Saturday, December 03, 2011

British filmmakers make "Shame" in NYC, with a little taste of "Eyes Wide Shut"; concept of film is not what it might have been

There is a conversation two-thirds the way through the new NC-17 film “Shame” where NYC yuppie Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) tells his uninvited sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) that she didn’t come from him and that he shouldn’t have to be responsible for her.  She retorts that they are family, and family members watch each other’s backs.  That, to my consciousness, is one of the most pressing and unsettling questions in modern western life, and maybe the only really important conversation in the new film from Steve McQueen (not the same person as the well known  American actor, but I ask anyway, remember “The Blob”?) 

In fact, that may what parents, in a marriage, believe they get out of their commitment.  They have both the right and responsibility to socialize their kids to live in a community, and not just for their own karma.  There are some lines earlier in the script about this sort of thing: what is having a “relationship” for anyway?  Brandon doesn’t know, or believe; but neither do any of the other characters very much, except for the parasite Sissy.  (When I was a patient at NIH in 1962 – covered elsewhere in the blogs – there was a female patient like Sissy, who kept on asking “why can’t we love everybody?”  From each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her needs.)

Oh, Brandon’s boss David Fisher (James Badge Dale) is a family man, who talks to his son from work by Skype, in front of Brandon, after calling Brandon in to his office to pass the hint, politely, that they found too much porn on Brandon’s virus-infected workplace computer. Oh, no, he doesn’t get fired. That’s not the culture.  But, then, there’s a good reason (involving David’s own conduct) for him not to get axed – it closes the circle of the “plot”. 

Of course, everybody knows that this movie is about sex addiction, and it is; and it does “show everything” for the curious, or easily titillated, but that’s about it.  There’s not that much that’s really new.  You can enjoy the spectacular views of the Hudson from Brandon’s apartment --- yes, he is “responsible” enough to earn his own living and pay for his own apartment in New York (not too easy these days).  But he’s apt, after the expected heterosexual trysts, to visit the Trucks, too.  He even gets bounced from gay or bi places.

To me, the title of the film suggests a history of past humiliation in a certain kind of adolescent competition, and then “enjoyment” of the abasement  or even total desecration accompanying its recreation.  This may sound too much like what conservative author George Gilder wrote in the 70s and 80s in “Sexual Suicide” and then “Men and Marriage”.  But there’s underground gay literature around that depicts this concept of "deep shame".  Some of this lit was in my car trunk, and when I was subbing, I had to toss it out to protect myself.   Anyway, that’s not what the film says; that’s what I wanted it to get into. Google's definition of the word is "A painful feeling of distress or humiliation cause by consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior", although in practice the concept has been used against people for status-like things they cannot choose or do anything about.

I do suppose that what happens with Sissy is a major source of the substance of the “title”. There are reports of some audience members being sickened by the scene, which is not more graphic than many other films.  (Somehow, I was expecting something like “American Psycho” but that didn’t quite happen, either.) 

The film, shot economically (though in 2.35:1) in New York City (using the IRT line 28th St station a lot) was produced with British resources (Film 4, Hanway, the UK Lottery, and Momentum Films).  A little of it reminded me of “Eyes Wide Shut,” ("R") where Stanley Kubrick recreated the mood of New York City while actually shooting in London. (Others will compare this film to the earlier "X" films "Last Tango in Paris" and even "Midnight Cowboy".)

The original orchestral music score by Harry Escott is a bit Wagnerian (as if Van Trier's use of Wagner could almost work).  The music score also uses Bach, especially the Goldberg Variations, most effectively.

I saw this on a Saturday afternoon at Landmark E Street in Washington DC, to an almost full house, mostly college-age men -- and the audience did not seem to be impressed that it had seen anything very original. I don't feel or experience the protagonist's urges myself, so my experience of the movie was a little bit motivated by curiosity ("voyeurism"?) 

Fox Searchlight’s official site is here. I suppose we could applaud Fox for letting the MPAA actually give the film its "rating" and make the case (sometimes stated by Roger Ebert) that grown-ups need real movies where "persons under 17 will not be admitted".   But I can't say that this particular movie makes that case.  But, true, the Hollywood bean counters ought to be less sensitive to the social connotations of official ratings. 

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