PRINT January 2012


Steve McQueen’s Shame

Steve McQueen, Shame, 2011, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 101 minutes. Brandon (Michael Fassbender).

THE MARTYROLOGY of Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) and his new film, Shame, is founded on the male body, stripped and in extremis. The British artist’s acclaimed first feature chronicles the final days of Irish Republican Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), who starved himself to death in Belfast’s Maze Prison in 1981 in protest against the British treatment of IRA inmates as criminal, not political, prisoners. Expelled from their shit-smeared cells to be clubbed and flayed by their jailers, their hair bloodily hacked from head and face, the naked IRA men have only their pitiful flesh to protect them against the onslaught. In its final reels, Hunger details the very dematerialization of that flesh, as Sands’s bruised and emaciated body succumbs to his willed deprivation: limbs and organs giving out, bones protruding, skin bursting with stigmata-like sores. McQueen leaves no doubt he is describing a passion, arranging the martyr’s gaunt frame in the horizontal manner of Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dead Christ. Hunger falls in the tradition of Dreyer and Bresson, who, as André Bazin claimed in his meditation on the latter’s self-starved country priest, were “only concerned with the countenance as flesh, which, when not involved in playing a role, is a man’s true imprint, the most visible mark of his soul.” One thinks of all the exposed, wounded, or endangered men in McQueen’s installation work, from his own naked self sparring, perhaps aggressively, perhaps erotically, with another nude male in Bear, 1993, to the scarred youth who recounts his brother’s accidental death by gunshot in 7th November, 2001; the British war dead in Queen and Country, 2007–; and the coltan harvesters in Gravesend, 2007, whose exploited flesh is set against the sound of shrieking machinery. (Charlotte Rampling and Lady Liberty are perhaps the only women to get star billing in McQueen’s work.)

In the opening sequences of Shame, Fassbender again bares his body for a drama of self-excoriation. Laid out corpselike on blue sheets in the film’s first shot, Brandon, McQueen’s soul-dead protagonist, must, like a character out of Dostoyevsky (or Bresson), travel to the limits of abjection before the path to redemption opens for him. The hunger that leads Brandon to that desolate end is as physical as Bobby Sands’s starvation—Brandon is a sex addict—but its life-denying impulse arises from the opposite of the hunger striker’s ascetic discipline: a surfeit that never reaches satiation. “You like your sugar!” a coworker observes as Brandon nabs another packet for his coffee, her playful double entendre setting her up to become a mortified victim of his addiction.

Brandon (not incidentally, Irish) inhabits a spacious apartment in midtown Manhattan—the director is as exact about its address, 9 West Thirty-First Street, as he is vague about much else—worlds away from the fetid, maggoty cells of the Maze but no less an arena of corporeal abasement. Bazin, continuing his consideration of Bresson’s country priest, writes: “We have the countenance of the actor denuded of all symbolic expression, sheer epidermis, set in a surrounding devoid of any artifice.” The epidermis of McQueen’s addict, however, comes freighted with all manner of symbol and artifice. Brandon, naked through much of the film’s opening, could play pole-vault with his penis, but that stupendous organ becomes an instrument of agony in his auto-da-fé. Hiring hookers for home or porking pickups in the cold, cruising subways and nightclubs, obsessively masturbating in the shower, at the supper table, at work—even his randy, philandering boss cannot identify all the fetishes and positions the IT team discovers on Brandon’s porn-clogged hard drive—the tormented compulsive points the way to oblivion with his inexhaustible cock.

Meticulously researched and thoroughly rehearsed to a rather airless end, Shame revives the punitive universe of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), in which sex carries a strong whiff of perdition and pornography poisons the soul. The chill, cadaverous light McQueen employs in the film’s opening exteriors blanches Fassbender’s already pallid flesh, so that Brandon’s craving arrives under the sign of fatality. Given to natty blue jackets and scarves, his apartment and vinyl collection maintained with the control missing in his addiction, Brandon finds his world disrupted by the arrival of his sister, Sissy, a boho cabaret singer with a bad dye job. Played with bruised abandon by Carey Mulligan, Sissy embodies Brandon’s opposite—the film’s strident ambiguities do not preclude the diagrammatic—as impulsive, vulnerable, and needy as he is detached. Their sibling relationship, with its hints of incest and familial abuse, reveals the depths of his self-loathing and estrangement from the world. Kookily dressed in a vintage red chapeau and leopard-skin coat, no doubt as an homage to Maria Schneider’s getup in Last Tango in Paris, a film McQueen reportedly admires, Sissy swigs orange juice from the carton, screams, “So good!” in childish delight as she bites into breakfast, leaves a mess wherever she encamps, and weeps inconsolably as she begs her boyfriend not to break up with her. Despite the scars on her wrist, Sissy plays chaotic life force to her brother’s lethal immurement; she knows the value of attachment, the depths of passion, the existential truth of their damaged lives. “We’re not bad people,” she assures him. “We just come from a bad place.”

That “bad place” could be either their family home or all of New Jersey, whence the two hail, given the film’s reliance on calculated uncertainty. We never learn Brandon and Sissy’s last name, for instance, or what his job entails, or the business of the company that employs him. (The cold glass maze he works in supposedly bespeaks all, like the one that hems in Sean Penn’s architect in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.) The unstated vies with the misleading: Sissy is introduced as a voice on Brandon’s answering machine, sounding more like a jilted girlfriend than a sibling. Initially unanchored phrases suggest one thing but, with a change of camera angle, turn out to mean another: “I find you disgusting,” says the boss offscreen as the camera locks on Brandon’s blank (stricken?) face, as if the latter were being reprimanded, before a wider shot reveals that the leader has quoted the line from Diogenes as part of a motivational talk to his team. The effect—perhaps derived from Kuleshov’s famous experiment in montage, just as McQueen previously invoked Muybridge’s early motion studies in Running Thunder, 2007—feels contrived, but the lapse is minor in comparison with the film’s portentous assemblage of ominously ticking clocks, point-making signage and graffiti, allusions to suicide, and intimations of impending peril: Brandon pulls Sissy back from the subway platform’s edge at the film’s beginning, and an emergency that halts his train at the end toys with our expectation that it is she who has thrown herself onto the tracks.

Steve McQueen, Shame, 2011, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 101 minutes. Sissy (Carey Mulligan).

McQueen has frequently employed perceptual shifts, through cropping, focus pulling, and field inversion, in the service of ambiguity—Giardini, 2009, is a supreme example—but here those effects only emphasize the film’s obviousness. The little intimacy Brandon can bear is via webcam; he becomes impotent when he attempts to make love with a sweet-natured woman who prizes family and emotional commitment. (He quickly reconvenes with a hard-bodied hookup, fucking her wham-bam against a window in the Standard Hotel for all the High Liners below.) After being pulped by an irate boyfriend in the film’s chronology-jumbled “descent into hell” finale, the bloodied Brandon plunges to the nadir of his being in a gay sex club, the Quo (Vadis or Quid Pro?), luridly lit in Hades red and sordid strobe lights—one fully expects Al Pacino to turn up as a leather daddy—after which Brandon stumbles into the night to behold his ill, irredeemable self in a fun-house mirror. Were McQueen’s puritanical symbolism not risible enough, he then dispatches Brandon to a thrashing threesome with glamorous hookers, an orgiastic frenzy of moist orifices, flailing hair, and feral teeth. (The fast, tacky montage echoes that of Brandon’s earlier clearing of the temple: the removal of all porn and food from his apartment.) Treated as nothing less than a Calvary of fleshly degradation, the sequence turns Brandon’s every thrust, as indicated by his incisor-bearing grimaces, into a paroxysm of suffering. The call girls he’s fucking have no idea that Teresa of Avila is on his mind.

HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? demands a subway poster in an early sequence of Shame, its all-caps incredulity reflecting one’s own surprise at the film’s improbabilities and false notes, including its imprecise New York geography. Perhaps it is unfair to question McQueen’s purchase on conventional realism, which he seems to value little: “How do you get close to a human being? It’s through artifice, through the devices of cinema,” he recently said. “It’s not about social realism or borrowing your reportage and camerawork from documentaries.” But one wonders just how Brandon constantly watches Internet porn at work when his computer is in clear sight of dozens of coworkers and clients. Why do the suave Brandon and his sophisticated date act as if they have never been to an upscale restaurant before? How does Sissy land that posh gig—at the Standard’s Boom Boom Room—in which she sings, in golden-toned close-up, “New York, New York” to a hip crowd that falls silent (perhaps stunned at her naive audacity) before wildly cheering her perversely attenuated, off-key rendering? (The lone tear that escapes Brandon’s eye as he watches his sister sing recalls the one Bobby Sands emits as he dies in Hunger.)

The austerity of Hunger turns to affectation in Shame. Ever attentive to camera placement, McQueen daringly organizes the exchange between Brandon and Sissy that forms the film’s emotional crux as a resolute long take from behind, with a looping, out-of-focus cartoon in the background as counterpoint to the brother’s vitriolic outburst. Far shorter than the seventeen-and-a-half-minute fixed-camera take of the conversation between priest and prisoner in Hunger, the scene nevertheless feels spuriously virtuosic. In place of Hunger’s precise framing, spare tongue-and-groove editing, and materialist use of sound—a soft rain of bread crumbs onto a starched napkin, the percussive clatter of nightsticks on riot shields—Shame resorts to banal compositions in which Brandon is isolated in soul-sickness against an indifferent city. The artist who resisted non-diegetic music in Hunger, except for a frugal use of cello half an hour into the film, here wallows in a bathetic Barber-like lamentation and deploys Glenn Gould’s lugubrious second recording of the Goldberg Variations over both a showy long tracking shot of Brandon jogging at night and the film’s histrionic denouement. In Shame’s moralizing coda, after being cleansed in ablutions of blood and cold, castigating rain, Brandon signals his redemption when he withstands the temptation of a blonde he had once pursued in the same subway. The camera focuses on her wedding ring just before the screen goes dark and the credits roll. McQueen has made a passion play to gladden Michele Bachmann’s heart.

Shame made its US debut at the New York Film Festival in October and is currently playing in select cities.

A revised edition of James Quandt’s anthology Robert Bresson is forthcoming from Indiana University Press.