Can Michael Fassbender Be On My Marathon Team? A Review of Shame

FINALS ARE OVER!

Oh Frack. There’s nothing I can do to change my grades.

Oh God. I think I’m going to throw up.

Veronica Mars Crying

I am not as awesome as Veronica Mars. But I agree with the sentiment.

Okay. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. It’s okay. Even if this semester goes down the tubes and my life plans are irrevocably destroyed, I can be a great bum

Yes. That is my plan B, and I shall stick to it.

Sadly, my time of stress is not yet completely over, since I have to come up with a brilliant honors essay proposal and an equally brilliant honors application in the next five days. So the blog posting will continue to be sporadic as I desperately try to learn everything about Feminist Science Fiction in the ’70s and ’80s, and then try to condense that knowledge into a 250 word proposal.

Also – again, if you’ve sent me an email in the past few weeks, I can almost PROMISE I haven’t gotten it (unless you know my real name and thus my main email address). But I will go back to that mailbox soon, and answer emails. (assuming I haven’t become a bum in the meantime).

And without further ado, I give you my review of Shame… and the only blog post of mine my mother has promised to read. Exciting! It’s also the last of my pre-written blog posts (yes, I stored some up for the finals madness), so…I’m actually going to have to write two/three posts a week now, instead of just editing them and putting them up.

****

I’ve been on a bit of a Michael Fassbender kick lately. I saw him for the first time this summer in X-Men: First Class, where he played Magneto. Because of his kick-ass acting of an equally kick-ass character (Nazi-hunter! Tortured soul! Wearer of Awesome Turtlenecks!) I immediately developed a (small) obsession.

Now, this obsession might not have made that much of a difference to my movie-watching routine, since I almost never go see movies during the academic semester. But after I went to see A Dangerous Method with my friends, one of them copied my example and fell into a mad obsession with Fassbender.

Michael Fassbender X-Men first class

It's the acting, I'm telling you.

I’m sorry, I got distracted. What?

Oh, yes. My friend, me, and Fassbender.

Given our mutual obsessions, we’re probably going to work our way through Fassbender’s entire back catalogue – which is fine by me. I’m looking forwards to re-watching X-Men – that should yield a good week’s worth of blog posts – and possibly seeing Hunger for the first time (hunger strikes being a fabulous way of boosting one’s post-essay depression). And we’re deeply disappointed that we won’t be in the same city when Prometheus comes out.

Prometheus the movie Ridley Scott

Already Obsessed

But, of course, Shame is still playing in Montreal. So as a reward for surviving our papers, my friend J. and I headed to the theater, planning to giggle wildly (I make no pretense to maturity).

I’m pretty sure everyone in the western hemisphere has heard the basic plot of Shame, but I will repeat it once more. Brandon (Fassbender) is a thirty-something New Yorker suffering from sex addiction. His life is thrown off-kilter when his sister Sissy (Carrie Mulligan) moves in with him. Not surprisingly, Sissy’s presence  prevents Brandon from relieving his addiction the usual ways – prostitutes, hook-ups, masturbation, sex-video-chat (is that what those things are called?) etc – and also brings up buried emotions.

Now, the reason everyone has heard of Shame is simple: it involves full frontal male nudity (hence why I was preparing for some highly mature giggling). There’s an interesting discussion to be had about why full frontal male nudity causes everyone to drop their tea tray, slap an NC-17 onto a movie and talk about an actor’s “bravery,” while the plethora of naked women in Hollywood barely merit a movie an R mention. I’m not going to have that conversation now, due to space constraints. But still. Interesting discussion. As one of my favorite professors would says “think about that.”

(I will note that none of the women who went full-frontal in Shame got a “bravery” stamp of approval)

There was no false advertising about Shame. The movie indeed contains a lot of nudity. A LOT of nudity.  The first time we see Brandon, he’s walking around his apartment, naked. In flashbacks, we see him with a woman – a prostitute – undressing. Later on, we see Sissy when she’s in the shower – Brandon thinks she’s a thief, and breaks down the door of the bathroom. Most of Brandon’s conquests (paid or unpaid) are shown with their clothes of, as is Brandon himself.

What’s striking about nudity in Shame is that it’s not artificial. In most movies, sex scenes involve lots of clever angles and artful cuts so that the audience can see tantalizing bits, but the film can retain a PG-13 rating. The actors are usually airbrushed to the point where you couldn’t find their real skin cells without a forensics team.

But not here. Like I said, two of the major moments of nudity take place outside of a sex scene – Brandon walking around his apartment, and Sissy yelling at Brandon for scaring her. All the actors look like real human beings – there is no special lighting or posing. The nudity, in other words, doesn’t seem like a performance. Unlike the self-conscious nude actors of Hollywood, these characters don’t seem aware of being watched.

It’s fascinating because, for all the sexualization of popular culture, this sort of unstaged nudity and un-artificial sex is still shocking. We’re cultural prudes: it’s okay to show sex, but only if the people are perfect. Only if they’re performing according to a pre-approved script. Which is why even the naked women in Shame are shocking – we’re so used to the artificialized Hollywood nudity that these “natural” naked women look completely alien.

The result is that the viewers feel like voyeurs. It’s quite discomfiting. The director, Steve McQueen, plays up the audience discomfort. In the one vaguely “romantic” sex  scene, the camera is perched at an odd angle vis Brandon and Marianne’s bodies, putting the audience in a bizarre viewing position. For three to four minutes of foreplay, the camera never moves. The camera never cuts. We become slowly aware that the actors, Fassbender and Nicole Behari, actually performed the entirety of the scene in one take. It wasn’t “okay, kiss, now cut,” then “now you lie down, now cut!” They actually made out for a good four minutes. Once again, I was struck by the difference between this scene, and our typical Hollywood fare, where sex scenes are designed to seduce and tantalize the audience. The lack of artificiality makes us feel uncomfortably like intruders. Like voyeurs. We cannot enjoy it.

Beyond the nudity, Shame is more a character study than an action-driven movie. It does have a core plot, but it doesn’t have a great deal of forward motion. Brandon moves through his life. We see him jogging, working, going out with colleagues, taking the metro, picking up women, reading porn.  His sister shows up to disturb his preciously-guarded peace, and he spirals out of control, but even this loss of control is low-key. Shame is a quiet movie in more ways than one. It’s telling that two of the movie’s climactic scenes – Brandon’s attempt to seduce a work-colleague, and his discovery of his sister at the end – are lacking in any kind of soundtrack; one of those scenes doesn’t have sound at all.

Character-driven movies like this one are successful based on two things: how interesting the character(s) are, and how good the acting is. Fortunately, Brandon is a complex, convoluted, knotty sort of character; he’s fascinating to watch. The movie works in large part because of the contrast between the subject matter – sex – and the person. Brandon is no happy-go-lucky party animal hosting orgy after orgy in his house. He is quiet, sad, pained. He seems to take no pleasure from sex. He just does it. There’s a fantastic scene right at the start when he makes eye contact with a woman in the subway. There’s a mutual attraction there, but while she smiles coyly, he is grave and sorrowful.

Similarly, in Brandon’s many late night jogs, he passes through space at a painful, glorious speed (seriously – Michael Fassbender’s got a career as a marathoner if this movie star thing doesn’t work out) – but he never engages with the city around him. Life, the city, sex – they’re just things to be gotten through. A duty he cannot avoid. Brandon is a man trapped in his own body, imprisoned by desires he neither wants nor receives any pleasure for.

Brandon Jogging Shame

Why is Brandon this way? He’s an interesting man, quietly likeable, a valued worker at his company – no one would suspect him of being a sex addict. In fact, even when his boss finds out Brandon’s hard drive is filled with porn, he doesn’t think Brandon had anything to do with it. What pushed Brandon into this life? Why can’t he survive without it? The movie (wisely) refuses to tell us. We are never given an explanation for why Brandon is the way he is. We get little insight into Brandon’s bizarre relationship with his sister. Nor does the movie offer any kind of commentary on Brandon’s actions, moral or otherwise. This lack of a moral imperative makes Shame one of the most even-handed portrayals of addiction I’ve ever seen. There is no judgment. There is no moralizing. Brandon’s addiction to sex is neither bad nor good. His decisions are neither praised nor punished. They simply are.

I should talk about Michael Fassbender’s acting. I should, but I’m afraid if I do, I’ll start ranting about the Academy’s complete lack of taste. How in the name of the Patron Saint of Justice and Truth did Fassbender NOT get an Oscar nomination for Shame? For that matter, why didn’t Fassbender WIN an Oscar for Shame?

Yes, he’s that good.

I’m not interested in calling Fassbender “brave” for the nude scenes, or for picking such a controversial character. I don’t think bravery should be rewarded in and of itself. Casey Abrams’ attempt to cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on American Idol was brave, but it didn’t make his performance any better (*shudder*). Fassbender need not rely on bravery to get him accolades – nude scenes or no nude scenes, he gave one of the, if not the, best performances of the year. He was in-fracking-credible.
Because Shame has so little explanation of Brandon’s addiction, the weight of the movie rests on Fassbender’s shoulders. He must make us care about a character that we do not, and by necessity cannot, understand. It takes a truly fantastic actor to make you feel for them when you are completely estranged from what they’re feeling. To make you care about a character that’s so alien to your experience.
There’s a scene where Brandon listens to his sister sing at a restaurant in New York. The camera closes in on his face, which is set in his typical impassive mask. The camera lingers. Slowly, his face shifts. His breath shifts minutely. A tear runs down his face. We do not know why Brandon reacts this way to the song. We should not care. But Fassbender makes us feel it nonetheless. He makes us care about Brandon. He makes us want him to conquer his addiction.

On another note, I thought Fassbender should get an oscar just for the way he fits in clothes – is there anything that looks bad on this guy? Seriously.

Michael Fassbender Shame Scarf

My friend J. would like it known that she does not approve of Brandon's scarf.

Sadly, the academy, as usual, does not listen to me. I don’t understand why – I shout loud enough for them to hear me!

One of the things I most enjoyed about Shame was its deconstruction of romantic comedy tropes. We are given several classic “meet-cute” scenarios. Brandon flirts with the girl in the subway. He goes out to a bar with his colleagues, and ends up attracting the woman his boss is trying to pick up. He tries to break his cycle of self-destruction by going out with a vivacious work-colleague. But the movie refuses to fall into the narrative of romance. This is no redemption tale – Brandon cannot be saved by a beautiful woman. Instead, all the encounters are tinged with desperation. Everything that could be romantic is exposed as nothing more than a routine exchange, a coming-together of disconnected people trying to feel something. Somehow, I think Shame’s portrayal of the dating (or hookup) scene is more accurate than usual romantic comedy fare.

Interestingly, most of the women Brandon tries to pick up with are “taken” in some way – they’re in other relationships, they’re prostitutes – and are thus not possible relationship partners. When the relationship could be something more – when it could actually be a moment of connection, or intimacy – Brandon backs away, terrified.

Speaking of “savior” women, I was pleased as punch to see that the one woman Brandon does try to date was African-American. I realize that this is not a big deal. Correction – it SHOULD not be a big deal. But it is. We get so few interracial relationships in mainstream movies that I had a big “Oh god” moment when I saw Brandon’s dinner partner, Marianne, played by the lovely Nicole Beharie. Here we have an African American woman portrayed as an attractive, intelligent, desirable life-partner -  she’s probably the sanest character in the entire movie. Nor is Behari’s race a plot device so that the movie can talk about the Very Important Subject of Interracial Dating. It’s such an exceptional state of affairs that I just have to give Steve McQueen a round of applause. Bravo, sir. And to the rest of Hollywood: take note. Learn. Follow McQueen’s lead. Make it so that well-rounded characters of color are so common in American movies that I never, ever have to comment on them again.

Beharie also does a great job – she’s only in the movie for fifteen minutes or so, and she was playing a relatively understated character, but she did such interesting things that I still remember her two months later. Honestly, I remember her character more than I remember Carey Mulligan’s character (who has much more screen time). I’m keeping an eye on her work – I hope we see a lot more from her.

Nicole Beharie Michael Fassbender Shame

I’m not the only one who has noticed Marianne as an exceptional character. Steve McQueen, the director of Shame, was very aware of Marianne’s status as a black woman in a Hollywood movie (McQueen himself is black, although he’s not African American). In an interview with Elvis Mitchell, McQueen says that when he wanted to cast Beharie as Marianne: “What was interesting was there was all kinds of  objections about this, of saying, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen there. That wouldn’t exist.” I said, “What, I don’t exist?” It was a very odd thing, having these conversations about having a love interest that was a Black woman with Brandon (…) But then, what also fascinates me is you have a lot of white American filmmakers who never cast a Black person in their movies and they made quite a few movies. How can you avoid that? That’s kind of weird. It’s like walking around with blindfolds on. How can you make movies in this country–and consistently make movies–and not cast Black characters in the main leads?”

I defer the rest of the discussion of race in Shame to Racialicious, which has a very interesting review of the film, and of Brandon’s relationship to Marianne – I fully purloined their link to McQueen’s interview with Mitchell: http://www.racialicious.com/2011/12/14/shame-the-interracial-relationship-the-casting-the-homophobia/

But while we’re on the subject of things the movie gets right with regard to representation, I should also mention what the movie gets wrong: homosexuality. I was actually pleasantly surprised that Brandon had a homosexual encounter in the film, and I will admit, I didn’t see it as problematic until I started reading the blogs. At the time, I thought it would have been worse NOT to have a homosexual encounter at all, in that it makes no sense for someone with a sex addiction to view male partners as any better or worse than female partners (since it has nothing to do with attraction or romance). If the movie hadn’t had the gay club scene, I would be complaining that “sure, it’s fine to have a sex addict paying for prostitutes, but we can’t possibly have a gay scene, because that’s just PERVERTED.” It would reinforce the idea that homosexuality is a particularly depraved sort of sexuality. Even sex addicts don’t have sex with people of the same gender. Putting the gay scene in, I thought, made gayness as normal an option in the sexual landscape as anything else the movie portrayed.

BUT, as many have pointed out, the gay scene does come when Brandon is at his absolute worse – which makes it possible to read homosexuality as the most perverted of sexual pleasures (right above threesomes). In the absence of another gay encounter when Brandon is not at “rock bottom,” the movie makes homosexuality “the film’s shorthand for “sexual depravity”” (to quote Andrea (AJ) Plaid, who wrote the racialicious article above). So I’m glad the gay scene is there, I think it could have been handled much, much better. If Brandon ahd had a gay encounter BEFORE he’d hit “rock bottom,” for example, this wouldn’t be problematic.

Despite the problematic portrayal of homosexuality, however, Shame is a fantastic movie. It’s sometimes painful to watch, but it’s well worth a trip to your theater. And not just because of how good Fassbender looks in clothes (and out).

I’m kind of hoping I see a bad movie soon, because these laudatory reviews are getting a bit boring. Maybe I should go watch The Help again, I’m sure that would yield a rant that lasts longer than one of Brandon’s jogging marathons.

Related Posts:

Is that a Log in your Dream, or Are You Just Happy To See Me: A Review of a Dangerous Method

Why Women Don’t Win American Idol: (Hint: It’s not Because of Teen Girls)

My Brother and I Fix the American Education System.


One Comment on “Can Michael Fassbender Be On My Marathon Team? A Review of Shame”

  1. [...] (fair point. Shall work on it) 3. She thinks I should talk more about why the title of the movie Shame is an example of America's moralizing puritanism (yeah…that's probably not going to happen) 4. If [...]


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