The Seer.” It’s a unique film and a hard one to pin down because while it is a portrait of Wendell Berry, Berry himself is never actually filmed for it. We only get archival photos of him and recordings of interviews with him. That said, what we do get is a unique film that does a marvelous job of helping viewers see what Berry sees when he looks at the world. And that is no small achievement. More tomorrow. For now, here’s the interview:

How did you first discover Berry’s writing?

I don’t remember, it was high school I think. I’d been interested in environmental issues for a long time, I’d been around agriculture for a long time (because of my mom’s job). It was mostly the non-fiction work that I started reading. When I was working on my feature “The Unforeseen,” which is very much a sibling to “The Seer”, I used a Wendell poem for that film and I met Wendell in that process and asked him to record his poem for the film. When I toured that film I was surprised at how few people knew who Wendell Berry was. When I finished I just imagined another film about his work. I thought to make a film that would in some way honor his work and his spirit and draw more attention to his work. Continue reading

The Monastic Calling of the Force in Star Wars

I’m happy to run this guest piece by Dylan Pahman of the Acton Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanPahman.

In his recent essay at Public Discourse, “The Family and the Force,” my colleague at the Acton Institute Jordan Ballor examines the treatment of the family in the Star Wars franchise, focusing especially on its most recent installment, the record-setting “Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” (Spoilers ahead!) In particular, Ballor takes issue with both “the Jedi and Sith alike” for viewing “the family [as] a problem rather than a solution.”

While the Jedi may underestimate the importance of family, on the whole they are wise to worry about the compatibility of family and the religious calling of the Force, demonstrating a lesson applicable beyond the Star Wars galaxy. Family may not always be a problem, but to brand it “a solution” may equally swing the pendulum too far—far away from the facts.

Continue reading

On the Chestertonianism of Star Wars

One of the most striking things about the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakensis how old the film sometimes feels. Part of the oldness is because the story itself feels more like a remake of A New Hope than a genuine reboot of a storied franchise. The plot feels familiar, as do most the characters. A poor scavenger on a desert world discovers previously unknown force abilities. A planet-destroying space station figures prominently in the film’s climax. A masked and hooded dark figure serves as the dominant villain and serves a far-off master of whom we know virtually nothing.

Even specific lines call us back to the first Star Wars movie, as when we can overhear storm troopers saying that “they split up” while looking for our heroes aboard a new death star. There is also much in Abrams’ technique that calls to mind the older stories, most notably the side-swipe transitions that are used frequently throughout the film. Based on the reviews, however, this is what most fans wanted (myself included) so you can hardly fault director JJ Abrams for making those choices. That he could make a rejiggered A New Hope and create a fantastic adventure of a film is a testament to his strengths as a director. Continue reading

Don Draper is an Ad, Man

Mad Men, one of the best television shows in history, will always be known as “more than just a show about advertising,” in the same way Friday Night Lights is “more than just a show about football.” And yet Mad Men is, in an important sense, about advertising. Its characters, relationships, themes and mood should all be viewed through the lens of advertising.

I’ve done some work in advertising. I’ve written ads, developed slogans, pitched concepts. I know that advertising is about positioning something in the most attractive light, selling the idealized version of it, convincing people that their lives would be improved by purchasing it. Though some advertising is flat-out deceptive, in most cases there is at least some connection between “how it’s sold” and “what it is.” But the reality is that “what it is” rarely lives up to its advertised billing.

But isn’t this how humans live? Particularly today, with the aid of social media posturing and Photoshop touchups, our existential inclination to “sell” an idealized version of our self is easier than ever. Mad Men is set in a pre-Instagram world, but the disconnect between true identity and projected ideal is central to most of the story arcs of its characters, none more than Don Draper (Jon Hamm) himself.

Don Draper isn’t real; he’s an advertisement. He’s an ad man who is also an ad, man. He is a story Dick Whitman is telling about America and self-made men. He is a Gatsby-esque myth of building an identity from scratch, becoming very rich and attractive, a well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-spoken ad man who women want and men want to be. But as we see so vividly throughout the seven seasons of Mad Men, the real Don Draper (Dick Whitman) is a broken, messy, vulnerable man. In the same way that he sells some toxic things (cigarettes, the eventual undoing of his ex-wife Betty) in attractive packaging through his Lucky Strike ads in the pilot episode, Don is from the very beginning selling himself in the same way: A cool, confident, necessary, powerful man. Yet he’s empty inside, severely broken and far less composed than he lets on. To his wives, his kids, his many mistresses and colleagues, Don frequently falls short of the “as advertised” ideal.

But there is another way Don Draper is a metaphor for advertising. Advertising is about commodification. It’s about leveraging real emotion to drive transactions. In the transitional era of advertising which Mad Men depicts, advertising begins to blur the lines between real human feelings and financial transactions.

It’s fitting, then, that Don Draper’s experience of life, emotion and relationships is largely transactional. It’s about earning and payment, giving and getting. Having been raised in a whorehouse, Don’s skewed sense of romance is deeply informed by literal transactions: “love” for a price. This manifests itself throughout the show as he struggles to view women beyond this “transactional” sense, viewing them (and himself) as simply commodities being exchanged. In both love and advertising, Don is painfully aware that what is bought is never satisfying, yet he can’t seem to live in any other way. Is there something else to life beyond the give-and-take transaction?

The show’s final episodes [spoilers from here on] end with Don on a last-ditch search for that “something else.” His cross-country roadtrip — reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or any of a number of 1970s road movies (e.g. Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop) — leads him to a hippie commune on the California coast. It is here, in the series finale, aptly titled “Person-to-Person,” that Don comes to an epiphany: Relationships needn’t be transactional; love needn’t be bought. Connection can be free, a grace given and received between two people, so long as they are willing to set aside pride, be vulnerable and accept love.

This epiphany may or may not inspire in Don the idea for the relationally altruistic Coke commercial (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke”) that is the show’s final scene; regardless, the lesson is learned. Up until the final moments of the series, Don is still stuck in the transactional framework. He sleeps with a girl early in the final episode and pays her. He phones Betty with hopes of offering her something (“I’m coming home”) only to be denied. He hands a wad of cash to the woman who shows him to his room at the commune (“You are so generous!”). He needs to be needed. (See his $1 million check to ex-wife Megan in episode 708, “Severance”).

Don’s armor begins to break when he makes an operator-assisted, “person-to-person” call to Peggy, the woman on the show who knows him most truly. As he lays himself bare to Peggy ( “I broke all my vows. I scandalized by child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”), she responds with grace. And yet Don is not yet in a place to accept it. He hangs up before she can talk him off the proverbial ledge.

This is but one of many “person-to-person” phone calls in the episode, “connections” that come with a cost to the caller (literally) in the transactional sense. Don also calls his daughter Sally and wife Betty. Joan calls Peggy. Peggy calls Stan. Notably, many of these conversations are followed up later with in-person, “free” connections: Joan meets Peggy at a restaurant. Stan leaves his phone-call with Peggy mid-stream and runs to see her in person. The episode is pushing us to see the true, non-transactional magic of in-person, vulnerable connection.

Indeed, Don fully cracks only in the physical presence of a stranger, Leonard, whose monologue at the retreat causes Don to break down and embrace a man he doesn’t know but deeply understands. Leonard’s monologue resonates with Don: feeling unnecessary, unable to receive love unless he is giving as much as he gets. “No one cares that I’m gone,” says Leonard, who describes a dream where he is a product in a refrigerator that no one ever reaches for. Something clicks for Don, who has heretofore struggled to receive love freely given, when Leonard describes his own inability to understand and accept love: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, that people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.”

When Don gets up and wraps his arms around Leonard — two broken men in awkward, ugly-cry embrace — it is as beautiful a picture of grace as has ever been seen on the show, reminiscent perhaps of the tender embrace of Don and Peggy in episode 706 (“The Strategy”). It is an embrace that signals release, freedom, the willingness to let the “real self” be known and to lay aside the “advertised self.” It is an embrace that allows Don to receive grace, to go back to New York (if that is indeed what he does) debt-free.Don and Leonard

Similar moments in “Person-to-Person” happen with other characters who, in the midst of the messiness of the past, forgive one another and accept grace, person-to-person: Former lovers Joan and Roger share a laugh and wish each other well (though note how this also has a “transactional” layer as Roger leaves part of his fortune to Joan and her son). Pete and Trudy reconcile and start afresh. Roger and Marie choose each other in marriage, amidst their bickering and flaws. Peggy allows herself to accept Stan’s love.

As the series ends with what will become one of television’s all time most iconic shots (“Smiling Zen Don Draper”), Don appears to have found redemption. Yet it doesn’t come from within, as the guru’s transcendental meditation suggests (“New day. New ideas. New you. Ommmmm.”) It comes from Don’s moment of weakness and vulnerability in allowing himself to be accepted: not as a product that needs a slick advertisement in order to be chosen, but as a sinner who knows he needs grace.

The Politics of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Dialogue with Chris Schaefer

An old high school friend tweeted: “It’s a Wonderful Life has be the most anti-Tea Party movie ever.” I rakishly tweeted back: “False.” Rather than attempting to hash out this disagreement within the confines of 140 characters, we resolved to do a Gladwell vs. Simmons sort of thing, exchanging long-winded emails to see if we could hash it out.

My friend, Chris Schaefer, has led a peripatetic life ranging from Oklahoma to Morocco. As of late, he seems to have settled in Paris. We agreed to let him have the first word:

Chris: I was being a good American and doing my annual Christmas-time viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life when I had this moment. It was one of those eyebrow-scrunching, lip-twisting, just-wait-a-second-there moments: Conservative Americans cherish Frank Capra’s classic, and yet important parts of the film don’t seem terribly conservative. I wondered if conservatives’ appreciation for family, faith, and community in the movie doesn’t cause them to miss echoes that the original audience would have picked up on immediately.

It's a Wonderful Life It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946 right as the United States was exiting an extremely difficult decade and a half. There’s a reason why Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Two of the greatest challenges that animate the film are bank runs and lack of affordable home ownership–the difficulties of The Greatest Generation in Bedford Falls as it were. These two issues play out in significant ways. George Bailey doesn’t go on his own honeymoon because he has to use his own personal savings to pay his clients who are caught up in the uncertainty of a bank run. And the entire business concept of the Bailey Building and Loan was based on providing home ownership for the poor of Bedford Falls, which was not so much a business as a non-profit social organization if we can take Potter’s critique and the bank-examiner’s presence as any indication.

So what happened between the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the end of World War II in 1945? The New Deal. And in the New Deal, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the creation of two organizations that addressed both of these issues. The Banking Act of 1933 created the FDIC (whose sticker you will inevitably find on your bank’s window), guaranteeing deposits up to a certain amount. The bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life happened just before its creation, and so for viewers in 1946 it served as a scary reminder of how things used to be before the Democrats pushed through the New Deal.

In 1938, Fannie Mae was also created at Roosevelt’s behest in order to increase home ownership and make housing more affordable. Both of these programs were pushed through against Republican opposition, and both would have benefited the residents of Bedford Falls–those who did “most of the working and paying and living and dying” in the community, as George so passionately put it. George’s support for the poor on these issues would have recalled the Democratic rhetoric, while Potter’s heartless commentary on the plight of Bedford Falls’ poor would have echoed the anti-New Deal Republicans.

Don’t take my word for it, though: these leftist echoes scared the FBI. A 1947 FBI memo (pdf, pg. 14) indicated concern that the screenwriters were closet Communists and that the portrayal of bankers and rich people was highly suspect. Now, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wasn’t always the most level-headed of organizations, but the fact that they were concerned about the leftist tones of It’s a Wonderful Life means that some aspects of the film resonate in different ways today.

So what’s your call, Keith? Am I missing something? Or, in their deep appreciation for the film, do conservatives today ignore the historical and political context of It’s a Wonderful Life?

Keith: I am one of those conservatives who loves It’s a Wonderful Life and actually believe that the film encapsulates a lot of my small government, pro-family political philosophy. While I’m glad to have my presumptions challenged, I think that you’re wrong to say that this movie is anti-capitalist.

I will grant your presumption that we should consider the historical situation at the time of this movie’s release to help us understand how certain scenes would be understood. Like Scalia at the movies, we should consider the original public meaning, right? But we’re not merely asking a purely historical question, right? I’m not particularly interested if some FBI agents struggled to separate the idea of a bad banker from the idea that all bankers are bad. I’m similarly nonplussed by the question of whether Republican identifiers would have been torqued by watching the film in 1946.

Political coalitions have shifted quite a bit in the last two-thirds of a century. Back then, it was not unusual to be for both higher government spending and traditional family values. Indeed, as both parties were rather conservative on social issues, the economic divergences played a larger role in determining voting behavior. Today’s political fault lines obscure these differences. Now, if one is for traditional family values, that identity tends to dominate and make differences of economic regulation seem comparatively minute. All that is to say, that it could be that the folks who wrote this film were both “conservative on social issues” in some sense that we can recognize, while still advocating for leftist solutions to some of the economic issues of the day.

However, I don’t actually see how the movie supports left-leaning economic policy. The movie exults in the way the Bailey Building & Loan helps Mr. Martini escape Potter’s rental slums. You suggest that scene would be a comeuppance to those dastardly anti-New Deal Republicans who opposed the enactment of Fannie Mae. Actually, I bet those Republicans supported the end of the policy–getting folks into their own homes–and merely objected to the efficiency or constitutionality of the means. To see it your way is like maintaining that today’s GOP is against children eating lunch and that a movie showing a non-governmental actor providing lunch to hungry kids would be a real dig against conservatives.

On the contrary, when I see the Bailey Building & Loan helping folks escape the slums, I see a for-profit company improving the lives of its customers. When I see George foregoing his honeymoon and keeping the Building & Loan afloat through the bank run, I see the entrepreneurial genius benefiting everyone around him. When I see George providing private charity to Violet (or even the otherwise unemployable Uncle Billy), I see a demonstration of how a freer market with less of a public safety net would actually work.

Who needs Fannie Mae, the FDIC, or even Social Security when you’ve got George Bailey?

But beyond these incidental plot twists, don’t you see how the actual thrust of the movie is conservative? George Bailey denies himself and his desire for freedom and travel, and ties himself again and again to the small town and community. He was derogatory of his “not much a businessman” father, but eventually became his father and, in doing so, blessed everyone in Bedford Falls. Isn’t that conservative? Continue reading

Noah: A Theological-Aesthetic Rorschach Test

Last week saw the premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and with it a (predictable) storm of controversy from the evangelical community. Reviews have ranged from predictably critical to outright disdain to hostile readings, and from strongly (though not unreservedly) positive to more restrained affirmation of the film on aesthetic and spiritual grounds to especially measured theological and artistic engagement. In short, the responses spanned exactly the range one would expect from the evangelical community, which is itself deeply divided on the purpose, value, and meaning of the arts—decades of conversation on the topic notwithstanding. Noah[1] works as a sort of theological-artistic Rorschach test. We seem to find it in what we expect given its origins and our disposition.Noah_film

Rather than offer another review (which would add nothing to the conversation at this point), or decry once again the predictable evangelical response to the arts, or even critique reviews with which I disagreed, I thought it might be useful instead to ask where we stand today and point to a few places we might grow from this. Continue reading

Lost At Sea, in Space, in the Cloud

Two of my favorite films of recent months, Gravity and All is Lost, have more than a few things in common. Both are basically one-man or one-woman shows about individuals trying to survive in an incomprehensibly vast wilderness. Gravity finds Sandra Bullock desperately attempting to return to terra firma after being stranded in space. All is Lost shows Robert Redford (in a mostly silent, yet tour de force performance) lost in the Indian Ocean after his solo yacht venture goes awry. Both films are very much about the visceral, unnerving feeling of alone-ness; both are about the frailty and contingency of man in an often-hostile universe, but also man’s ingenuity, adaptability and cleverness in survival mode. Both are very good films that you should see before they leave theaters.

Another survival-story of sorts: Blockbuster video. The once-dominant video store chain survived the digital revolution (and transition to cloud-based media consumption) longer than many expected. Yet as we knew it would eventually, Blockbuster announced this week that it will soon be closing its final 300 stores and ending its DVD-by-mail service.

The death of Blockbuster, following the death of the record store and the local bookstore (Barnes and Nobles will surely not survive much longer), marks the ongoing transition to a new era in which cultural commerce unfolds no longer in any sort of common, physical Third Place, but in a digital diaspora wherein individuals personally access streams and store (I wouldn’t say “collect”) media for their convenient consumption. And while this iMedia world has its advantages (the ability to access millions of songs and movies on one’s phone with just a few clicks and swipes), it also has severe drawbacks.

all is lostSuch as: Are we losing a sense of common culture? Perhaps that is an outdated question. To the extent that it ever existed (in America for instance) “common culture” has been rapidly dissipating since at least the 1960s. Still, I wonder if the post-Blockbuster world of cloud-based media consumption is making it ever more unlikely that “culture” or “the arts” or “media” will be something that in the future pulls people together in unifying experiences, discussions and debates. After all, we don’t have to talk to anyone anymore (not even a person behind a counter!) when we purchase a movie, an album, a book. From start to finish, our entire experience of pop culture can happen through one little screen and/or one pair of headphones, wholly unique to us and totally tailored to our tastes, preferences and whims.

With everyone becoming their own self-styled curator, commentator, and ala carte consumer, and with the Internet exponentially subdividing niches, genres, and micro-communities for any of a billion interests, it seems implausible that “common” anything will survive the 21st century. As much as the Internet has gotten mileage out of the “connectedness” metaphor, it seems to be more adept at making us isolated consumers with the power to curate consumer pathways and narrative webs entirely on our own timetables and at our own discretion. We are subject to no one and nothing but our “instant” whims and desires; the curatorial power of “gatekeepers” has been diminished; metanarratives have been long deconstructed. We’re on our own, lost in the vast wilderness of the consumptive “cloud.”

Perhaps this is why the theme of “isolation” seems ever more ubiquitous in our cultural narratives. The solo shows of Gravity and All is Lost are not (of course) overt commentaries on 21st century media consumption trends. But I do think the subtext is there. We are alone, navigating our way in a free-for-all space. There’s a freedom in that. But also a terror. It’s a reverse claustrophobia: a fear of too many choices, too many open roads, too few guides and too little guidance.

One sees the isolation elsewhere. Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White are quintessentially American anti-heroes: stubbornly independent, allergic to attachment and subsequently desperately alone. Walt White’s Whitman-esque “Song of Myself” in Breaking Bad–often played out in the vast, unforgiving landscapes of the desert Southwest–illustrates the sobering reality that utter independence often leads to wayward isolation. To a lesser extent, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha conveys a similar, albeit more humorous, sense of freedom as isolation in the character of Frances (Greta Gerwig), a twentysomething hipster whose freewheeling decisions to go to Paris on a whim, for example, or to literally dance in the streets of Manhattan, only deepen her directionless despair. It’s perhaps noteworthy that the free spirit dancing pose of the Frances Ha poster resembles the iconic iPod ads featuring silhouette bodies solo dancing against a bright neon background.

gravityAre these movie and TV narratives reflecting the unforeseen isolation of the iPod age? As we further individualize our mediated and cultured lives and embrace the freedom to dance to whatever cultural beat we like, are we simply left spinning and dizzy? That’s certainly the way I felt after watching Gravity and, to a lesser extent, All is Lost: dizzy, unsteady, destabilized, sea-sick. I was left feeling hungry for ballast, for anchors, for solidity; for something outside of myself to offer orientation.

Because going to Blockbuster on a Friday night used to be overwhelming enough. But at least the options were finite. These days the sheer ubiquity of all that is available, all that is recommended, all that is buzzed about in ceaseless streams of 140-character bursts, leaves me with a bit of vertigo: spinning like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, pulled in a million directions at the mercy of vacuity, untethered and uncertain which way is up.

Body Politics in the Films of Steve McQueen

With his new film 12 Years a Slave earning rave reviews and Oscar buzz, British filmmaker Steve McQueen–whose background is in fine art and experimental filmmaking–is poised to become a darling of this year’s awards season. Accolades are pouring in for McQueen’s Slave for its powerful depiction of slavery and the dynamo performances of its cast. But to me the most interesting thing about Slave is what it means in the larger context of McQueen’s feature work. His films–Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and Slave (2013)–each depict visceral, sometimes brutal explorations of human embodiment. They are centrally concerned with the body: its power, its limits, and the complex manner in which it interacts with one’s will.

1212 Years a Slave, as any movie about slavery must be (including last year’s Django Unchained), is a harrowing look at the politics of the body. In the flesh-for-cash world of slavery, bodies are reduced to property: instruments of labor that can be beaten, whipped, lynched or worse with nary a conscience-pricked hesitation (this is all horrifyingly depicted in Slave). The illogic and evil of this is underscored by the plot of Slave, which follows free-born African American Solomon Northrup as he is kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he is in bondage for 12 years. McQueen foregrounds the shocking juxtaposition of the civilized, middle class Northrup at the film’s start–decked out in antebellum suit and top hat–with his stripped, beaten, bloodied body later as a slave. It makes the now familiar imagery of slavery seem shocking and horrific in a new way. A scene of Northrup and other naked slaves being “inspected” by auctioneers and white suit-clad aristocrat slaveowners has a similar effect.

One of Slave’s most indelible images is a prolonged, agonizing scene in which Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hangs by a noose from a tree, his toes just barely touching the ground, enough to shift his weight around slightly but not enough to relieve the suffocating pull at his neck. McQueen’s camera stays on this painful scene for what seems like an eternity. It’s hard to watch, yet McQueen forces us to watch. As kids play in the background, and the lady of the plantation (Sarah Paulson) peers out coldly from a nearby balcony, we are confronted with the horrifying humiliation and degradation of a human body. Similar scenes (particularly a brutal lashing near the end of the film) are repeated throughout. Over and over again, the slaveholders express their power position by beating the slaves into submission. The idea is that over time, the relentless lashings will break the slave’s will–rendering him or her wholly obedient (which is to say largely powerless).

Yet the human body is resilient. One of the striking things about Slave is that it shows just how much bodily violation a human being can withstand. To keep living, to refuse to break (as Northrup does), is to wield the last shred of power an embodied being can exert. The opposite may also be true: To end one’s own life, especially when one is held captive as valued “property” of another, is in its own way an act of power. This is an idea flirted with in Slave by own of its most tragic characters. It’s also the idea at the center of McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger.

hungerIn that film, control over one’s body as a means of political power takes the form of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. As Bobby Sands, Michael Fassbender leads his IRA comrades in a statement of rebellion by refusing to bathe and then refusing to eat. In prison, these men have no freedom but the freedom one can wield (in some capacity) over one’s body. They intentionally wallow in their filth and refuse to bathe as a punishment to their captors. They refuse to eat until their demands are met. And yet one’s ability to push the body to extremes in this way, while retaining the ability to function, has its limits. In both Slave and Hunger we see visceral portraits of the bodiliness of bodies, simultaneously strong and frail, willed and wild, under and out of control.

McQueen’s second feature film, the controversial Shame, explores these same issues by depicting one man’s (Michael Fassbender) struggles with sex addiction. With its scenes of pain, frustration, guilt, and self-loathing, Shame soberly illustrates how one can be both master and slave to their body. Brandon (Fassbender) is at war with his carnality. Even while he is free to employ his physicality at will to charm any woman he wants into fulfilling his lustful desires (a form of power, to be sure), he cannot fight the bodily desires that plague him: to have more, and more, and more sex. Brandon finds himself a captive in his own body. The film’s deepest conflict is Brandon’s conscious desire to do one thing vs. a body that wants to do another.

In all his startling depictions of the raw carnality and fleshiness of humanity, McQueen is less interested in judging the morality of his characters’ actions as he is with observing the curious ways that humans attempt to control their bodies or abuse them as a sort of power play.

It’s interesting to consider these themes in light of our contemporary culture’s peculiar relationship with the body. Increasingly disembodied/digitized both in our expressions and perceptions of reality, are we becoming estranged from our own embodiment? Has our body become an abstracted other?

Think about all the ways we treat our bodies as almost alien things to be conquered and controlled:

  • We adopt bizarre diets and crazy fitness regimens to force our body into whatever beefed-up or slimmed-down physique we desire (often in efforts to mimic some idealized body image we’ve been mediated to envy). As a corollary to this, eating disorders are rampant.

  • We can purchase a medicine or an implant or a surgical procedure for almost anything we could possibly want our body to do or be.

  • We use contraception, and in some cases abortion, to stop the body from doing what it naturally does (procreate).

  • We use technologies and performance-enhancing drugs to push our bodies beyond the limits of what they can naturally do.

  • We pierce and tattoo our bodies, we reconceive our body’s gendered makeup, we twerk around like Miley Cyrus, all to declare our absolute ownership and dominion over the body, however transgressive it might be.

What does all of this say about the way we think about our bodies today? In some ways it’s simply a natural progression from the feminist and racial body politics of the latter twentieth century. What’s new is the extent to which technology is reshaping our understanding of embodiment and our ability to manipulate our bodies to our liking. Not only can we define our bodies, reshape them and package them to serve an agenda, but we can also manipulate how others see them. Think about Facebook/Instagram. In the Photoshop era of quick-click touchups and cropping, our actual embodiment is sometimes less important than the way it is portrayed to others. This is just another way we alienate ourselves from the body, even while we seek to control it more.

Is Steve McQueen conscious of these changing realities of how humans understand embodiment? Is that what’s behind his films’ preoccupations with bodies as symbols of power and politics? Perhaps. Or maybe he’s simply an artist with a particular fascination with the complexity and brutality of embodiment. In any case I find his vision absolutely fascinating, frequently beautiful, and provocative without being gratuitous. His films are not easy to watch, by any means, and I cannot in good conscience recommend Shame to anyone (I would never see it a second time). But Hunger and 12 Years a Slave are compelling works of art. Punishing, yes. But also profound.