Oscars 2014: Architecture’s precise role in Steve McQueen’s films

Director Steve McQueen revisits a plantation site where he filmed the movie "12 Years a Slave."
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

The Statue of Liberty is filthy. Rust stains on the copper. Dirt in the folds of her gown. In need of a good scrubbing.

I learned this from watching “Static,” a 2009 video installation by British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen that is shot from a helicopter buzzing loudly as it circles the landmark over and over.

That seven-minute piece and the rest of his work for the art world is gaining new attention now that McQueen has found success in Hollywood. He is nominated for director at Sunday’s Academy Awards for his third feature, “12 Years a Slave.” The film is among the favorites for best picture.

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The fastidiousness that has become a McQueen trademark, which makes the more violent scenes in “12 Years” hard to watch, regularly tips into self-consciousness. He can seem hugely pleased with the composition of the shots in his feature films, some of which he lingers over for minutes on end, just as the helicopter continually circles the Statue of Liberty in “Static,” one circuit seeming to admire the sculpture for its nobility and patience, the next suggesting the tattered state of the American Dream or even a dry run for a terror attack.

What appears a dedicated rigor in some scenes comes across in a small number of others as a preference for the image over the audience. If cinematographers ruled the world, the cineplex might be filled with pictures like McQueen’s.

And what would that mean? At the very least, it would be encouraging news for those of us who pay a lot of attention to the treatment of architecture in the movies. In a career that is still taking shape, the 44-year-old McQueen has already done more to make me rethink the relationship between the built environment and the camera than almost anybody in Hollywood.

In fact, you can find in his full body of work a sustained attempt to measure how much the physical or architectural setting of a scene contributes to a narrative and how much it takes us out of one.

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Sometimes buildings come to the forefront in this measurement, as in 2009’s “Giardini,” which was filmed on a few winter days at the deserted grounds of the Venice Biennale in Italy, its modern and neoclassical pavilions shut up tight against the cold. Elsewhere, their meanings are pushed below the narrative surface. But always, the architecture — or the monuments, like the Statue of Liberty — has a precise role to play.

Is this approach an effective vehicle for McQueen’s filmmaking ambition? Or is it a remnant of his past in the art world, where an image gains value precisely by standing apart from (or in for) the story? Is it something he can rely on in Hollywood or something he needs or is trying to move past?

The answers to those questions probably depend on how much credit we give the moviegoing audience. Or how much common ground we find in the experience of watching a film in a museum and watching one in a movie theater.

In “Hunger,” released in 2008, IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender, doesn’t just grow thinner but also seems to hollow out as he refuses to eat. The strike is the only way he can push the walls of the Maze prison away. He does it in reverse, by making himself smaller.

In 2011’s “Shame,” it is not only the coolly modern and largely empty high-rise apartment in New York’s Chelsea district that belongs to Fassbender’s antihero, a nearly mute sex addict with nice clothes and good hair named Brandon, that telegraphs the themes of the story. Brandon’s world is consistent — all of it rendered in a palette of winter blues and concrete gray.

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A few scenes take place in the Standard Hotel over the High Line in Manhattan. The building, designed by Todd Schliemann of Ennead Architects and appealing in an austere Corbusian way, is an apt symbol for a man who’s an exhibitionist and a cipher at the same time, whose charisma and loneliness flow from the same place.

“12 Years a Slave,” at once McQueen’s most ambitious and most conventional movie, is even more suggestive in its use of architecture. Fassbender is back as a brutish Southerner, but the film rarely leaves Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup as he is lured from freedom in New York state and sold into slavery in Washington, D.C.

Beginning with an early shot that pans up from Northup’s face and through dozens of layers of bricks before ending with a shot of the Washington skyline — he is in for it, that scene says — the movie takes up architectural symbols in a sustained and strategic way.

This is most obviously true in the way the porches of the slave owners’ houses tower over Northup like looming Parthenons of white privilege. It is most persuasively true of the pair of structures that Northup helps to build and that become a visual way to track his slow path back to freedom.

First comes a slave shack that he works to frame and that stands in the background, roofless, as he hangs from a tree after barely surviving a lynching attempt. Next is what turns out to be a gazebo on the grounds of a second plantation. The gazebo is roofless as well for scene after scene, until Northup meets and tells his story to a sympathetic abolitionist carpenter played by Brad Pitt.

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Once they make a pact that will lead to Northup’s freedom, McQueen gives us a shot of the completed gazebo, with Northup standing under it. He’s recovered at least a suggestion of his dignity; he won’t have to work, write letters, clean himself or take abuse from his various white tormentors in the open air any longer.

Architecture is society — in this film as in all of McQueen’s work — and Northup is about to be restored to it. This is also where convention comes in: Architecture gives us one of the first signs that the movie is going to have an old-fashioned happy ending.

A similar approach to architectural themes — sensitive but opportunistic — is easy to see in McQueen’s video-art pieces. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, so is an ability to entertain and surprise while at the same time starkly repurposing well-worn symbols. This talent was an early sign that McQueen might be able to navigate the trip from museums and galleries to Hollywood.

In the 1997 piece “Deadpan,” based on a Buster Keaton trick in the 1928 movie “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” McQueen stands in what appears to be an empty field. When a sudden gust of wind ruffles his clothes, you realize that a house — or at least the front facade — has fallen over him, the cut-out space for a window passing directly over his body and saving him from harm.

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And then you see it happen again and again, in slow motion and at regular speed. The repetition turns an event that first comes across as a bit of slapstick — an architectural parlor trick — into something menacing, the expression on McQueen’s face beginning to look less like anticipation or secret-keeping and more like forbearance. Certainly, the symbolic difference between a house falling on a white silent-film star and a young black artist is a gap that McQueen exploits to full advantage.

Yet I also saw in “Deadpan,” when I first watched it, a suggestion that McQueen had found a trap door to ease his escape from the art world to the movies. Many artists who try to make that transition stand dumbly in Hollywood’s field and let the weight of a craven industry fall on them.

McQueen was perfectly willing to perform the pantomime but had rigged it. He’d cut a man-sized hole in the studio wall.