Viewed:Tyneside Cinema24/01/2012;Ticket price: £7.95
Shame about shame
My reading of the opening shot of Shame, is that it was faked. We see Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lying on his bed.Brandon’s torso is naked his lower body entwined in white sheets (Christ-like ?).Eyes open he lies completely still: still as death.At last the eyes tremble; he moves. I think this is a shot faked in the editing, using the freeze frame tool to control the immobility of the opening part of the shot. Why does Steve McQueen start his movie with an image set up by the editing software? Is it a structured statement about the film’s concerns; or a device used to create an affect to make theshotappropriately dramatic; an unwitting sign that this movie is be about image not substance.
Given Steve McQueen’s (SM) reputation after his first movie Hunger, it is appropriate to probe into the film’s form structure and content, and to conject as to purpose and intention behind the project: to appraise the moral content of the movie.By moral I am not referring to a code of ethics or morality but to a consistency in internal logic, a refusal to compromise a line of vision.
Hunger’s key attribute was that it was locked into specific context: the death of Bobby Sands in the Maze Prison.The historical biographical context provided the basis for the three chapters, which explored the realms of Body Mind and Spirit that SM incorporated into Hunger.The situations in the film developed out of these categorical loci. They were grounded in the real. They were not metaphorical.
The first two sections in Hunger were based about body and mind (dialogue) presented as filmic installations.The images proposed a series of oppositions that allowed the audience to see and make their own interpretation of what was happening.Two shots, both scenes in themselves: the long duration shot of the warder using a janitorial squeegee to sluice the piss down the length of the prison corridor; the 17 minute dialogue between BS and the priest on the morality of the hunger strike. The audience are put into the position where they have to look and listen in order to understand.SM’s film did not manipulate the viewer but open up for the viewer a process of understanding.
I thought the first two chapters of Hunger much better than the third which sloped into sentimentality.Nevertheless on viewing, Hunger has a consistent moral line:the inexorable logic of oppositions in action.In exposition and discourse it does not indulge either in emotive sub prime acting or the politics of pre-formed and implied judgments.
There are perhaps some specious similarities between Hunger and Shame.Hunger about a man imprisoned by external forces moving inwards; Shame a man imprisoned by internal forces trying to move outwards.
Unlike Hunger, Shame completely lacks context.The film is set in New York but it is not a context, it’s a symbolic backdrop for the events that take place in the film.In relation to subject matter the background to these events might be anywhere: Clermont Ferrand, Birmingham or Boston.Shame might have benefited from a lower profile background.But New York it is; chosen for its symbolic resonance, its streets and skyscrapers ready made code for contemporary alienation. It’s a city that Shame castes as a metaphysical entity with a population of replicants and lost souls.There is even a performance of the Sinatra hit‘New York New York’ as a set piece in the film: it’s deconstructed but sung for affect.(the piano accompaniment was great but I didn’t catch who played it on the credits)SM exploits New York as a city that is already a cliché and defaults in the film to shots of the city that simply reinforce this image.
The key settings of Shame are all metaphorical rather than real.They are all decontextualised, with substance extracted leaving a sort of filmic shell within which the film’s events take place.The subway system with its sexually charged rides is a metaphorical underworld of id; the office whose function we never learn, is a little like the superego - a place where Brandon’s represses his sexual needs (except in the toilet);and his apartment, painted white like a Swiss sanitarium is where Brandon is himself.Metaphorical psychic zones rather than real spaces.
Shame comprises metaphorical zones contained within a metaphysical city. It’s problem is that within all these unreal spaces Brandon never seems real. His problems are never real and he is never interesting from the point of view of giving the audience something to contain. Had Von Treermade such a movie he would have understood that the film needed an uncompromising moral line to work. The film might have been about:becoming Cock. Brandon literally overwhelmed by, flooded out both internally and externally by sexual desires becomes:Cock.A epic line with the possibility of deadly mordant humour that would overwhelm devastate and destroy Brandon and all those he touches.With a script that takes a line, the viewer is presented with a situation which they have to confront.
Instead Brandon wanders about the non-spaces of the movie becoming… a non entity.SM uses a sort of sub plot to try and rescue the movie .This involves Brandon’s sister, Cissie, who’s a singer (and a cutter) who has an affair with his boss. The brother sister stories intertwine. (perhaps they are supposed to intertwine as schizoid individuals?) But their relationship fails to energise the movie.The extent of their synergy in the film is to reveal, unsurprisingly, that they are both trapped in infantile sexual circuitry; there again so is the whole country.Brandon realizes in the course of another coy subplot that he is unable to have a normal loving relationship.His response is an orgy of fucking. This scene is particularly crude.It looks likeSM asked Fassbender to overact, so that during the orgy with two whores we have to watch as he pulls back his mouth in a rictus of pain and grimacing throughout the whole fuck.The loaded emotive gesturing kept this viewer bored but cued him as to what to think.
A significant feature of addiction is tolerance. Alcohol drugs sex:for users all have the same equation of need, you always need more of what you want to get the same effect.There is a core to sexual activity that is about control.The sexualimposition of will can easily lead to sadistic violence, and constitutes a line of action a line that is visible for example, at Abu Ghraib.This is the line, part of the becoming cock line, that Shame never takes that SM seems to inhibited to explore.
Shame ends on shots of the brother sister reunion/reconciliation.The which doesn’t seem to mean anything, but is presumably a measure of SM’s desperation as to what to do with his material.Some of the dialogue, especially in the public interstitial spaces captures the banality of the social strata of the settings.But coming out of familiar soap opera provenance‘Oscar acceptance speech exchanges’ are parodies of parodies.
I found the use of the Bach compositions interesting.They related to nothing that I saw or experienced in Shame.Bach’s selection for the sound track seemed an attempt to exploit themusic so that it would lend a sort of spiritual lamination to a film in which spirit was otherwise honoured in its absence.I found its use more annoying than relevant
The film might have been made out of the cynical motivation that sex sells. Any movie preceded by a clinical disclaimer about its concern with sex addiction, yet featuring a measure of full on tits bums and cock will make its money back.It panders to the conceit of the art house crowd who like sex in films to be presented with a veneer of mitigating intellectual legitimation.I think SM’s initial ambition may have been to make a statement about how sex has become twisted and depersonalized in strata of our society.On the evidence SM didn’t have the artistic or intellectual flair to make such a film.Instead he produces Shame which comprises a jumble of images and sounds put together in the hope that they might have the hoped for effect. They don’t.