Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #96: Shame (2011)

People quite naked,
Long take alienation,

Director Steve McQueen garnered deserved praise for Hunger back in 2008, a film in which Michael Fassbinder plays a jailed Irish republican who leads his entire prison into a hunger strike. A visceral drama of human politics and the human body, Hunger was an impressive debut for McQueen. When I learned both him and Fassbinder were teaming up for a movie about a cold sex-addict, I had some faith. Shame didn't betray, and I think I liked it, but the experience left me as listless and blank as its protagonist. Guess that's the point. Fun to mull over after having seen it, but the seeing part is less than arresting. What we have here is the kind of movie that serves as excellent essay fodder.

Now I love me a long take - the longer a shot is, the more you invest in it. There's more tension, a more natural and organic feel; that's some of what you get when you go the long take route, stylistically. You can also get bored, though.

It's tough for me not to like a long take, but in Shame I found myself in a couple of instances where I really didn't care about what I was seeing. Might be that's the desired effect: during a sequence where Fassbinder is struggling with some kind of human reaction, he goes for a sudden jog through the streets of New York. It's long, it's detached, it dislocates you from what came before. It's a bit tedious as well,  like in an earlier scene where Carey Mulligan is singing in a swanky lounge. We don't get to see very much of Fassbinder's reactions, though we do see his stony face shed a tear. We mostly get Mulligan's face, singing a pretty long tune from start to finish. Visually, you aren't given much to keep you going. There's another sequence where a really awkward waiter keeps interrupting a date between Fassbinder and a co-worker over and over. It was there that it suddenly started to make sense for me: as viewers we were being pushed away! McQueen you bastard! You cad! We were being denied any kind of easy connection with our sex-mad hero because he just can't bring himself to connect at all.

Seeing that in the movie I'd normally shout ZOMG BRILLIANT! and say the film was great, but there were quite a few moments in the latter half of the film where its points about alienation and the erosion of human empathy were so heavy-handed that I had to turn to the person next to me and chuckle a bit. It busts out a few cliches - running out onto a rainy peer and collapsing into a disparaging cry, some emo wrist-cutting, some serious overscoring, and at three points I thought the movie was gearing up to cut to black and end. But somehow there was more.

Alright, now the sexy sex bit of the review. As you'd expect from a film about a sex addict, there's a lot of sex. The sex is fairly explicit, but I think they show you less than you come away thinking you saw. There's full frontal, but it never shows the penetrational pomp that porno promises. There's much humping, much undulation, and much face in the throws of orgasm - enough of all that to make you feel embarrassed and as exposed sitting in a dark theatre as the naked actors are on screen. All part of McQueen's Brechtian alienation tactics, I suspect.

So: Not terrible. Solid acting, obvious with its theme, tedious at times. Stuck in my brain for awhile though, which could count for something.

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