Monday, June 18, 2012

Catching Up: "Shame"

 3 / 5 

Director Steve McQueen gets the easy stuff out of the way first -- the shots of Michael Fassbender's fully nude body, yes, from the front, in close up.  This is what will distract, so there's a full 10 minutes of gratuitous male nudity at the start of Shame, followed by a spare, bleak, unblinking look at the man's life. (Will I belie my serious cinematic intent by saying that Michael Fassbender has a lot to work with there, and even covered its visible much of the time it's on screen - a bit like a male Dolly Parton.  That's important for an audience, because once you know what's there, how can you not keep wondering about it?)

His name is Brandon, he lives in a sparse Manhattan apartment, he eats food from Chinese take-out boxes, he watches porn on the computer, he masturbates by himself, way from those images, then he goes to work, where he knows one day, sooner or later, someone will find out who he is.

Or, rather, who he isn't.  Fassbender's Brandon is no one.  He has had ever opportunity to engage in the world, to bond with his colleagues, to find something that might interest him.  But sex is easy.  Sex, when done right, takes just long enough to push the rest of it out of your head, at least the way Brandon does it.

Shame has been described as a portrait of a man addicted to sex.  This isn't quite true; a substance hides the addiction, but the addiction is fueled by something more, something deeper, buried so long that it yearns to come out.  Pardon the expression, but it doesn't appear there's anything to come out in Brandon's case, or if there is, the wild gyrations and rough acrobatics of intimacy-free sex have pushed it down deeper, deeper and deeper, where maybe it might not matter anymore. 

Michael has no use for anything but sex, really, whether that's cyber-sex or solo-sex. He knows this is how he defines himself, and as long as it is his life and no other's, does he owe an explanation?

He finds out soon enough when his estranged sister Sissy pushes his way into his ascetic life.  He goal is sincere -- she doesn't want to undo him, she just wants to live with him. But for Michael, every change, every deviation, goes too far.  It pulls away, gently at first, at the reserve he has so perfectly cultivated.

This next sentence is not dismissive: In the 1990s Disney animated version of "Shame" there would be a moment -- a cry, a song, a plaintive wail in which Brandon finally admits what he wants -- is it just to be left alone?  Is it to find one like him?  To escape the pain of what must have been evil parents?  There's no way to know.  Brandon reveals nothing.  Ever.  His one big moment with Sissy is just posturing.

Parents factor in to "Shame" in a roundabout way, because at the film's heart are Brandon and his unexpected sister, living together momentarily because a brother takes in her sister.  There apparently is a history here.  One we don't want to know about.  One that has made them who they are.  They certainly aren't going to sing about it, so get that thought out of your mind.  (Singing plays a role here, in a long, long, long rendition of New York, New York, and the way McQueen stages and plays it, there's got to be some significance -- but what, exactly?  It's just another mysterious long take.)

That's the biggest problem with Shame -- it's slow, yes, but the pace isn't the problem.  As Brandon himself says, "Actions speak, not words," but they neither do nor say a lot.  Brandon jacks off or watches porn or wander through the streets of New York trying to pick up women.  The visual composition is beautiful.

In that regard, Shame is a film for people who thought  Lost In Translation moved too fast.  Virtually every shot, every composition, is static. It's off-putting at first, but you find yourself watching the actors, waiting for them to respond, wondering if they understand whatever human interaction that has been placed before them or if, like the characters themselves, they have to take a moment to figure out what countenance to apply.

Brandon is smart enough to know the world will catch up with him.  He even tries to seduce a beautiful co-worker, and over dinner they talk about the banality of dinner talk, they play some flirty games on the walk back to the subway -- but there will be no sex.  She knows its place; Brandon never thought that it might have just one place.  And now, if he can't do that -- sex -- what does that leave him?

His emotionally wrecked sister is going to change it, too.  She knows more than she lets on in their odd physical interactions. In one of the film's most tantalizing lines, "We're not bad people, we just come from bad places." Where and why?  This is a case where characters knowing more than the audience is intensely unhelpful, though they finally deliver the scene the movie desperately needs, though it comes a little too late: Fassbender and Mulligan, their backs to the camera, viciously taunting and challenging each other.

McQueen's static, locked-down style galvanizes us to the actors.  We're left on our own where to look, what to feel.  If we're embarrassed, if we're shocked, if we're angry, there's no place for us to escape.

But Shame has difficulty reconciling the cold, calculated assurance of Brandon's early moments nude and assured with his final moments, clothed in layers and panicked.  Whether the film has any perspective on if he is changed, or even can change, it doesn't say.  Maybe Brandon and Sissy will just be the same as they were before.

No judgments, no decision, no commentary, nothing but observation and the fierce, full performances by Fassbender and Mulligan.

Watching Shame for an hour and 40 minutes is likely to feel a lot longer -- but it's an hour and 40 minutes of some times stunning, sometimes boring, sometimes revelatory, sometimes infuriatingly static moments of how certain people live today.  Maybe, if there is a point to all of this, it's that no one really cares, in the end, if they do anything different.

 Viewed 6/19/12 - Blu-ray

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