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Review: Steve McQueen’s “Shame”

Steve McQueen’s vague new movie wears its emptiness like a badge of honor.

In Steve McQueen’s Shame, Michael Fassbender plays some kind of advertising executive who has some sort of sex addiction. His sister (Carey Mulligan), whom he’s been ignoring for some reason or other, shows up at his place; the two have a relationship that might or might not be incestuous, but which definitely / possibly involves some kind of bad childhood stuff (maybe). Probably because his sister’s around, Fassbender has trouble doing his whole sex addiction thing, eventually gets beaten up outside of a bar, and is forced to get a blowjob from, of all things, another dude (that Shame equates gay sex with a personal Hell is a big hint toward its essentially reactionary inner workings). Throughout, McQueen opts for long-take, low-energy vagueness; its prettiness nearly masks the fact that the basic notions that inform the film—its images, its ellipses, its characterizations—are mostly inchoate, if not (as in the case of that blowjob scene, filmed in what looks like a red-lit butcher shop) downright ugly. These notions are, as follows: “sex can be both a dehumanizing and transcendent experience” (you don’t say!), “addiction can take over a person's life” (really?), “people are often motivated by past trauma” (well, I’ll be!), and “we live in a culture that nourishes emotional isolation.” 

McQueen happens to be a clever filmmaker, well-versed in contemporary festival style and capable of crafting a virtuoso sequence; one in particular, a date between Fassbender and some kind of co-worker (Nicole Beharie) even comes close to formulating something like a position. Like Hunger’s 17-minute “thesis scene” between Fassbender and Liam Cunningham, it's a self-contained film-within-a-film, executed in a single take (though, unlike the Hunger scene, the date sequence is shot with a technically precise ultra-slow zoom dolly-in); it's Shame's talkiest, least static scene—the only one where something like a movement of emotions or ideas can be perceived—but right after it ends, McQueen again opts to shroud the movie in vagueness. This goes beyond the characters—Fassbender as the barely-sketched lead, Mulligan as the generic broken woman (tellingly, her sex life is played as comedy while Fassbender's is played as grand tragedy), Beharie as the foil whose attraction to Fassbender is never explained—and their relationships; Shame is a Choose Your Own Meaning movie, full of blank spaces that a sympathetic viewer can fill with their own interpretations (this culminates in a lengthy sex scene between Fassbender and two women, with Fassbender's facial expression serving as a sort of Rorschach blot).

It's smart filmmaking—and also totally duplicitous and self-serving, the arthouse craftsmanship nearly hiding the film's middle-brow triteness (see also: I Am Love), every scene ladled with big dollops of cinema's most respectable cop-out: ambiguity. When McQueen isn't marking time with exercises in post-slow-cinema aesthetics (as in the long tracking shot of Fassbender sternly jogging to his bitchin' Glenn Gould playlist), he elides and defers. Shame wears its emptiness like a badge of honor; McQueen is trying for banal blankness, and though he succeeds in that respect, you kind of wish that a filmmaker (and one with a background as an artist at that) would aspire to do more than just say nothing.

“Contemporary festival style”. “Post-slow cinema.” Nice! Maybe it’s not such a bad thing I missed the film this week.
lol. Well that got quite a reaction out of Vish, definately another thing it’s purported to be aiming for is some form of reaction other then indifference, which ironically, it seems to be achieving despite your saying that it’s vagueness is reductive.
This is hard for me for a couple of reasons. First, I haven’t seen the film yet so obviously I can’t speak to that. But mainly I’m reacting to your all-too-accurate assessment of festival style instant art-cinema mix. It’s hard for me because I suspect much the same as you have said here could be said about at least one of the features I’ve been involved with producing directly myself. In fact, as I look at these images from Shame now, I even recognize many of the same sorts of set ups. I guess I was conscious too of the risk of falling into a certain kind of trap viz a viz the whole idea of “ambiguity chic” or even, now I can grant you, ambiguity as a certain kind of reductionist evasion. But I also veered toward it as a profitable structural device and still find it profoundly attractive for some of the same reasons you refer to in criticism here, specifically that whole Rorschach aspect. I think there is something worthwhile to that in terms of the way in which it can draw viewers in and turn the process of narrative building back upon them in a more direct way, almost forcing an acknowledgment of the shaping of meaning available to all of us and only constrained by the sets of biases we bring in (I always think of those superb early scenes of intentional dislocation in Egoyan’s Exotica and wonder still if it would be profitably manageable to sustain a similar such strategy through an entire feature without the release of resolution). What I tried to do in one particular case was to use ambiguity as an initial provocation and then to attempt to fashion a transition from one form of ambiguity to another, the first as more clearly demarcated mystery with assumed pieces and the second as conceptual discussion founded upon a certain amount of necessary abstraction. In my view it was successful if a viewer actually stopped wondering about that more clear cut ambiguity (who are these people to one another?) and began actually thinking about what the characters were saying to each other which was, by necessity of the subject matter, ambiguous. All the better if there was no sense of the shift in that perceptible involvement. Here I was simply trying to make a point, I guess, about the way in which many are willing to embrace ambiguity when it serves immediately pragmatic ends (the obvious mystery element) but not so much when there is no end in sight (philosophical discussion) even when that mode of engagement is critical for, and could be arguably more beneficially applied toward, the latter. And what of Kiarostami’s famed “incomplete” cinema in which he invites our direct participation to provide meaning? At its best (as with the Kiarostami) surely that must be the essence of what cinema as poetry would be (see also Malick, of course). I will say that the films I have been involved in are more clearly experimental features which foreground the same such expectation of viewer investment and involvement, though there is also always an acknowledgment of some implicit narrative. I’m genuinely interested in how you would go about drawing the lines of distinction between what you consider to be an acceptable use of ambiguity as a strategic artistic device and what you would consider to be an unjustifiable over indulgence.
@nathaniel drake carlson You used the word “profitable” twice and “investment” once. For me, that’s where I would draw the line! Kidding.
I think there’s a big difference (and Ben Sachs touches on this in his excellent review of the movie in this week’s Reader) between ambiguity as a means and ambiguity as an end. (Choice quotes from Ben: “one can present decontextualized images for only so long” and “With nothing new in its characters, settings, or themes, Shame has little to offer except McQueen’s style, which does little to elucidate anything around it.”) Kiarostami and Egoyan — as well as many other filmmakers, most prominently Jacques Tourneur — use ambiguity as a means to a particular emotional / ideological / narrative / aesthetic end. The problem for me with McQueen is that a sort of conceptual vagueness (Ben gets into this in his Shame piece — which, again, everyone should read — when he talks about what he dislikes about McQueen’s art) is his only real goal. As I said about, it takes a fair amount of skill to pull that off — but that doesn’t change the fact that result is essentially a blank canvas.
Missed you around here Ignatiy. :)
“Missed you around here Ignatiy. :)” – I’ll second that :). I’m especially interested in seeing this film now so I can compare your review with Ebert’s drastically different review and see where I stand.
I had a similar feeling when I saw Hunger at the beginning of the year, so I’m in no great rush to see Shame. The ‘festival-bait by numbers’ approach favoured by McQueen (and also, to a large extent, Andrea Arnold) seems calculated to the point of dishonesty. An attempt to manufacture an “art-film” as some kind of consumer commodity, with all the elements pre-proven to appeal to the correct critical demographic. Never mind that these films fail to inspire any emotional or intellectual connection; they look convincing enough in competition with a Haneke or a Dumont.
Ignatiy, I think one could argue that McQueen does use ambiguity as a means here: in that, it brings the audience to the realization (hopefully) that it does not matter why or how Fassbender’s character got to this point and questioning that only gets you so far. In a way, does it matter how any of us got to be who we are? If it does, is it not only a tool of reflection to then help us become something else? And so, this state of becoming and transformation is the focal point, as I think McQueen would agree with. Who needs backstory? Is McQueen’s goal “banal blankness” (how would either of us know for sure?)? I felt his film was quite clear and borderline obvious by the end: everyone is attempting to fill some void in their life, usually at the risk of deepening that chasm; a way to salvation is through empathy and compassion for others; and shame can be helpful in breaking one free from addiction or other self-centered maladies. ‘Shame’ is not a choose-your-own-meaning movie; it is about shame, and more importantly, the lack of it (a message made clear by his choice of NYC for the setting). The “nothing new” argument works both ways because I think (hope) McQueen made his choices with these archetypes in mind (businessman, antiseptic surroundings, sex as painful compulsion, etc). Stop me if you think I’m giving the director too much credit, but also show me a theme that has not been explored before. However, I felt McQueen explored them in different ways than has been done prior. I strongly disagree with Ben Sachs’ opinion that McQueen’s style “does little to elucidate anything around it” – instead, I think Fassbender’s performance is strengthened and the environment of loneliness and solitary confinement, in a sense, are also brought forward by McQueen’s choices. McQueen is able to build a context using only images – again, nothing new, but an admirable achievement. I don’t mean to come here and just disagree with things. There is just something I find disturbing about criticism, which is to discard films entirely based upon some superficialities or flaws instead of attempting to find redeeming qualities and including those. It too closely resembles a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ dichotomy rather than a thoughtful critique that weighs several differing perspectives. The critic can always bring something more to the table than mere critique (judgment) or personal projection/biases. Not to attack your piece, but don’t you think a lot of your complaints were based upon presumptions about McQueen’s intentions? In short, I think there is a lot to discuss about Shame, some of which has been covered and some has not. If nothing else, don’t you think the approach is one to be encouraged in cinema? Staring into the depths of human behavior (beautiful, ugly, or otherwise) with an observational eye and finding what one could call meaning. I, for one, will take that over explicit storytelling.
Also, I think this brings a healthy new angle to the discussion:
Just a minor correction. The shot in the date sequence is not a zoom in, but a dolly in (I was there as part of the crew the day it was shot). As you know, there is a big difference in perpective, maybe hard to appreciate here due to the extremely slow pacing. Regards
Thanks Victor. Whatever my misgivings about the film, I do like that scene. I was looking for the change in perspective, but it seems like I misjudged it, probably because of the slowness. I’ve corrected it above.
DCDreams, I agree with you in many respects—“Shame” is definitely not a “yea” or “nay” film. I think the best scenes in “Shame” are engaging in their ambiguity, the duration of the takes combined with the amazing subtlety of the performances allowing for the themes of addiction an emotional isolation that you rather coldly shrug off here, Ignatiy, to resonate beyond the world of the film. With that said, I found the primary relationships in the film engaging in a realistic sense that was not separate from the style of McQueen, but utterly tied to it. These are actors working with a director toward something refined, which I think they achieve for a good majority of the film. In fact, I think what they capture in the film up to the end of the “threesome scene” is so effective that I felt satisfied at that point. The following scenes involving Mulligan’s suicide and Fassbender’s “dropping to his knees” moment seemed an unnecessary stress on Fassbender’s abilities. I directed young actors in a college theatre program for ten years, and they always want to drop to their knees in the more dramatic moments. I would always ask them what, in reality, would it take to cause them to actually do that?… and then usually tell them to save it for their work in Greek tragedy. In the finale of “Shame” Fassbender pulls it off, as things are getting pretty dire at that point, but, as I said, by then I felt the film had given me what it had to offer, which I’ll agree is not overwhelming, but artful and thoughtful, rather than “art-housy.” If there is a flaw in the film (and, I agree that the gay club scene is a risky and questionable move) I read it as a case of not knowing it’s own strength. It’s only when the film abandons it’s position as a character study, abandons it’s ambiguity, and becomes specifically about the suicide that I feel it fails.
This is a film I haven’t seen, but it does have a weird relationship with ambiguity. The film wants everything to be ambiguous. Brandon Sullivan’s relationship with his sister and both their relationship to their parents are vague and the director and star have played coy (if not dumb) in press interviews about the film. Heck, we don’t even really know what kind of job Brandon has. Yet the one thing that is actually ambiguous in real, whether or not “sex addiction” is real psychological condition, is left as clear as possible by this film. No ambiguity at all in the interviews. It’s real according to them. No other side to argument against it or left to the audience whether sex addiction is real. I don’t know, but seems sort of weird to me that whether or not Brandon or his father had sex with his sister is actually ambiguous, it happened or not. Yet sex addiction is played with almost as much subtly and truthfulness as amnesia is portrayed in an afternoon TV soap opera.
SPOILERS: I found the first half of this intriguing, but it’s really the reductive Reagan-era stance towards sex that bothered me. As you noted the “descent into hell” build up that goes towards a (GASP!) gay BJ moment has some “gay panic” implications. You can almost hear the Pavlovian Dog audience response of: “he’s letting a guy do that?…he TRULY is a sex addict” (and I say this as a straight male). I also had trouble with the whole threesome scene (for one thing it’s set to music that sounds a lot like Barber’s Adagio for Strings AKA the music from Platoon as if to equate his sex addiction to war…or something?) Then the suicide attempt of his sister links sex to death (or at least attempted death) which leads us back to Reagan era slasher movies equating the joy of sex to a graphic (near) death. Anyway…there’s been a lot of back-and-forth about this movie among critics. Glenn Kenny’s piece for the AV Club is a good rebuttal that goes into his own addictions with alcohol. He falls on the ‘pro’ side of Shame.
Also, I re-watched American Psycho a few weeks after Shame, and think this type of character definitely works better within the frame of a dark comedy. Really, really dig American Psycho.

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