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Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Ghost Protocol of Steve McQueen's "Shame"

“I want cinema to be like a mirror that reflects the audience, so we see ourselves on the screen. Sometimes people might not want to look at that, because it’s not particularly attractive. But we have to look at it in order to move on, to engage with where we are, to reflect on what we are and alter what might happen.” - Steve McQueen, director of Shame

Maybe to feel what Steve McQueen wants to convey in his sex-addict drama Shame you should do like I did, and follow up the screening with two or three spare-no-expense action-packed spectacles, peppered with the glories of 3D and IMAX, chock-full of high-speed chases, relentlessly pulsing music scores, and images where the audience is hurled faster towards so much sensation that heightened stimuli cancel each other out, ensuing numbness. Whatever their respective values, I think my responses to Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tin Tin and Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol fed more into the resonance Shame had for me. The incessant need for sex that afflicts successful New Yorker Brandon Fitzgerald (Michael Fassbender) is drawn from the same stuff as a contemporary need for speed in information culture: more stimulation, more sound, more light, more beats, more bass, more shock, more more more. If the reliably non-stop racket ceases, we’re left with silence, each other, and worst of all, ourselves. It becomes clear through Brandon’s cryptic relationship with his pad-crashing co-dependent sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) that he’s trying to be severed from both history and his ego or self-awareness. His excessive masturbatory and debaucherous repetitions are led by a death instinct; he wants to be free from himself. Orgasms are a part of Brandon’s own kind of “ghost protocol,” stealing him away from real-life ramifications and relationships, as much as Ethan Hunt and other Mission Impossible special agents disappear into the ether.

The opening shot shows Brandon’s prison: the body. The convenience of too much freedom enslaves him to leisure, the sensation functioning so as to keep him disembodied, or hold the reality of the body at bay. Brandon has an eye for detail, his body ideally sculpted, the dress and environs afforded him by his job denoting modern perfection and success. Early on, success becomes a pertinent theme in Shame, connecting the tidy sex-addict narrative to a significant subtext, much like what Steven Soderbergh did for high-price escorts in The Girlfriend Experience. We listen to his boss, David (James Badge Dale), a pompous “broh,” bloviate about the company’s success, adjectives like “disgusting” and “invasive” being thrown around in accordance to a company’s evolution. The success of the company gives the workers freedom, and they go out for drinks at stylish Manhattan bars, communicating to families through Skype or internet technologies. Women, their business-suits supposed to denote professional success, are only more sexualized in their work attire, as David comments on one such attractive figure. The boss doesn’t hook up, however; Brandon does.

The nature of Brandon’s hook-ups, be it a brief fling with the professional woman or a paid escort, is the nature of business and the corporate mindset: expedient, convenient, essentially anonymous and impersonal. The workplace becomes a center for his affliction. He breaks to masturbate in the restroom, and he has quite an intense relationship with his work computer, currently on the fritz because a plague of viruses. The lack of that computer, his daytime porn outlet, clearly agitates him. He takes out his frustration on a coworker who asks why he's late. "Your wife wouldn't let me leave this morning." "That's not funny," says the coworker.

Maybe binding ties like marriage mean something to people like the coworker, or a tempted purple-stockinged woman on the subway, who comes to her "senses" (or rather, her "consciousness") at her stop, the ringed finger held in close-up as she clutches the railing. Elsewhere, eroticism is simulated, like when Brandon directs an escort to remove her clothes “slowly” so that he can savor gazing, both acting and directing in this theatrical rendezvous. That mute gaze is more fundamental to his personal infrastructure than verbal communication. He seduces the business woman with his look, while David flounders by using language (albeit an empty language). Later in the film, he tells Sissy, “Actions count. Not words,” because words, particularly in his corporate atmosphere, do not amount to much of anything but empty rhetoric. Look at the repugnant kind of hand-slapping broh-discourse in his office.

The computer is the perfect outlet for his intimacy. This is where he meets escorts, and where he “chats” (or more presumably, just looks) at undressing women. It’s where David talks with his children over a Skype cam, giving disembodied instructions for his wife (“Go upstairs and tell mom that I said it was okay”). When Brandon’s virus-infested computer comes back to the office, David tells Brandon, “Your hard drive is filthy. Dirty.” He then lists off a number of different sexual positions, accentuating just how filthy it is. But Brandon, trusted confidant to the boss, couldn’t be responsible. “Do you think it was your intern?” Brandon’s silently perturbed that David knows that a sexual bug has been unleashed in the open air of the office, which would make his porn-going practices riskier. “Repairs,” David says, leads to us “blowing our wad on cash.” The spending of company money equals ejaculation.

The digital management of eroticism is preferable because, for Brandon, existence is really hard. Addiction - chemical, sexual, videoscopic - may be an outgrowth from the burdens of consciousness, memory, breathing, feeling, something that was well satirized in a recent South Park episode where the disillusioned and suddenly cynical Stan finds life grand with a shot of Jameson. What happened to Brandon and Sissy, damaging them? We learn that they’re from Ireland, but have acclimated themselves accordingly to the United States, their original accents having evaporated. The mystery between them must also have some relationship to how Brandon reacts to Sissy’s somber performance of “New York, New York”; he silently weeps while hearing it. It’s an opposition to the cynicism infecting Brandon’s work and the glitzy New York nightlife celebrated by his boss, a prayer for aspiration, escape, and transcendence belonging to a collective light of burgeoning light and life in this “brand new start.” The whirlwind current does indeed have both Brandon and Sissy in its clutches, but their dysfunctions keep them psychologically alienated, and the light of New York’s life is all sour artifice, decadent. In Brandon’s case, physical closeness feeds a need for aloneness.

The plague of aloneness maybe ties into one of Shame’s latent anxieties, that of aging. On the subway, Brandon’s predatory gaze catches sight of a hobo, who may be on the opposite side of the social – and sexual – ladder, but is a mirror to his degradation. One of the first things Sissy points out to Brandon, after crashing in his apartment, is “You’re going gray,” asking him if he thinks she’s gotten fat. McQueen’s camera takes a moment to pay attention to the Handicapped Male sign on a restroom when Brandon passes by it, pointing out his corporeal vulnerability and dysfunction. His flight from being in the present and immersing in sex is a futile method of overcoming decay. Appropriately, the song playing when he gazes at the female professional is Blondie’s “Rapture,” connected to an impossibly bygone nostalgia in addition to transcendence (rapture). Brandon is a relic, a fossilized soul.

What does it mean to be human, experiencing a real relationship not based on a basic physical outlet or, like with Sissy, pathological neediness? Attracted to a coworker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), Brandon chooses to go through a “real” date. This section is humorously awkward, like when we see Marianne and Brandon struggle to converse while a fumbling waiter interrupts (“How would you like the lamb?”) with an intrusive protocol of serving water, wine, and taking down their meal selections. The dialogue between them is revealing when ‘relationships’ become the issue, something that Brandon usually does not have to elucidate in his sexual transactions. “Why do people want to get married?” he asks. “It’s not practical.” Marianne is a little aghast. “Why are we here?” Are “dates” just a formal precursor to sexual congress, or are they the first of many interviews leading to the acceptance and embrace of a life partner? From Marianne’s standpoint, the implication that is otherworldly for Brandon is that there is an intimation of forever in the most arbitrary or preliminary meet and greet.

“It doesn’t seem realistic,” because a marriage, abstractly, involves “the rest of your life.” “What’s your longest relationship?” Marianne asks him. “Four months.” Is it an addiction to sex for Brandon, or is it something more complicated? Like an addiction to anonymity, where a self that Brandon loathes and can’t bear to be around remains undefined for another person? Incessant stimulation stipulates something fresh, new, unfamiliar, both outside and in. After their dinner, Brandon asks Marianne if she could be any type of person, at any time, what would it be? She shrugs. “Right here, right now,” she answers. In other words, just being herself, something that Brandon calls “boring.” The only worthwhile realm is that of fantasy. Brandon says that he would like to be a musician in the 1960s. Marianne reminds him that this past context is not necessarily a golden age, pointing out how she recently viewed the famous documentary Gimme Shelter, about tragic death involving the Hell’s Angels at a Rolling Stones concert. The past into which Brandon desires to disappear is a popularly constructed image of the past, not as it actually was (it should also be noted that Marianne, who is African American, would have several other problems with living in the 1960s when compared to 2011).

Brandon points out a scar from his past, hidden by his hair. A bruise on his head, stemming from a childhood accident, is jested about as something from his “Neanderthal” heritage. He’s the last of his kind, as the “homo sapiens” have since taken over. On the surface it's a joke, but it also points to Brandon's separateness from other, more "well-adjusted" people. He cannot operate in accordance to the scripted norms of sexual courtship or duplicity; the philandering David wouldn't point out how a life partnership is impractical. Brandon is honest, but still reading from a script. His smiles throughout the film feel forced, and his polite offers for a drink before sex, or fastening a bra afterward, are automatic in their delivery.

The date with Marianne ends with a stump, as she exits into her subway stop: no sex for Brandon when he must engage in words. When she says goodbye, we notice an advertisement for a highly sexualized pop star (Shanna Live!), demonstrating how the glossy sexualization of an entire culture and city, infecting Brandon, is also something broader; we can assume the sexual opportunism of David is not unusual. How can it be? The culture is sexual and people are disconnected in their relationships and from history/memory. The array of choice along with an overabundance of freedom presents too much temptation. Maybe Marianne is absolutely wrong, and Brandon is absolutely right. Marriage or a long-standing relationship is not practical.

Before and after his date with Marianne, Brandon has to descend into fantasy. Hidden in darkness, he watches a couple fiercely fucking against a window; after the date, he masturbates in his bathroom, something interrupted by Sissy. His solipsistic haven is exposed, recognized in sight by another person (Sissy), the exposure linking the compulsion to his sense of self and awareness. Angry and manic, he clears the pornography out of his apartment like he was wiping himself a clean slate. The fast cutting of pornographic images evokes the frenzied consciousness in Scorsese, a master whose Mean Streets entered my mind while watching Shame, thinking of Charlie Cappa's hesitation to go on a date with the beautiful African American dancer from his friend's club; Charlie is similar (though not nearly as pathologically sick) to Brandon in his shame, and struggle to have a real relationship. Wakened by Sissy's discovery, Brandon is determined to not be overwrought by fantasy and swallowed by a self he hates. He will try to be a real human being. He finds Marianne and brings her to a special apartment. She complies.

The foreplay between Marianne and Brandon is the only sexy scene in Shame’s abundance of carnal moments, but it climaxes with the virile Brandon’s lack of sexual potency. What’s wrong with him? The answer, very clear to me, and to which I confess my own affinity, is that Marianne has already become too much of an actual person for him. She’s not anonymous enough, and she’s become something more than an image to be savored. “Sex” is too broad a definition for Brandon’s addiction. He’s addicted to a complete absence of self. Not only can he remain unknown (he’s probably told her too much about him), but she must also. His impotence with Marianne is crushing because it once more addresses a fear of aging, while also reminding him of a predestined fate of separateness – like a Neanderthal amidst homo sapiens. He even sticks to the script here, stating “I can walk you downstairs,” his head pathetically hidden.

One of Shame’s most meaningful moments occurs when Brandon lectures Sissy on the irresponsibility of her actions. They sit facing each other, a television in the background with black and white animated images, a harmless old style cartoon, but I couldn’t help but notice how hypnotizing the animation was, as if lulling our eyes in an almost sexual repetition, stroking our vision. The cartoon represents Brandon’s consciousness, and what more the flux of a culture hypnotized by images.

Brandon is angry at Sissy because she’s been calling David, leaving messages. “It’s disgusting,” he tells her. “He’s got a family. You didn’t see a wedding ring on his finger?” Sissy needs people to surround her, Brandon needs them away. Early in the film, we can overhear her begging someone, presumably a recent boyfriend, to stay with her. “I love you and I need you,” she repeats. “I’ll do anything! Anything!” She needs someone there, while Brandon’s fantasy life is interrupted by the presence of “someone” (as opposed to a docile body he can savor and control). Allowing Sissy to stay with him screws up his regimented schedule of masturbation and prostitutes, his inward-bound wanderings away from real-world ramifications. “You trap me. You force me into a corner.” Her fear is that if she leaves him, she’ll never see him again. He would drift away from their history, his past and relationships, carried forth into an obliteration of ego. Indeed, Brandon’s disconnection and alienation permits a disappearance into the simulacrum. Sissy’s neediness makes her “a parasite” dependent on others to survive. Her existence is illogical to a zero-sum worldview: she takes and takes, offering nothing (but the tender and hidden sentiments of a song). Sissy forcefully severs herself away in protest, attempting suicide. This is the tragic poignancy of Shame; lost as Brandon is, he still retains a link. When the subway stops, the audience doesn’t have to be told that the unspoken fear pertains to the idea of a jumper, attempting suicide on the tracks, crushed by the stream taking everyone else away. Brandon panics.

Shame plays with this severing of relationships, bloodlines (literal and metaphorical), and time. As evidenced from Steve McQueen's invaluable interview with Andrew O'Hehir at Salon, the filmmaker bridges ideas of severance between people and the cinematic form he loves. Sissy's uninvited appearance coincides with a jumpcut during breakfast, indicating his disconnection from her. Later, we see Brandon, upset by Sissy coupling with David in his spare room, go for an intense run (a physical activity inadequately quelling his stolen masturbation time). It’s an extraordinary tracking shot following Brandon hustle through the nocturnal city, its bravura execution easily disregarded as a talented filmmaking team showing off. This is a facile dismissal. The unbroken tracking shot shows how Brandon, run as he might, still can’t break free from himself: his self-loathing, his mental and physical scars, his “Neanderthal” inheritance, his sister, etc. Though degraded and damaged, Brandon still has a sense of conscience. This might distinguish him from the world in which he lives and works, embodied by his boss David.

The theme of temporal continuity and struggling to sever oneself from the ego explodes during an extended back-and-forth montage in the last section. On the subway, we see Brandon’s bruised face, then cut to the circumstances leading to it. His desperation took him into the night seeking carnal escape, first with a floozy barfly who is turned on by his degrading words, pertaining to what he’d like to do to her body. But when her date interrupts, it’s clear that the degradation in his language to her is rooted in his personal self-hate. After getting beaten up, he sneaks into a gay club – and it’s insinuated that he’s probably a frequent visitor. In the darkness, a stranger fellates him. One of Shame’s most explicit – and already infamous – scenes attaches itself here (the bruised subway epilogue interspliced throughout), showing Brandon in a three-way. Tying the entire section together is a music score that feels like a deliberate homage to Hans Zimmer’s work on Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, along with Malick’s sampling of Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” I don’t know if the allusion was intentional, but in Malick’s war film, “The Unanswered Question” sequence explores soldiers’ despair and apartness, these men splintered apart from the “One Big Soul.” On the subway, the reasons for Brandon’s scars answered, we see the signage: “Improving Non Stop.” Is this a reference to commitment to the flux of money, zero-sum economics, and glossy images hammered into our heads as the world “comes together” without reflection or compassion? The expediency of civilization has given Brandon too much freedom, conveyed by McQueen as we see Brandon weep in the rain, surrounded by open space. McQueen refers to it as “a prison with no bars.”

Steve McQueen wants his cinema to reflect a sense of now. “It’s about now,” he says, “and for me – I don’t care what anyone says – I think cinema has a responsibility. You’ve got HBO and AMC doing whatever they’re doing, but cinema has another way of doing things, which can actually be closer to how we live today than any nine-part series on television.” It’s a little predictable that the Twitterfed repetitions of pop culture, decorated with a million “Shanna Live!” marquee posters on its subway stream entrances, should reduce Shame to pointless ambiguity or an exploitative sex-addict movie, where we giggle at a few clever dick-jokes later. For me, cinema is kind of a cultural thermometer, and at its best Film articulates where we are in the present; television and internet, by contrast, just float along with those currents with very little – or limited – reflection on it.

Even the best work on HBO and AMC is distinct from cinema, less concentrated, and making fewer demands or reflection on our part. Actually, the manifold hours of serialization, even in the most provocative and sophisticated shows, encourage our disappearance into other beings, and we don’t have to come back to ourselves. Even when a show ends, right now in our “golden age” of cable TV we have countless alternative lives and story arcs to follow. The entertainment trends affect popular moviegoing, and we can see in pictures like Horrible Bosses and Transformers how disconnected the movies are from themselves, another “derp” moment or jarring crash required in smaller increments of time. Mainstream audiences hated Drive because of how well embodied it was; instead of constantly breaking apart, like Fast and Furious, it built tension and created its own world. Shame succeeds in reflecting this mirror of changing stations like changing lives. Cinema is not an escape; it’s an encounter, and possibly an acknowledgment.


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  2. Man, you so get it. And know how to explain it - eloquently. Do you know that some people think that Brandon is just a horny dude and why all the drama, etc. ? That bothers me.

    1. Thanks, as always, for the kind words, David. There's something in the movie with which I personally identified, and it goes way beyond a horny dude. I think Fassbender and McQueen really hit something important here.

  3. Great analysis, Niles. I thought this was a brilliant movie--so much more than I expected. It reminded me of Foucault's "Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison," especially where he says "the soul is the prison of the body."

    1. Thanks, Amy. You should check out Fassbender and McQueen's previous collaboration, "Hunger," which also strongly, and very painfully, focuses on the body enduring self-punishment.

  4. Great summation of this film. I waited far too long to see it. I believed the simple-minded media and ignorant twitterers that this was just a gratuitous film about sex. I should have known better.
    i have loved Michael Fassbender since Hunger. He is simple and brilliant as an actor. I really identified with this film. It has led me to reflect on the roots of my own borderline traits. I don't know the specific trauma that caused my disconnect just as we never learn the specific trauma experienced by Brandon and Sissy. Just a truly amazing film.

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