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The Film-Semiotics of 'Hunger' (Dir. Steve McQueen): A Movie Analysis Essay
If I can thank The Northern Film School for one thing, it would be for introducing me to the best British film of the 00s: Hunger , the modern art house classic dealing with the life of the infamous IRA member Bobby Sands, his time in prison, and his eventual hunger strike. I believe it is a very tightly and carefully constructed film; every image has the sense that it has been deliberated over and adjusted until it is just right. Everything comes together to make one of the most emotionally difficult films I’ve seen, and this essay attempts to deconstruct some of the signs used in it to discover how this is achieved. It’s something that I did for the school in my second year, but it has been adjusted and improved a little. It’s a good example of the kind of film theory you learn in film school. I would recommend watching it before you read because there are spoilers, but if you don’t I’ll be happy if I inspire you to go see it.
Semiology – The science of signs and symbols
First of all, a brief explanation as to what the balls I’m talking about with this semiotics stuff:
Semiology is the study of signs and symbols, what they represent, how they are used in media, and what messages they portray. Through juxtaposition of certain signs, the artist/writer/creator can convey a specific message to the audience without implicitly stating it. A tree (the signifier), for example, is a tree, but it is also a symbol of nature, growth, life (the signified)…but juxtaposed with an apple, a whole other meaning can be interpreted. Tree, apple…knowledge? Add a naked lady into the mix and then we have a much more defined symbol. It’s a great way to analyse exactly how a film is constructed and what is says to particular audiences – it’s exactly how films have always worked!
If you go back to the silent days, less emphasis was placed on dialogue and more emphasis placed on images that were easily and quickly recognisable by the majority of the audience. Hunger is famously lacking in dialogue, save for one 15 minute shot, and relies on slick juxtaposition of certain images to give the audience that gut feeling, the generalised message, instead of an indexical message that can be logically explained.
By analysing the semiotics of the film, directed and co-written by Steve McQueen, one can gather that film’s overall intent is portraying the devastating effects of pushing the physical limits of a human being and the loss of innocence by juxtaposing signs and symbols from well-defined paradigms. My analysis is separated into four juxtapositions: comfort and discomfort, beauty and ugliness, innocence and violence and nature and artificiality; each identifying the signifiers and signified, the paradigms being exploited, what messages are being put across and the principle at work linking them all together. This is based on Robert M. Seiler’s “Guide To A Semiological Analysis”, which is in turn based on Roland Barthes’ (1977) essay, “The Rhetoric of the Image.” (2004, University of Calgary). I will also briefly examine some of the signs used in connection to the political and religious side of this story.
One of the key juxtapositions McQueen uses in Hunger is putting signs universally associated with family and comfort against the horrific violence and decidedly uncomforting signs of the prison. The juxtaposition makes a the inhumanity established even stronger.
The story arc of Raymond, the prison warden, is useful to look at when examining the contrast between comfort and discomfort. The paradigm is defined here as ‘domestic comfort’, which I would probably describe as :familiar domestic signs which give a homely feeling to western audiences. The audience’s introduction to Raymond is full of signs typically associated with domestic life, edited in a montage style to gather an overall image.
The scene follows him as he prepares for his day at work, washing, getting dressed and eating breakfast. In this montage sequence, the images of the pink nailbrush and ceramic sink, freshly laundered and ironed clothes and neatly presented hot breakfast give a syntagm (meaning signified) of domestic comfort. The nailbrush is pink, no accident when it comes to creating this image, as it is the most feminine colour, which is a great contrast to the masculinity of theme and image in the rest of the film. The rest of the elements in this one image of the sink are equally important when it comes to getting across the syntagm: The sink is pristine white, which denotes reasonable expense and connotes cleanliness and prosperity. Raymond’s rings are on the edge, denoting that he is married and connoting stability and love. We can also see wounds on his knuckles, the only sign that seems out of place in this image, being the only damaged, uncomforting sign.
However, this is simply the first instance of juxtaposing signs of comfort and signs of discomfort in the film. We also have a 3-shot sequence in which Raymond gets dressed. His clothes are relatively smart and pristinely ironed, denoting that he is well looked after, but the connotation is stronger, particularly in contrast to the almost comedic colourful clothes the prisoners are given to wear later in the film. It highlights the huge distinction between the warden and the prisoners’ way of life. Concluding this montage is Raymond being served a wholesome looking hot breakfast, on a neatly arranged table. Apart from denoting a huge difference in the quality of the meals Raymond gets compared to the prisoners, this scene is significant in rounding the montage image of comfort, which offers a powerful contrast to the rest of the film. The plate can easily be identified as an English breakfast, something British audiences will immediately resonate with, and associate with home and comfort.
Jean Antoine-Dunne and Paula Quigley, in The Montage Principle, would call this sequence “The shaping of an image evolving through associational logic, whereby one sense image chases after another” (2004, pp2). The audience, through associating these signs together, will build another generalised image in their mind; in this case it is the homely comfort of Raymond’s life. Having this image, the following syntagm of the prison will have a stronger affect on them.
The image is in huge contrast to the images in the rest of the film, particularly in another similar scene in which Raymond cleans his wounds once more, but in the prison. The pink nailbrush is replaced with a pair of black scissors. Immediately, one can see the contrast in colour: black has markedly different connotations to pink, for one it has always been a symbolic signifier of death, loss, depression, and despair (Dictionary of Symbolism, University of Michigan) definitely more discomforting and masculine than pink. Another difference lies in the use of the object itself: scissors are used to cut, that is, to break or separate something, whereas a nailbrush is used for cleaning. To be honest, this probably only comes across in connotation, but since these two sink images are so similar, it is bound to come across strongly. The camera angle and the action are exactly the same in each scene, so they lend themselves to be contrasted. Although the sink is also white, the water is stained with Raymond’s blood. Including being an iconic sign denoting that violence has occurred, the blood makes it a much grimier image, which stands out against the original.
At this point it is suggested that the original montage is out of continuity with the rest of the film, because we see how Raymond gets his wounds; unless he managed to acquire the same wounds twice, which is unlikely. This is significant in analysing how McQueen has constructed the images as it shows his intention of playing certain paradigms against each other for the desired effect. Having the montage at the beginning puts the syntagm of comfort in the audience’s mind early on, and assists with the emotional impact when we finally get to the prison.
In an interview with Jason Solomons on the DVD extras of the film, McQueen makes it clear that the way he constructed the story was not down to any storytelling conventions but constructing it in “the best way of translating [this material] on screen” (2008, DVD). Arranging the action like this might be a little disorienting on first viewing, but was essential for the necessary syntagms and resulting principle to comes across.
Looking at the clothes the prisoners receive, one can easily see the disparity between them and Raymond. They are vibrantly coloured and of poor quality, and the prisoners display their displeasure in no uncertain terms: destroying their new rooms and clothes angrily. The primary colours are significant in that their connotation is that of immaturity, and highlights the disrespect the authorities have for the prisoners. Raymond’s clothes are smart and are of neutral colour. The syntagm emphasises the clash of differences of the quality of people’s lives surrounding this event.
Raymond’s death scene rounds off the juxtaposition of comfort and discomfort well, as well as the fight between femininity and masculinity. As he meets his mother in the elderly home, the signs give a sense of serenity and comfort, only for Raymond to be shot in the neck by an assassin. The room is quiet, and the signs within it are non-threatening. Raymond brings flowers, universally associated with peace and love and are often used to bring comfort; the theme being addressed here. Suddenly, an aggressive looking man marches in with a black revolver and shoots Raymond before he has a chance to react. The gun is the classic symbol of violence and masculinity, and is given a clear close-up, emphasizing the difference between the signs in this scene. The assassin leaves Raymond lying in the lap of his mother, dead. This final image is as ironic as it gets: representing a sign of a mother comforting his son, except the fact that he is dead, she is simply staring in to space and they are both caked in blood. This one image alone sums up the unnatural conflict between domestic comfort and the discomforting lives of anybody connected to the maze prison.
The principle at work with this one semiotic juxtaposition is of emphasizing the disparity between the normal lives of the prison workers, in this case it is Raymond, and the life in prison. The syntagm that comes across from Raymond’s side is homely and comforting, whereas in the prison, it is completely the opposite, that is, extremely distant and uncomforting.
Another effective juxtaposition McQueen uses is the use of signs typically associated with disgust and ugliness, usually using excrement, in an unorthodox way, which actually gives an oddly beautiful syntagm to many audiences. This is manifested most famously in the ‘shit on the wall’ scene, in which a cleaner comes to wash feaces off a prison wall, only to find that it has been painted in a near-perfect spiral shape. The sign of feaces is implicit of dirt, uncleanness and low social order, but here, it is represented as a form of rebellion. It is like a piece of art in that regard, turning something irregular and ugly and turning it into something beautiful. The circle, or spiral, is an unthreatening shape by itself, and makes a strong sense of irony as it is constructed in excrement.
Shit has never looked so beautiful
Urine also makes an appearance, similarly used as an act of rebellion as the prisoners collect it and simultaneously pour it into the corridor. As the cleaner sweeps it up, it is filmed in such a way to make it seem aesthetically pleasing. It is a wide shot, showing the entire corridor in the frame. It is also long in duration, almost 3 minutes. This is an example of Brechtian film making, the length reminding the spectator that they are spectating, not part of the action, but are forced to examine what they are watching. This scene “turns the spectator into an observer, but arouses his power of action…” (Willett, 1977, pp170), encouraging him to look closely at the elements of the scene. By doing this, the traditional urine sign syntagm is not taken for granted, but reexamined and will thus create a new syntagm: perhaps of beauty, like the feaces on the wall.
Piss as an act of rebellion
These two examples show a clear attempt by McQueen to present familiar signs in an unorthodox fashion. The use of the sign of excrement in this artistic way is ironic, and for me, represents the need for purity and something ‘good’ in the world of this film, even if it requires twisting something from the lowest of the low. I believe this is the overriding principle in the use of this juxtaposition.
The loss of innocence
Innocence and the loss of innocence is also a major theme in Hunger, represented in various degrees, in implication and in more obvious ways.
One example I would use would be a symbolic representation of innocence, in one beautiful shot near the beginning of the film. As Raymond takes a smoke outside the prison, it is snowing, and a single snowflake lands on one of the wounds on his knuckle. The snowflake is considered unique and pure and the it’s colour, white, “can represent either innocence or the ultimate goal of purification” (Protas, 2001), and the fact that the snowflake lands on his wounded knuckle, a sign of violence, offers a strong juxtaposition.
Film makers have been using these signs since the birth of cinema, perhaps most famously in Citizen Kane, where it has often been speculated that Charles Foster Kane’s sled, Rosebud, represents his own loss of innocence and yearning for childhood. The sled’s introduction is in a scene dominated with snow, and is at the point where Kane’s childhood effectively stops:
“Rosebud is the most potent emblem of Kane’s childhood, and the comfort and importance it represents for him are rooted in the fact that it was the last item he touched before being taken from his home.” (2010, SparkNotes)
The sled and the snow are signs often connected with childhood, and in turn with innocence, and the implicit contrast with violence makes the syntagm on the audience even stronger.
Violence is often linked to the loss of innocence, as the child, the strongest symbol of innocence, is not conventionally expected to experience it. There is a clever use of the child symbol, as we see a baby in the arms of a prisoner in the visitors’ area. To see it in the arms of this unkempt man is to see contrast between the harsh and violent life of him and the innocence of the child. We also see the baby being used as a smuggler, only emphasizing the theme of the loss of innocence, as the baby is the means to a potentially violent end.
In other scenes, we see more indexical signs connecting with innocence or the loss of innocence. The scene in which the riot police search the prisoners is effective in that it follows a young officer, who is clearly devastated by what he is doing, so much that he escapes the room to cry on his own. The most powerful image in this sequence is the split frame, showing the violence continuing on the left side and the young officer crying on the right. This shows deliberate semiotic juxtaposition: the armoured riot police with their batons beating the prisoners versus a tearful young man. The fact that the man is so young and clearly affected for the worse by this event shows a loss of innocence. The tears almost always represent sadness and emotional strife, and the violence has led him to this point. He is clearly too young and innocent to handle such a thing, and this scene no doubt brings sympathy from the audience.
Finally, I would point out the closing sequence, in which Bobby Sands hallucinates about his childhood as an example of McQueen juxtaposing signs of innocence and violence/strife. The younger version of Sands appears to be looking down on the starving adult Sands, and the difference between the two is strong. The youthful face is a sign of innocence implicitly, and it is hard to comprehend that the extremely skinny and dying Sands is the same person. With the previous account of his childhood in the audiences’ mind however, it is clear that this is who he is, and creates an effective contrast. The adult Sands is covered in sores and it his ribs are clear beneath his skin. The broken body is often a sign of violence, in this case it is self-violence or self-harm more accurately, and juxtaposed with the healthy looking boy it can possible give a syntagm of sadness in the audience.
The loss of innocence is yet another of the emotionally resonant themes McQueen uses to represent this story. The principle here shows a sadness that most humans will identify with. The sense is that the innocence these characters had as children has been lost to the events surrounding this film.
Man vs. Nature
The final semiotic juxtaposition I will analyse will be the theme of nature versus the clinical, artificial and unnatural signs of the prison.
This juxtaposition is introduced early on in the film, as Davey Gillen gets acquainted with his cell. He plays with a fly, which is flying around near the bars. It is the only natural sign in the room. The fly, with its ability to fly, has a symbolic meaning of freedom, and is in stark contrast to the cell, which is an artificial environment. The syntagm that tends to come across is of melancholy, in that this tiny fly is freer than the prisoners, and seems out of place in the cell.
I would like very much to know how the film makers achieved this shot.
The juxtaposition is most evident in the concluding hallucinatory sequence, where images of trees and birds are superimposed over Sands convulsing and vomiting. Trees and birds are iconic signs of nature and are completely removed from the world of the prison. This is the first time we have seen such images in the film and the fact that it comes after this extended sequence of Sands on his hunger strike, which no doubt gives huge relief to the audience.
The signs are in such a strong contrast to what has come before. Sands ordeal is decidedly unnatural, as vomit and the physical signs of his trauma are signs indexical of ill health. The images of nature, and the following flashback to Sands childhood serves as an escape for him and a catharsis for the audience. This is something that nearly all audiences relate to as human beings, and will therefore identify a similar syntagm.
What McQueen seems to be suggesting through this juxtaposition is that the events in the film that come about are artificial and are therefore unnatural. The principle linking all of these semiotic juxtapositions together is emphasizing that the ordeals of the prisoners, the guards and the riot police is an unnatural experience. This is shown through the themes of discomfort, the loss of innocence, the battle between nature and the artificial and the ironic use of excremental signs.At no point do any of the actions seem ‘right’ to the audience, no matter what side of the political or ethical argument they are on, surrounding these real-life events.
The relieving final sequence
With this in mind I will finish by analysing some semiotics used which relate directly or indirectly to the social and political side of the film. Although not an overtly political film considering its subject matter, it still uses signs that will affect audiences with basic knowledge of these events. [The political side of this film I may explore further in another essay]
Firstly, I would point out Raymond’s Union Jack key ring, which appears early on as he gets ready for work. The Union Jack is known worldwide as the flag of the United Kingdom, but symbolically, it can have a number of connotations based on the spectator’s life experience. Some might see that the Union Jack represents western values whilst others might see that it represents imperialism and elitism. Either way, I believe the only significance it has in terms of this character is to make it clear to the audience early on which ‘side’ he is on. The fact that it is on a key ring makes it clear that it is personal to him, but there could be any number of syntagms that come about dependent on the person watching. I think that McQueen’s intention was to draw attention to the human story rather than the political one, since this sign only appears once, and other paradigms come across much stronger.
One more set of signs I will look at are the religious ones, all coming in one scene, where a priest attempts to address the prisoners. We see a crucifix and a bible, amongst other signs on the table, but what is significant is the fact that the prisoners are simply chatting away without any concentration on the signs or what the priest is saying. The syntagm coming across in most western audiences might be uncomfortable. Britain and Ireland have been predominantly Christian societies, and with that comes concerns about being sacrilegious, maybe only subconsciously, but this scene definitely has those connotations. The principle here is clear: the human story has priority over every other concern, whether that be religious or political.
In conclusion, the use of semiotic juxtaposition in Hunger is for the prime reason of evoking a sense of human injustice and implying that what is going on is completely unnatural. The careful construction of the imagery is no doubt what makes the film so emotionally resonant, and will hopefully make it stand the test of time.
Antoine-Dunne, J. and Quigley, P., 2004. The Montage Principle: Eisenstein in New Cultural and Critical Studies, Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi
Willet, J., 1977 [Fourth Edition], The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, London: Eyre Methuen
Hunger. 2008 [DVD] Directed by Steve McQueen, UK: Pathe Distribution/Blast! Films
Hunger, Jason Solomons’ Interviews: Steve McQueen. 2008 [DVD] UK:Pathe Distribution/Blast! Films
Citizen Kane, 1941. [DVD] Directed by Orson Welles, New York: Mercury Productions/RKO
Seiler, R. M., University of Calgary, Semiology//Semiotics. [Online]
[Accessed at: 10th January 2011]
Protas, A, University of Michigan, 2001, Dictionary of Symbolism. [Online] Available at: http://www.umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/ [Accessed at: 18th January 2011]
Spark Notes, 2010. Citizen Kane: Themes, Motifs, and Symbols. [Online]
[Accessed at: 18th January 2011]