Shame Steve McQueen (UK 2011) Michael Fassbender; Carey Mulligan
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 24/01/2012; 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 the shot appropriately dramatic; an unwitting
sign that this movie is be about image not substance.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 Treer
made 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.
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 like SM 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.
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 sexual imposition 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 the
music 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.