Let that word simmer for a moment. It is the answer to a question I have long asked, in relation to the relentless puerilization of American cinema over the last 3 decades. The question was: will there be a next great adult filmmaker (in the John Cassavetes, not porno, mold) to come along? Well, he’s here, and his name is Steve McQueen, and I suspect that once his film career is at an end no one will be confusing him with the dead white American male film star of the 1960s and 1970s, for this black British director is now 2 for 2 in releasing great art to the masses. In my review of his first film, 2008’s Hunger, I wrote:
But, in achieving his realism sans much dialogue, McQueen also shows that he is, in a sense, the anti-Cassavetes, for where Cassavetes achieved such realism with dialogue, in great films like Faces and The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, by letting characters speak as in real life, McQueen allows characters to react and brood, as in real life. In Cassavetes films, the self is defined by interactions with other selves. In McQueen’s film, self is delineated by interaction with oneself.
This applies to Shame, his latest film, as well- a British production set in Woody Allen’s New York City of emotionally throttled but good looking WASPs, but whereas Hunger relied on the narrative setup, and the division of the film into three distinct parts, this film is more linearly narrative, which only heightens the relative lack of dialogue, and the presence of ambient sounds, as well as the music that the main character, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), listens to. Yet, because McQueen’s films lack intense and long dialogue, thus making him, in a sense, the anti-Cassavetes, because his use of silences achieves the same penetrating realism as Cassavetes’ conversations, he is arguably the next Cassavetes, as well.
The 101 minute long film is one of the greatest examinations of human loneliness ever put onscreen, and the character of Brandon has kith with other great cinematic creations, in this vein, such as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle (from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), Woody Allen’s Sandy Bates (from Stardust Memories), and Marcello Mastroianni’s Marcello Rubini (from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita)- who, like Brandon, works ostensibly in the publicity and advertising fields. Brandon is not psychotic like Travis, and he lacks the opportunities for personal growth that Sandy and Marcello have, but, like Mastroianni’s character, he comes to the film’s end with a chance to change and grow, and the film leaves us without his choice. In La Dolce Vita, Marcello chooses, and chooses wrongly. Now, most readings of this film will claim that this film is about sex addiction, or addiction, in general, but this is wrong. Brandon Sullivan is lonely as hell- one need only see how this is reflected in the utter sterility of his apartment, which seems like a room on the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sex addiction is merely the symptom of this loneliness, not the cause, not the problem, just as loneliness is Travis’s problem. With Travis, he attempts to solve it through violence. Brandon chooses faceless unerotic sex, not unlike that portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s final great film, Eyes Wide Shut. But make no mistake about it, the shame that the film’s title refers to is NOT because of sexual addiction, but because of loneliness. After all, Fassbender’s Brandon is wealthy, attractive, young, with a good career, so there has to be shame he feels for feeling so lonely all the time, nonstop. His sexual addiction would be cheered by his pals and co-workers, but an admission of loneliness, from one as outwardly admirable as he? That this key point is overlooked in so many reviews of the film is not surprising, if however indicative of the level of cinematic discourse these days.
But, he is not alone in this pursuit. His younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), is a torch singer of limited talents (there is a bravura sequence where she sings New York, New York in a slowed down mourn that is brilliant- not because it is so well sung, but because the arrangement hides Sissy’s limitations while exposing her neediness, and McQueen wisely lets the whole song be sung) who quickly hops into bed with Brandon’s married, but lecherous, boss Dave (James Badge Dale)- a man who can never be as suave with women as Brandon, who merely has to look at a woman to seduce her. This is shown where Brandon ends up with a blond woman his boss has hit on at a bar, while out with the workers from their office (what their business is is never specified, and not needed to be known), and at the film’s start, where he tries to seduce a married woman on a train, but fails in his pursuit, then gets the same opportunity with the same woman, at film’s end, but, despite her now willingness, the film ends with his diffidence over whether or not to pursue- a brilliant ending. When Brandon asks out a black co-worker he likes, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), they have a brilliantly awkward and realistic first date, with appropriately airy nothingness masquing as depth, wherein Brandon’s views on intimacy are bared, and then the next day they decamp for a fling in a hotel room, but Brandon suddenly goes impotent, as Marianne’s intimacies- her kisses and stroking of his face, and eye to eye contact, all shrivel him, so he calls a hooker, and consummates with her, as he did with hookers earlier in the film, as well as a porno addiction he has nursed on his home and work computer.
Yet, Sissy clearly has as many problems as Brandon with intimacy. We hear her leaving many phone calls on Brandon’s answering machine, then haranguing presumably former lovers on the phone, then doing the same with Dave. And what’s interesting is the way that McQueen reveals details on the secondary characters. As example, we only find out that Dave is married when we see him Skyping with his son, and telling him to get his mother’s approval, when he has called in Brandon to tell him of all the porno on his computer. Similarly, we initially feel Sissy is a spurned and stalking lover of Brandon’s, for we first hear her frantic messages to Brandon, as if an archetypally obsessed ex-girlfriend, then we see him catch her in his shower, and when we see her comfortably standing stark naked in front of her brother, we wonder. Yes, the film features full frontal nudity and the actual urination of Brandon (which, more than the sex scenes, is what likely garnered the infamous NC-17 rating, which, wisely, the film’s producers have chosen to wear as a badge of honor), but we also see scenes of Sissy inappropriately touching her brother, her wanting to climb into bed with Brandon for warmth, then his angrily pouncing on her when coming out of the shower, so there is clearly a lack of proper boundaries between the siblings. Were they incestuously involved? Were they sexually abused by their parents? We don’t know, and don’t need to know. We do know Sissy is a cutter, for Dave comments on this upon seeing her bare arms, and when she finally does attempt suicide, it is no surprise, for Brandon has demanded she leave his apartment and life. And, if one watches the sequence where Brandon saves his sister from death via suicide and compare it to the scene in La Dolce Vita, where Marcello saves his live in lover, the connections between the two films’ protagonists is put into an undeniable relief, although the older film’s suicide attempt is at the start of that film, whereas Sissy’s is near the end of this film. Brandon Sullivan is this century’s Marcello Rubini, whose anomy- due to loneliness- is the driving force of the film. However, they do share some tender moments and do care for each other. In a wonderful scene, Brandon catches Sissy at the edge of a subway platform, seemingly looking to jump, and rebukes her. She then tries knocking, then picking, the fluff off his coat, and he tells her to leave it, that he likes it, only to then remove it, and playfully position it on her coat. This is the way normal siblings often act, yet it is, to this pair, an act.
But, after his impotence with Marianne, and an argument with Sissy, Brandon spirals out of control, and in this manner, his sexual impotence parallels the emotional impotence of another De Niro character from a Scorsese film, Rupert Pupkin from The King Of Comedy, another penetrating look at human loneliness. But, whereas Pupkin imparts psychic damage outward, Brandon hurtles his inward, curled up and pouting on his bed like a petulant toddler, engaging in sex at brothels, and then even going to a queer club and paying for a blowjob after he is not allowed in a strip club by a bouncer. Then, he calls home, and instead of Sissy answering eagerly, he just gets her voicemail, and intuits that she may have done herself in, so runs home and finds her bleeding in the bathtub. He helps her, and we can see real emotion bubbling- the only prior instance of this is when a tear rolls down his cheek while watching Sissy sing at the lounge. He then walks out on a pier, in the rain, and finally cries. Emotion surfaces. Then we get the end scene, previously mentioned, where the married woman reappears, and Brandon is left on the cusp of change, but unlike a film, such as Woody Allen’s Another Woman, we have no idea whether he will, as the Rainer Maria Rilke poem Archaic Torso Of Apollo says, ‘change his life.’
As in their prior film together, Fassbender and McQueen seem to work in tandem with the cinematography, by Sean Bobbitt, and scoring- both ambient and musical, by Harry Escott. They have a chance to join Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti, Akira Kurosawa and Toshirô Mifune, Yasujirô Ozu and Setsuko Hara, and Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, as one of cinema’s great actor-director teams, for they depict reality- not truth- the way these other pairs did. The screenplay shows how well silence can be, and how great actors can convey much with their eyes, and, as written by McQueen and Abi Morgan, it is brilliant in its minimal dialogue.
The critical reception of the film has been mixed, which is a wonder since it is not only a great film, but a virtually flawless one, and a better film than Hunger. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert praised the film as the second best of 2011, but even he did so for the wrong reasons, mistaking the film’s title’s reference being to sex addiction, not loneliness, while writing:
His shame is masked in privacy. He wants no witnesses to his hookers, his pornography, his masturbation. Does he think he is incapable of ordinary human contact?
Another critic who praised the film, but for mixed reasons, was James Berardinelli, who correctly pointed out Fassbender’s bravura performance, which, while certainly Brando-esque, reminds me most of Richard Harris’s gargantuan performance in This Sporting Life, yet another film about a man dealing with emotional impotence. Berardinelli wrote:
Michael Fassbender gives his second standout performance of the year, although more viewers will associate him with X-Men: First Class than with this. His work in Shame is both Oscar-worthy and memorable, with an intensity that can best be described as Brando-esque. He acts with his eyes, his face, his body. Many of his best scenes feature no dialogue, and this is true of the movie as a whole. McQueen speaks as strongly with his camera as with the characters’ lines. Especially early in the film, we do not see the faces of Brandon's naked bedmates.
Yet, despite this insight, like Ebert, he muffs the film’s essence by opening his review in this manner:
Sexual addiction can be as debilitating a condition as any kind of dependence: drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc. Those afflicted by sexual addiction are compelled by the need to orgasm. It’s an all-consuming craving, one that blinds the sufferer to other concerns. For sex addicts, there is no pleasure in the act or its conclusion. They work, sometimes frantically, for the moment of release. Shortly thereafter, it begins anew. It’s neither glamorous nor erotic and director Steve McQueen has taken an unflinching and non-judgmental view of sexual addiction in Shame.
Of course, there are many worse critics than Ebert and Berardinelli, and one of them just happens to have been employed by Ebert: his not so fair-haired wonderboy of a critic, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, from the now canceled Ebert Presents At The Movies. In his video review, the wunderkind claims that ‘so much of it is ambiguous and vague, it's almost as if McQueen didn't fully think it through,’ and that Fassbender gives a great impersonation of Christian Bale, in the laughable film version of American Psycho. Even the boy’s critical partner in crime, Christy Lemire, references that ridiculous film to this one, and likely only does so because the leads are both hunky British actors playing yuppies with problems in Manhattan. But, whereas the Bale film is a cartoon, wherein a yuppy fantasizes about being a serial killer, this film is a realistic masterwork wherein a man is stuck in a dreary existence where fantasy would be welcome.
Overall, Shame is a great film, one which assumes an intelligent audience, and one worthy of pantheon level greatness, in all aspects, from the writing to the technical to the acting- the whole damned package, and an equal or better film than Ingmar Bergman’s great film, with which it shares a title, and was even more wildly misinterpreted than this one. Even more so, let me pay its creator the ultimate compliment: if I could get films of my novels made I’d want McQueen to direct them. Shame is great art, and hopefully it will do for the NC-17 rating what Midnight Cowboy did for its predecessor X rating- earn some major Oscar nominations and damn the puerile American film ratings system for good. Another plus it bears is, given that the whole cast, save for Marianne, is white, and set in America, that this film reaches such heights, directed by a black Brit, making it all the more remarkable, and a good herald for a time when, hopefully, in a few decades, critics like me won’t even have to mention such things, for, Steve McQueen shares far less in common with hack filmmakers of all backgrounds, especially black hacks like Spike Lee, and for that little bit of heaven I can only end this review as I started it.