[SPECIAL THANKS TO: Mandolyn Mackenzie for thoughtful contribution and edits.]
[ADDITIONAL NOTE: This film is not for everyone, containing nudity and strong language.]
Steve McQueen, a director known mostly for his earlier film “Hunger” about the IRA hunger strike, hits lust and sexual addiction in the gut with his haunting 2011 release, “Shame”.
How oft-overlooked the consequences of misplaced sexual intrepidness is in our North American culture, and possibly even moreso internationally, outside of the sex-drenched advertising conglomerate we exist in. There is something to be said about social issues, with the advent of fast food and obesity being one of them, however, the little time people spend examining the connection between pornography addiction and random sexual encounters is alarming. Many fail to see that these two are indeed interconnected, regardless of what the media may tell you.
McQueen draws a link between the two with his telling tale of Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the character, Brandon. From the opening frame of “Shame” we are told everything we need to know about Brandon. Some would see him as a chauvinistic pig, ready to drop his pants to have sex with anything that moves, yet McQueen allows us into Brandon’s life to see the underbelly of what his addiction has done to him. Mark my words, it is a very fine line between pity and self-imposed life choice. We do feel deeply for Brandon’s situation, yet we know to some extent how he got there, and that he does little to change it.
Brandon works in some kind of firm, around people who may or may not be sex addicts themselves, we don’t know, but regardless seem interested in sexual advances on women. Some kind of modern-day re-telling of “Mad Men” perhaps, but only fans of the show would pick up on it. These married men aren’t the focus anyway–Brandon is the one we follow. And follow him we do. From bar hopping with his boss, to his ritualistic return to his apartment flat to watch pornography, to spending the evening with a prostitute.
We wonder how Brandon got to where he is now, but for some viewers, his arrival at this stage of addiction is likely somewhat familiar and may not need a ton of explanation. To further our wonder of his condition are messages from some woman leaving voice mails on his phone. We figure it’s a relative, and within time she visits him, needing a place to stay. It’s Brandon’s sister, Sissy, played by the never-disappointing Carey Mulligan. We aren’t sure if Brandon’s beginning down his dark path was his own doing or the result of something that happened to him when he was younger. Judging by his communication with Sissy, it should be quite clear something terrible must have happened in the past to create this family disconnect and Brandon’s awful situation. McQueen stays away from getting into the details, and while that might be disheartening at first, it is a skilled move by the director to “show, not tell” and works increasingly well as Brandon’s life unfolds before us.
McQueen works hard to determine his own style as a filmmaker. For those more accustomed to his work, there are plenty of lengthy shots used to illustrate the current condition of his characters. At one point, we follow Brandon as he goes on a run across the city in a scene somewhat reminiscent of the 1959 film “The 400 Blows” by French director, François Truffaut. If you are unfamiliar, take the time to get acquainted with this film—you will not regret it. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt show an appreciation for the filmmakers of old with long, deliberate camera moves. Some may call these artistic choices overrated, uninspired, and pretentious. While it may be the latter, there is no more beautiful of a way to show the desperation and degradation of Sissy’s character than her singing “New York New York” at a club Brandon visits with his boss. It’s uninterrupted and unnerving.
*SPOILER* Sissy leaves the club to have sex with Brandon’s boss, in Brandon’s flat, in Brandon’s bed. The tables have turned on Brandon at some level, and he feels betrayed by this move. For someone so far down the path of addiction, it feels strange and juxtaposed that he would be offended by it at all.
Unlike the more recent “Don Jon”, “Shame” works, in my opinion, in a much more effective way than the former. “Shame” isn’t a message of preached Christian celibacy by any means, but where “Don Jon” decries the lack of lifelong intimacy, proclaiming all that is necessary is personal contact, “Shame” reminds us that any form of sexual addiction is dangerous to the human psyche; not just pornography. Where Jon in “Don Jon” seems able to ‘cure himself’ within a 30 day period or so, Brandon brings the vivid and uncomfortable reality to light that even a few years of sexual adventure and dependency brings life long consequences that absolutely cannot be fixed within a minute long montage in cinema. Of course, Brandon’s character takes steps to remove this part of his life (i.e. throwing away his binders full of pornography, including his computer) but for something that held such a tight grip on him, it requires an entire rebuilding and restructuring of whatever it is he has called ‘life’ for so long. This life-altering addiction requires more than throwing things away or just abstaining from sexual encounters, it calls for a total change of thought process. It’s almost like he must be an entirely new person, and he must, because he has no other choice if he wants to change. (This all sounds eerily similar to the necessary, born again, life-change that belief in Jesus Christ brings about in a person, doesn’t it?)
These are the things that separate “Don Jon” from “Shame” and honestly, while the two movies were not made to be compared to one another, it only begs the question about why Hollywood isn’t making more attempts to bring up this conversation. Pornography has been a funny joke in late ‘90s sitcoms and even more recently, directors who think they are clever—Kevin Smith, yes I am looking directly at you—create movies like “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”. It was only when numerous scientific studies started coming out, defiling the viewing of pornography because of it’s mental and emotional dangers in life, that people began to look at pornography more seriously. How did something that already was evil to begin with only just now gain attention? Yet our society still broadcasts films and TV and advertisements rife with scantily clad women and men, telling us “This is what you must look like. This is what you must think like. You must be skinny to be attractive. You must be okay with premarital sex because anyone who isn’t sexually active is prudish.”
Here’s a wakeup call for you, America. Let’s just throw religion out the window for a moment so you can really hear me. Pretend for just an instant that celibacy isn’t a religious concept. Let’s just assume celibacy is solely something expected by our culture. Let me clarify this though, it wouldn’t be like when you had premarital sex everyone looked at you with disgust, that’s not what I’m getting at. Let’s say instead of judgment, it’s something deeper. Conversations turn from hellfire topics to something like: “Don’t be ashamed of what you have done for the sole reason of it being wrong. Think deeply about how your actions have affected your self-efficacy and how you look at yourself.”
Now, if you were a believer in Jesus Christ, our conversation would be a little different. I encourage you to think about these actions and how each time a person views pornography, said out loud or not, the truth is: you give into a lie that you need to seek intimacy from something that doesn’t exist. Each time you engage in yet another sexual encounter, you are giving into the lie that it’s totally fine to give yourself away to someone. You see, by giving away your intimacy to multiple partners, you display a lack of care and respect for the person you will ideally one day marry. The question of the point of marriage outside of belief in Jesus Christ has been a question on my mind constantly lately. If marriage, and commitment to marriage, is one of the strongest displays of affection possible for a couple towards one another, why not reserve your intimacy for such an occasion?
Again, this isn’t a judgment call, but in the same way Brandon realized a restructuring of his life was evident in order to change who he was, we as a culture must restructure our view of sex and how important and intimate of a thing it is to reserve it for the one you will one day marry. Yes, sexual promiscuity and temptation run deep in our culture and also in our understanding of life and as a coming-of-age type thing, but whatever.
If anything, let “Shame” cause you to reconsider the garbage we are all fed by the media, and let it allow you to make opinions and lifestyle choices separate from how others around you live. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean you have to live that way too. That’s a trash and junk way to live, and you don’t have to believe in it. Inform yourself and learn about life and how it works. It’s an impossibly difficult path, but guaranteed to be more rewarding than simply giving into whatever you are fed. These last few paragraphs likely sounded like some kind of modified, anarchist “Fight Club” worldview, so I apologize if so.
All of this being said, I think “Shame” stands for a very powerful and counter-cultural message. It is one that no doubt can provoke very necessary dialogue about life, if only we would take the time to dissect it. Finally, I will add “Shame” is not for the casual viewer. It is rife with nudity and to be honest is likely not something I will watch again. What an interesting thing for a movie to be so much about sex, yet be so very unsexy.
I welcome your comments and discussion in the section below. Cheers.