Why I’m rooting for Steve McQueen at the Oscars.
by Todd Foley
One of the most important part of a story is if it sticks with me after a reading or viewing. Whether it moved me to tears, brought a smile to my face or just made me incredibly uncomfortable, the “after” effect is what I really look for.
Steve McQueen’s films definitely have the latter effect on me. Hunger and Shame are two of the most uncomfortable movies I’ve ever seen. They drew me into the world of characters so different from me, but McQueen’s refusal to look away or sugar-coat their realities created an incredibly human experience – and I could not shake those brutal realities even after the credits started to roll. Beyond that, the film’s questions were left unanswered at the end, leaving it open to the viewer’s interpretation.
He did all that and more with 12 Years A Slave. While this film had a more poetic feel to it, I still love that the ending left elements of the protagonist’s future uncertain.
The timing of my introduction to McQueen’s work came a couple years ago as I was in the midst of writing Eastbound Sailing and developing the story’s ending. [Funny enough, I wrote a post way back when about how if Eastbound Sailing were ever turned into a film and I could choose any director to recreate the story, I would choose Mr. McQueen himself.] When I started writing the book, I thought it would end with a strong, solid resolution. When I saw how unraveling McQueen’s films were, how he didn’t offer a clean answer to his characters’ dilemmas, how the endings weren’t actually endings but rather a pause after which the story continues in the viewer’s mind – I knew I had to change my own approach to storytelling. This isn’t to say that resolution isn’t good practice; I love the satisfaction of reading a book or watching a movie where I get to observe a complete arc to the story and the characters’ development. For my own book, though, I viewed the story as an interval of my protagonist’s life. There was a lot that happened before the first chapter, and a lot was going to happen after the last page. How that plays out, I don’t know. I knew that this would make my book unpopular to some readers, but that was okay, because that’s just how the story was meant to be told.
I won’t go into the plots of McQueen’s films here. They’re not for everyone, as they are quite graphic and far from comfortable viewing. In fact, I probably wouldn’t re-watch any of them. And I don’t have to, because the stories stuck. Because they made me uncomfortable. Because I had to wrestle after the ending. Because they were incredibly real. Because I got a glimpse into worlds so different from my own, but came away with a deeper understanding of the characters’ experiences. This is what makes Steve McQueen such an effective storyteller in my eyes, and why I’m rooting for him at the Oscars on Sunday.
For me, making a film is a bit like switching off the light in the room and trying to navigate around by touch and feel and smell and not by doing the sort of obvious thing of opening your eyes and looking around. It’s a different way of trying to make a reality on film, and that’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the here and now, and not other people and how they do things. It’s doesn’t help me. For me, it’s all about being present with the material that you have. – Steve McQueen