I’m beginning to suspect that Shame functions like some sort of Rorschach test. I’ve read three completely different takes on it other that my own. One of them makes pretty good sense to me, another I can see if I squint, and the third made me question whether the writer and I had seen the same film. Is it because it includes so little dialogue? Because the characters’ backstories are almost entirely unknown? Because sex and nudity take up so much screen time? What does it say about a movie when several viewers can walk away after seeing it, each with an utterly distinct idea of what it was about? Curiouser and curiouser.
Disgrace. Humiliation. Indignity. Degradation. Never has a movie been more aptly named than Shame. In a sentence, the film documents one man’s compulsive, tormented search for connection. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I saw Hunger and fell into complete awe of Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender. Now I’ve seen it twice in the three days since it came out in theaters three days ago and my awe has only grown. Both times the force of it left me staggering, not the way Hunger did, but somehow in a manner equally depressing and if possible more disconcerting. Still, there is no mistaking whose work it is. The way McQueen uses the sound of words unspoken, a kind of blank, heavy silence only punctuated by explosions of rage and despair; despite the divergent settings, it’s the same in both. And the settings are vastly different, not just by default either. Hunger is all concrete walls and industrial gray-greens, dark spaces and bright white hospital sheets, whereas in Shame everything sparkles, towering skyscrapers reach for the heavens and rivers dip down to depthes unknown. It’s a New York City movie, the kind where the city functions as almost a character in itself, the sort of film that could not be set anywhere else. There have been several very different promotional posters released, but this one is the best in my opinion:
It speaks to the unvarying presence of glass in the film, windows and screens, invisible barriers that give the illusion of openness but nevertheless are solid and impenetrable. Their presence is no accident.
It’s the perfect metaphor for Brandon, the main character, who lives his life in such a state of profound isolation that he doesn’t conciously feel the ache of his own loneliness. He’s like the anorexic whose been hungry for so long that she doesn’t even feel it anymore, her body has given up asking (begging, pleading) for nourishment, except what he’s starved for is connection. In this 21st century world obsessed with replacing connection with consumption, it’s easy to see and to use addiction as a metaphor, and such comparisons are especially tempting with sex addiction. Aren’t all men sex addicts? someone invariably quips when the topic arises. Well no, they’re not, and Shame commendably resists the urge to claim otherwise. Brandon isn’t a stand-in for Every Man, he’s not American society distilled into a single personality, and to reduce him to that would be to do him and us a disservice. This movie is no morality tale, no grand statement on the state of the human condition. It’s something more complicated and in some ways difficult: a character study, no more and no less.
Sissy, Brandon’s sister, is his other half, the flipside of his coin, the physical embodiment of all the neediness and desperation for contact, for connection, he is disgusted and revolted by in himself. She begs to be loved, almost literally at times, by Brandon and anyone else who falls into her orbit. Brandon alternately cares for her, letting her stay with him, making sure she has money and giving her his own awkward form of advice, and erupts into fury at her. “I don’t know why you’re so angry with me,” she tells him, but to me it felt clear enough. When he rages at her, calls her disgusting and pathetically dependent, the projection is hopelessly transparent.
It’s never clear what industry Brandon’s in, but my best guess from the few hints given is marketing. With that in mind, it’s hard not to compare him to another character, one who, in his own words, “more or less redefined promiscuity.” But while Brian Kinney of Queer as Folk does his best to fuck, drink and drug the pain away, flirts with suicide, and proclaims to one and all that he “doesn’t believe in love,” his declarations never really ring true. Even he doesn’t truly seem to buy what he’s selling. Brandon, on the other hand, believes his own story with heartbreaking intensity and sincerity. He seems to honestly think that sex is his salvation and that connection is a fairy-tale for suckers, and he feels betrayed and humiliated by his own desire for meaningful human contact. The slightest crack in his façade sends him reeling into a whirlwind of rage, self-destruction and loathing, played out through a mad scramble for sexual energy in any possible form and mindless encounters with every warm body he can get his hands on, and though his partners are invariably beautiful and he is undeniably gorgeous, there is absolutely nothing sexy about the acts, not even a little.
I’ve been a little obsessed with this lately:
Okay, so by “a little” I mean “watching it whenever I need a pick me up” but can you blame me? The boy makes a bangin’ Bond. To quote a very wise woman, he “would totally be the deadliest, manliest gay Bond agent ever.” I say that having never seen an actual Bond movie from start to finish, but really, who needs to? Everyone knows what it means to be Bond, James Bond. When the aliens arrive, assuming they haven’t already, they’re going to want to meet him. Seriously though, he’s not the only reason this vid is so awesome. It must have taken an incredible amount of patience and concentration to make it; it would’ve been impressive even without the lip-syncing, but with it! It’s even got a subversive element, what with James McAvoy “cast” as the most debonair of Bond Boys. So kudos to the creator, and to everyone else, enjoy!
That was fun, or something like it. A boy-version of Thelma and Louise, but with HIV and actual (as opposed to implied) sex. This was the third movie I’ve seen directed by Gregg Araki and it feels like a link between the other two, The Doom Generation and Mysterious Skin. I saw the later first and when I saw the former I could hardly believe they were spearheaded (not just directed, but produced, filmed and written/adapted) by the same person. Mysterious Skin is tender, ethereal and heartbreaking; The Doom Generation over-the-top, in-your-face and decadently raw. This one though, it’s got elements of both. The camp, apocalyptic nihilism of The Doom Generation and the ruined, desecrated beauty of Mysterious Skin. Part of the that beauty, though not nearly all of it, is in the two leads, who’re almost too picture-perfect at times. It’s easy enough to see that Araki started off making porn, even though this movie’s actually fairly cautious, despite all its jagged edges, about actually showing skin. What it does show glows; at times the sex scenes seem like they’re part of a different film altogether. They don’t seem to belong in the story of a love triangle between a film critic who learns early on that he’s HIV positive, a mad drifter first seen spray-painting “fuck the world” across a parking lot and who is positve as well, and a gun; or, if you prefer, between a lost boy, a mad man, and death. It’s not exactly subtle, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It felt strange to me, watching this movie from nearly 20 years after-the-fact (it came out in 1993). In some ways the world it inhabits is utterly foreign, in the way it always is in old movies (who was it who said the past is a different country?). The markings of culture are all so topical and transient: the bands, the fashion, the conspiracy theories, the chest hair. Chest hair, and on a gay guy! When was the last time you saw that onscreen? Yet in some ways this particular past-world is distinct, a bizarre and unlikely time, unique in its contours, limits and boundaries: it was after the discovery of HIV and the invention of the first antibody tests but before any treatment existed. A time when deciding whether to get tested was a more complex, multi-faceted and personal choice, and coming up positive meant existing in a kind of limbo, not knowing if death was just around the next corner or years away. That kind of uncertainty could (and will) drive a person to the edge of madness, and that’s where this film takes place. That edge undergirds the entire story in the form of sheer energy, a ragged rage and raw fury that pulses and throbs with increasing urgency beneath every scene. It starts when the film critic’s doctor tells him he’s tested positive, and his best medical advice is basically “good luck,” and it builds from there until the film climaxes in what might be the most epic threesome in cinematic history.
It’s hard to put a word like “good” or “bad” to a movie like this. Honestly it seems beside the point, and almost insulting besides to try and fit it into that kind of paradigm. It’s a movie to see more than once, to dwell on, and to let stew in the back of your mind and the pit of your stomach. It’s dense and tightly-packed as a seed in early spring, near-bursting with life, and I think its worth it to plant it in your gut and see what grows. Or explodes.
Who decides that 1am is a good time to start a movie about imprisoned IRA members embarking on a fatal hunger strike? That would be me. Up until a few days ago, I’d never heard of Hunger (the story of Bobby Sands, the first of ten men to die during a 1981 hunger strike protesting the treatment of IRA members in the Maze prison and demanding they be classified as political prisoners) but once I had I was deeply intrigued, hence my decision to sacrifice a night’s sleep. It wasn’t just watching the film that prevented me from getting a reasonable eight hours though; there was no way I was going right to bed afterward. It felt as though images from it had been seared into my frontal lobes. In fact, it still feels that way. Every shot is so beautiful, so artfully composed, each one poetry, and yet their content is stomach-turning, brutally harsh and raw. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that’s affected me this way, on this level, since I first saw Mysterious Skin. That has a similarly explicit, unflinching take on violence, or at least one scene does. In Hunger however, its the whole film that’s like that. ‘Seen’ is definitely the right word too: except for one scene, it has hardly any dialogue, which is just as well since it was a real struggle for me to decipher the heavier Irish accents. Moreover, it’s the right artistic choice. This isn’t a movie about words; its about when words fail; when people are so ground down and silenced for so long that the only way they can express themselves is through their very flesh. When everything else is gone, has been taken, when even the most sacred words are only so much smoke and ash (literally: the prisoners roll cigarettes using torn out pages of the Bible).
The film begins in the first months of 1981. The first scenes are of the morning routine of a guard: he is shown shaving and washing his hands, laying out and dressing in perfectly folded clothing, eating with near fanatical neatness and delicacy, an unstained white napkin on his lap. The only part of him that is not perfectly civilized and gentile are his knuckles: bloodied, scabbed and bruised, they give lie to his careful routine. In contrast, the imprisoned IRA members (only men are shown, but women were participating as well) have been on a four and a half year “blanket and no wash” protest, meaning they not only refuse to clean themselves but also to wear the prison-issued clothes (political prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes), to cut their hair and beards, or to use toilets. We enter their story through the eyes of a new arrival at Maze. It’s clear from the start that he knows what he is in for: his first words are a refusal to wear the prison uniform. An administrator marks him down as non-compliant, then, without further ado, the new prisoner strips, removing not only his clothes but his markings of civilization. Naked save for a blanket around his waist, he’s led to the cell he’ll be sharing with another IRA member. Every surface in it is coated with smeared excrement. Masticated food is piled in a corner. His cellmate is huddled on the floor, wrapped in a blanket, his face almost completely obscured by hair and beard. In the past I’ve been puzzled by the “no wash” protest; it didn’t seem like a very good way to induce sympathy and support, more likely, I thought, to alienate and disgust outsiders. It was only upon actually seeing these images that I began to understand their implicit accusation. Look what you have done to us, they say. You have treated us like animals, taken from us the most basic elements of our humanity. Look what you have created.
It is when the two stories converge, the guard and the new prisoner, in an explosion of violent brutality, that this question truly becomes apparent: who here has really lost their humanity? Who is the animal and who is the civilized one? The guard, in his pressed uniform, shined shoes and neatly trimmed hair, dragging prisoners by the hair and bringing his baton down over and over on naked skin? Or the prisoner, naked and hairy, covered in his own bodily excretions, kicking and screaming wordlessly in fury over the treatment of his fellows and his homeland as he is beaten and violated? Is it the trappings of modern life that make a man civilized, or is it his beliefs and commitment to his values that make him human? In the end Bobby Sands and his compatriots manage to subjugate the basic need for sustenance, the hunger shared by humans and animals alike, to their beliefs. Does that make them the most human of all? Is the issue complicated by the violence these men committed, sanctioned or condoned, the ostensible reason they were incarcerated in the first place?
These questions are played out on the bodies of the film’s subjects. Indeed, I don’t know that I’ve seen another film where the body is so central, certainly not the male body. I know I’ve never seen so much bare skin without the slightest, subtlest whiff of sexuality present. Even things that initially appear sexual – an imprisoned man and his girlfriend kissing in the visiting room, a visiting wife with her hand buried beneath her skirt – turn out to be deceptive. In reality, the man is passing a note, folded to the size of a tooth, to his girlfriend via his tongue and the wife is retrieving a smuggled-in radio to give to her husband. Hunger for food isn’t the only bodily appetite being subjugated to the cause. These are men and women who have devoted their physical selves to their ideals, who have come to literally embody their beliefs. Bobby Sands, it could be argued, was literally sustained by his (he lives for 66 days without food, much longer than I’d believed was possible). It was both enthralling and terrifying to watch, almost impossible at times, but I made myself. If these men could live it, I thought, the least I could do was bear witness to their story. They deserve to be known and seen and remembered. The questions the film poses deserve to be asked and considered, must be, no matter how difficult and grueling. The beauty of the cinematography makes what it depicts that much more difficult to watch. The carefully composed shots invite a cold objectivity, for the viewer to step back and admire the contrast of black and tan and red without acknowledging the forms they take, a guards baton and bare flesh and spilled blood. It’s a tempting invitation, especially toward the end when the camera lingers closely and clinically on Bobby Sands’ deteriorating body. The contrast of the gorgeous shots and the sheer ugliness of their content is shocking and unrelenting. I can’t say I was surprised to see them in my dreams.
“I’m clear of the reasons…I’m clear of all the repercussions. But I will act, and I will not stand by and do nothing. Putting my life on the line, it’s not just the only thing I can do. It’s the right thing.” – Bobby Sands as written by Steve McQueen
I just watched the new Le Tigre tour documentary, “Who Took the Bomp” and can now say with certainty that yes, those three women really are as cool as I’d suspected, and yes, I really, really would love to hang out with them. Pretty early on they talk about walking the line between cool and embarassing, not always being sure which side they’re on, and dude, that is where I live. They just sound so down to earth and self-aware and funny in a witty, dry way that makes me all warm and melty inside. They remind me of the friends who’ve meant the most to me, the times when I’ve been the happiest. Kathleen Hanna says she tries to be the role model she wanted when she was younger, and all I can say on that is mission accomplished, because she, Johanna and JD are an absolute inspiration.
“Le Tigre was about being vulnerable and openning ourselves up to failure in a beautiful way…I find myself not being afraid of failure because of what Le Tigre has taught me about being messy and how it’s beautiful.” JD Samson