Shame (UK/USA, 2011, Steve McQueen)
If you hadn't seen the films but merely heard a plot synopsis of each, Steve McQueen's current offering, Shame, could easily sound entirely different than his 2008 debut, Hunger. The latter is about an actual person from a relatively recent historical period, a public figure who became so as the result of his involvement in a political action. The former is a fiction in the immediately contemporary setting about an individual grappling with his personal problem, in a fundamentally private way.
Yet, the films have in common a preoccupation with human suffering as it is localized on the concrete materiality of the particular person. Not that there is any shortage of psychological anguish involved. Far from it. But this is phenomenologically grounded in the physical body, be it in pain or supposed pleasure. Both Hunger and Shame examine pathologies that amount to protracted suicide missions.
In Hunger, this self-destructiveness takes the form of a martyr complex on behalf of what the protagonist believes is his purpose in a great social struggle. He does die and his death does, in fact, make a martyr of him. In turn, this makes a massive symbolic contribution to the cause. The substance of the story of Bobby Sands and the ideological complexity of "The Troubles" in Ireland 30 years ago are treated with tremendous sensitivity. (To say nothing of the aesthetic power of the film.) But at the center of the picture is the director's focus on a man starving himself to death, willfully wasting his body away.
In Shame, the protagonist is attempting to fuck himself to death. The extent to which he is doing this willfully is inverse to the extent to which he is unwilling to admit to himself that his compulsive sexual activity is self-destructive. The main dramatic thrust of the film has to do with him - and us - being forced to face this fact. The flip-side of the political protester in Hunger refusing to eat, the carnal maniac in Shame cannot eat enough pussy and all the rest of it. The same coin remains. He is trying to use up his body, exhaust all of its erotic energy, achieve the perfect orgasm that is perfect because it will kill him. (To say nothing of the aesthetic power of the film.)
Perhaps because Hunger is so obviously contextualized in a true story of no trivial historical importance, I am inclined to think that Shame should be subjected to interpretation beyond the experience of the main character to the culture at large. This is, after all, not your run-of-the-mill addiction and it demands special consideration. Junkie for drugs, glutton for food, obsessive gambler - sex addict? No doubt, they exist - although certainly less frequently than other types of addicts - that is not at issue. The difficulty is conceptual insofar as we generally know that enough-is-enough when it comes to drugs, food, gambling - but we tend to feel that nobody is getting enough sex.
To get at this another way, what keeps Shame from being pornography? Is not the character living the cliche male fantasy? Keep in mind that he is not just masturbating in the bathroom, not just watching XXX videos, not just having virtual relations on the internet. He is having actual sex in real life constantly. And not just with prostitutes. Even more, not just with women he must pursue. He is having it also with women who pursue him. And all of his partners are unquestionably attractive. For he is just as unquestionably attractive. He is nothing less than a chick magnet, a true stud, a sex machine whose piston runs all night, every night. For the red-blooded, heterosexual man in the audience, the protagonist doesn't have a problem - he's living the dream!... no?
No. McQueen shows the dream as nightmare. Shame is just too emotionally disturbing to be taken as Puritan propaganda for monogamy, but there can be no doubt that the treadmill of promiscuity is presented as a disease. The sources of the disease are not made clear, however, either internally at the level of the narrative or externally with respect to sociological implications. In my view, it is precisely this ambiguity that elevates Shame from being a voyeuristic sneak-peak at a degenerate to a serious study of a tortured soul in a world of terrible alienation.
We in the audience are depressed looking at this person because we know the world in which he lives is the one in which we too live. All around us, all the time, sex sells everything and everything sold is sexy. It doesn't take too much critical perspective to see that the dominant commercial forces in the culture aim to promote sex addiction in all of us, however cryptically embedded in consumerism, the ultimate addiction. Or not so encoded. That Oil of Olay ad looks good to me point blank.
As I happen to be theoretically inclined, I have been able to identify this sociological implication. A reading internal to the narrative I find more challenging to devise. No back-story is provided to explain the nature of the protagonist's relationship with his sister. The most that can be grasped is that she is just as damaged as he is, just as full of shame, albeit in a different, female way. He wants to push her away. She wants to draw him near. But whatever happened to them (molested as children?) or between them (incest as adolescents?) can only be speculated.
I maintain that such speculation about the siblings' past should be canceled. This forces us to face the fact of his addiction, as well as her own suicidal tendency, with no more insight into all of this than he has; indeed, with less. McQueen robs us of any vantage point that would allow us to judge the character. Yet, it is utterly impossible to identify with him. The ambiguous ending only adds to our discomfort. Hey, I had to watch two episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm right after Shame to get over how icky the film made me feel.
One thing is for sure. If Hunger allowed you to expect more arresting images from McQueen and another totally committed performance from Fassbender, your expectation should have been met by Shame. These artists are making, well, art. Damn affecting art, at that. On this score, I have to register my only reservation with Shame. Too much music, the excellent use of it notwithstanding. As always in cinema, the music tells us how to feel. This is the fail-safe ensuring that even the stupidest guy in the audience does not mistake the film for soft-porn. But with no false modesty I must indicate that I am not the stupidest guy in the audience. Fassbender's face said it all.
Besides, any male hetero-sexist gaze would have got the message when the character expands his sexual universe to include homosexual experience. Here the script is to be commended for its sophistication. It absolutely avoids any homophobic suggestion that this gay encounter represents rock-bottom for the character. The message is that his illness is intensifying such that he will fuck literally anybody.
It becomes not unreasonable to suspect that he will soon enough engage in desperate acts of necrophilia and beastiality. Not out of lust that is perverse. Out of lust that is insatiable as such. Lust that is lost. Lust that has no specific object. Lust that is an empty generality, making the man stick his penis into any hole, giving him no pleasure at all. I reiterate that Shame is not an advertisement for monogamy. Less dismissible, the character is something of a poster boy for celibacy and anti-onanism to boot.
You've covered much that I wanted to talk about already, so instead of revisiting them, I'm going to focus on a few of the elements of the film that are particularly striking.
Shame shows us writer/director Steve McQueen's continuing fascination with people in bondage. With Hunger, the prison is literal, while in Shame, it is emotional. And while Hunger is clearly the more important film, a potent marriage of cinematic skill and narrative force that is as rare as it is precious, Shame is neither shamed nor diminished by comparison. Shame is more modest in scope and ambition, but the film keeps its aims well within its grasp. Seizing us by the throat from the get-go with an image of torment that resonates and repeats in various forms throughout the remainder of the film, and not releasing its grip until the sharp, agonizing final black out, Shame is as memorable and convincing a portrait of emotional imprisonment as Hunger is of the material one.
The film only offers up the most vague details of its main character's history, and I admit that my need to know the root causes of Brandon's (Fassbender) addiction often led me to exquisite frustration, as McQueen consistently pulled back from providing the sort of detailed back story that would have allowed me to come some conclusions about this character's self-destructive behaviour. This is a daring move on the director's part, as it risks alienating an audience trained to sleuth for psychological clues in the history of its characters. However, McQueen's refusal to connect the dots in our protagonist's past leads us away from the easy answers such a move would provide, and while it is possible in some stories to come to more general conclusions about human behaviour by digging through the particular details of an individual's history, such comforting conclusions evade us in Shame, and the film is much stronger for it. McQueen provides us with clues enough revealing a mysterious but clearly devastating childhood trauma, one shared with his equally and yet completely differently unhinged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) to satisfy those committed to a morbid emotional post-mortem, without it becoming the sort of catch-all answer that many in the audience may be seeking. This ambiguity and uncertainty force us out of the safe havens that such insights might provide, and back into the film, back into the anguished existence of both the protagonist and his sister.
What McQueen did so exquisitely in Hunger and what he continues to do so well here, is allow us to sit in silence with his characters, in order to absorb their suffering through the potency of his use of sound and image. There are so many moments of mindfulness suffusing the film, filling us with discomfort, confusion, dread and longing, that it feels like a punishment to those I omit to mention any. Still, the scenes on the subway that bookkend the film are worthy of scrutiny, particularly given the extra level of agony added to the sequence by our knowledge of all that has passed before.
Of course Fassbender is well-deserving of all the praise he has received (and the strange sort of honour that accompanies being snubbed for an Oscar nom) but let us not forget the fine work of Carey Mulligan here. Reminscent of an Anglo Michelle Williams, Mulligan likewise pours herself into her roles with great conviction. Here, her lack of self-consciousness is a key element of her complete commitment to her work in this role of a deeply battered and bruised soul.