Around the time Steve McQueen’s Shame was about to screen at the New York Film Festival, word that the film would feature copious amounts of unfettered nudity from its star, ruggedly handsome It Fella Michael Fassbender—in the context of his portrayal of a sex addict, yet—set tongues and Twitter thumbs a-wagging. A-wagging mostly with a spate of sophomoric dick jokes. I don’t consider myself a prig, and I have nothing against a good dick joke, but, you know, the ones I heard/read were nothing like good dick jokes. But trying to tell people to grow up (or even come up with funnier jokes), in person or in social media, is a bit of a mug’s game.
Still, I do remain a little confused, if not genuinely agitated, at the what-seems-to-be outright hostility that Shame generates in some quarters. Now, I don’t think that the movie is anything like an unalloyed masterpiece, and I found some of the artier touches—let’s call them “alienation effects”—that director/co-writer McQueen uses curious at least. I didn’t so much mind his unstuck-in-time depiction of Manhattan, in which characters who have very up-to-date cell phones hang out in bars that play old Blondie songs and get around on subway cars that might not have seemed out of place in the graffiti doc Style Wars. But in my review of the movie for MSN Movies, I raised some objections to the odd scene in which an ostensibly professional nightclub singer played by Carey Mulligan—the similarly unstable sister to Fassbender’s compulsive satyr-o-maniac Brandon—“entertains” her audience with a rendition of “New York, New York” that “gives Nico a very expert run for her money in the slow-and-lachrymose singing department.” I also remarked that the scene as whole might not have seemed out of place in the risibly stiff sci-fi Z movie The Creation Of The Humanoids. (It is perhaps no accident that The Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film cites the latter as Andy Warhol’s favorite movie, FYI.)
But my personal, one might say “gut,” reaction to the scene in which Brandon, in a paroxysm of self-loathing and an attempt to forestall what appears to be some kind of inevitable bottom, frantically cleans house and ditches all of the print and DVD porn that he’s accumulated over an untold period, was to tighten in my seat and grit my teeth. It did not make me think, “How charmingly retro! A guy who still buys porno magazines!” as it apparently did The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane. Similarly, the scene in which Brandon stands in the rain crying, absorbing the disaster that ensues after he checks out completely on someone who actually needed him, did not make me think, “And that’s what happens to naughty boys,” which was Lane’s “up yours” to the image, as if the film’s title was some sort of finger-wag at the audience and the lead character. No, I took the title as a description of the state Brandon walks around in, whether consciously or not. And that moved me.
I know what you’re thinking right now: “Oh my God this guy is about to ‘come out’ as a ‘sex addict.’ Please, please, please don’t put that mental image in my head.” Fear not. Certain items on my CV notwithstanding, that’s not my problem. My problem is, alas, less novel, and now’s as good a point as any for me to cite this pertinent quote from the so-called “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Bottles were only a symbol.” (Italics in original.) I noted in my review that the trashing of the porn stash could just as well have been emptying a vial into a toilet, or of a bottle of Scotch, expensive or not, down the sink. (Near the end of my own drinking days, it was expensive, because I was a connoisseur, and connoisseurs can’t be “drunks.” But down the sink it would go anyway. Brandon doesn’t seem to have possessed any copies of Richardson magazine, incidentally.)
While the more self-conscious touches of Shame may grate or confuse, its actual depictions of destructive, can’t-stop/won’t-stop behavior are acutely and messily accurate. That goes not just for Brandon but for his sister Sissy who, right after intruding on Brandon’s solitary cave, falls in bed with her brother’s married horndog boss (played with discomfiting edge by James Badge Dale). This whole thing just didn’t play with critic Andrew Tracy, who, writing in Cinema Scope, disdains this “ridiculously unlikely scenario” as “an offensively stupid turn of events.” I don’t want to get all “you don’t know” on Tracy, but I have to say that more than a few folks of my acquaintance might envy Tracy’s relatively charmed existence. Movies may indeed function as Rorschach tests for their viewers, but I can’t speculate, for instance, as to what motivates David Denby—who once wrote frankly about his own misadventures with adult content on the Internet—to dismiss Shame as being “about the hell—the utter hell—of being a young, good-looking, well-employed, straight single man in New York.” Apparently the point that Brandon’s mental and spiritual condition may tend to undermine all the physical/material trappings of his existence is lost on Denby.
And I think that’s maybe pertinent to the risk that McQueen’s taking. “Addiction is addiction,” he’s said in an interview, and today, I have to agree. (It’s also worth noting that Brandon’s various sexual exertions are often accompanied by not-insubstantial substance abuse.) Yeah, I used to scoff at the notion of “sex addiction” myself. And while sobriety has kept what I believe to be my bullshit detector somewhat intact (to a fault, even), there are some things that I’m not so reflexive to dismiss anymore. As frustrating as one might find the film’s withholding of an ultimate “answer” to the question of why Brandon and Sissy are so screwed up, a lot of addicts might tell you that while root causes and their explorations are all well and good, their uncovering and resolution is not a make-everything-better cure. (Not for nothing did David Foster Wallace give one of the AA groups in his novel Infinite Jest the name “Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink.”)
Nor, for that matter, do I believe that the scene near the end, featuring Brandon’s foray into a gay sex club, is meant to shock audiences in some kind of “can you believe he’s sunk so low that he’s doing this with another man?” way. If you’re paying attention, it’s pretty clear this venue is not unfamiliar to Brandon. What the character is doing is bingeing, and an addict’s binge is a little different from a normal user’s binge. Actually, if one is truly a normal drinker, one does not binge, but hey, I’m not going to take your inventory here—let’s say maybe a “reactive user’s” binge. In any event, one of the most horrifying realizations a blackout drinker can have is that he or she actually wanted to black out. More horrifying is going out and doing it again and again after that realization.
What registered most strongly, for me, in the rictus of Brandon/Fassbender’s orgasmic grimace during the film’s already notorious three-way sex-scene, is that the escape Brandon is so ferocious in pursuing is no escape at all. Not only that, but Fassbender is such an uncanny actor, so skilled at conveying, or seeming to convey, actual thought, that I could almost sense Brandon’s innate knowledge that it’s no use anymore… even as he throws himself in, as it were, and throws himself away. He may as well be a blackout drinker, chasing oblivion again. (In a review of Shame that displays what I think is an acute sensitivity to its theme, The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday savvily reminds the reader that the French call the orgasm “the little death.”) It’s arguable that the particular despair an active addict suffers is only comprehensible to other addicts; but in the moments that for some represent Shame’s most deplorable excesses, I was convinced that both Fassbender and McQueen, neither of whom is an addict as far as I know, do in fact “get it,” and, more importantly, put it across.
Aristotle argued for catharsis as art’s ultimate goal; it could very well be that we postmodern folk are too sophisticated to have any consumable contrivance work that way on us. Shame, in its most unaffected moments, asks for empathy, and I felt that—and also a scary affinity. Because the film vividly brought me back to places I never want to revisit in my actual life. I couldn’t have laughed if I tried.