Thursday, 1 March 2012

Shame, Steve McQueen, UK 2011

I know by now that the trick in life is to not have any expectations whatsoever, but instead to walk into any new experience cold - for obvious reasons. However, as a rule, I'm not very good at this game, as my expectations always tend to be ahead of me, usually emerging way before my brain is able to remind me that having expectations is a bad thing. All this gets especially difficult when it comes to movies: these days, with the information overflow spilling out of iPads, iPhones, televisions, radios, newspapers, magazines and what not, one simply cannot help but picking up the odd titbits here and there on a new movie that's about to be released. And if the movie's supposed to be a good - or even great one - the advance buzz is such that unless you're living like a hermit, cut off from society including its media, your expectations are quite simple bound to soar, whether you like it or not. And so they have as far as I'm concerned in the case of Steve McQueen's new film, Shame.

Have they ever!

As we all know, the higher the expectations, the more difficult it is for the movie to own up to them, and more often than not, I myself end up being disappointed. Now, having seen McQueen's previous film, Hunger, which I'd declared my favourite film of 2008, I don't need to tell you that with all the buzz surrounding Shame's premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September, my expectation were, mildly put, sky-high. And yet - lo and behold, they were not only met, McQueen's masterpiece actually exceeded them.

That's how good his film is!

Good is not quite an apt description, really, for McQueen excels at practically every level, including cinematography, screenplay, editing, and, of course, the acting. But all these merits notwithstanding, the most noteworthy aspect of Shame, in my opinion, is the fact that the film addresses a topic which has so far received scant attention, if any, from film makers. And yet, the topic - somewhat insufficiently described as sex addiction - seems so relevant and prevalent in world where sex is just a click away; a world dominated by media whose main preoccupation seems to be just that: sex.

Like Hunger, Shame is a very visual film, McQueen being a master at using the cinematic medium to the full. In other words, McQueen uses dialogue only where necessary and where what he wants to bring across, cannot be told through images. All the better, then, that Shame's main character, Brandon Sullivan, is a man of few words, taciturn at best, a loner, in fact. More often than not he's irritable and on edge, even when he's having sex which, if Brandan's facial expressions while having sex are anything to go by, has little to do with what sex is usually associated with. Obsessive, wild, with a face seemingly contorted by pain, sex to Brendan appears to be more strenuous than something he does out of lust and desire.

Set in New York - which , sorry Mr. Wowereit, still outdoes Berlin in sexiness by a far cry - Brandon's world consists mainly of his manically spotless apartment in Chelsea where, unless he's bedding a hooker, he spends most of his time by the computer doing what any loner does who's socially and emotionally clumsy yet whose only outlet is sex. It has been estimated that two thirds of all Google searches are sex related. And yet, as I said earlier, the topic of sex addiction, including Internet porn, has been strangely neglected by film makers and writers alike. No medium or invention has changed our life and habits to the degree the Internet has. This especially goes for our sex life, although most of us may not even be aware of it. The lure of the Internet, catering to every possible sexual deviation, kink or desire, 24/7, in the privacy of your own home, and just one click away - has arguably changed our sexual habits considerably more than anything else, including the invention of the anti-baby pill or the freedom that came with the sexual liberation of the student movement of the 1960s.

Just to be clear - I am a clear advocate of the Internet and the freedom and accessibility of information it provides, but that doesn't exclude looking at the implications it has had on society at large, particularly at the way we look at sex. The big advantage - or disadvantage, depending on your vantage point - is that the Internet allows you to withdraw into a fantasy world, to shut out reality entirely. To have sex - either with yourself or with somebody via chat or webcam - the Internet doesn't require you to speak or interact. You're free to create your own reality behind the images you see on screen. And it is precisely this fantasy world that is Brandon's realm.

In one of the few scenes in Shame which relies on dialogue and images in equal parts, we see Brandon dating a co-worker, the stunningly beautiful Marianne whose interest in Brandon obviously goes beyond the mere sexual. Brandon, however, proves a poor date. Their conversation is kept alive mainly by Marianne with little input from Brandon. Evidently, Brandon's not one of those who cares to impress his date with his knowledge of food or his expertise when it comes to selecting the wine. Food, wine, like all other things associated with social interaction, play a subordinate role in his life which revolves but around one thing and one thing only. It is with pride, almost, that he admits to Marianne that his longest relationship lasted four months, a record , it seems, she is hoping to break. Even though it has become clear by this point, that Brandon's incapable of intimacy, we, the viewers, hope that Marianne might succeed, regardless - or perhaps because - of the fact that Brandon doesn't take her to bed right after their dinner. He does so, or tries to, anyway, a few days later. However, in order to pretend that Marianne is just another girl he picked up on the way home, he takes her to a hotel instead of taking her home. But to no avail - he is only capable of having sex on a completely anonymous, casual, basis, and his relations with Marianne have already reached a level of nearness and intimacy that make it impossible for him to keep that fantasy alive.

Make no mistake: McQueen does not portray Brandon as a one-dimensional character - sex-crazed, cold, and irritable - but rather as one whose feelings are buried way below, and only occasionally do they rise to the surface. They do, however, in one of the most poignant scenes in Shame, when Brendan's sister, Sissy, gives a devastatingly beautiful rendition of New York, New York. There are few songs I can think of more apt to express optimism, promise and hope for things to come as do the lyrics of this song written by Fred Ebb for Scorsese's 1977 movie of the same title. Sissy's own rendition of New York, New York, though, seems to express exactly the opposite. It reminds us that besides being sexy, New York also is a place where it is probably easier to feel lonely and abandoned than in most other places. Is that why Brandon, listening to his sister, suddenly starts to cry? The only instance in the movie where he is seen expressing his feelings - however involuntarily - in public.

Not meaning to sound pretentious or smug, the central topic of Shame is a very complex one, and it is to McQueen's credit that he doesn't even attempt to psychologically explain Brendan's condition, let alone deliver a full explanation. The only hint he gives us is by means of Sissy, who, towards the film's end leaves a message on her brother's phone saying, "that just because we're coming from a bad place doesn't mean we're bad people!". By this point, though, we just about gathered as much. Love may be a cheesy, much overused term. But it is nevertheless the basis for almost everything. And it doesn't require a great deal of psychological insight to know that the absence of love during childhood is apt to scar anyone and will make it all the harder for the child to later lead a normal life as an adult. However, while what's been lacking during their childhood seems to manifest itself in Sissy in an amplified need for love and intimacy, the opposite is true for Brandon, who is fully incapable of any intimacy, even that offered - and requested - by his own sister.

I have no idea, of course, what Steve McQueen's impetus for his film was. All I know is that Shame is so well observed and told with such empathy, immediacy, intensity and a tremendous level of accuracy - which is nothing short of awesome.

Shame is as disturbing as it is mesmerising. It is, quite simply, one of the most provocative, evocative and most important films I've ever had the privilege of watching.