Mixtapes for Hookers

The Shame Monster
December 28, 2011, 7:11 pm
Filed under: heterosexuals, movies | Tags: , , , ,

Shame was basically made for me. It’s intensely slow-moving, there’s full-frontal male nudity within the first two minutes, there aren’t very many characters, and more attention is made to arty cinematography than to keeping the audience happy. I like all of those things. We also get to watch the man who played both Magneto and Mr. Rochester this year fucks a bunch of people, which is not a small thing, either. As with the Marvel antagonist and the Bronte character, we are attracted to his charms even though we’re constantly reminded that he’s kind of a dickbag.

Or is he?

The beautiful Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful New York businessman. Society and economics and Michael Douglas movies have all trained me to understand that New York businessmen are all kind of jerks. But Brandon’s not a bad guy, or at least he’s better than his young boss, a married lecher who wears expensive hoodies under his sportcoats and hits on women like a tenth-grader would. Just because Brandon has a fancy apartment and a delightfully long penis and a suave ability to nail roughly 50% of the women he sets his eyes on doesn’t make him evil, or even particularly troubled. He’s single, happy that way, and consensually doing what he wants to do with women who also seem to like what he’s doing.

But actually that isn’t even what the movie is about. Early reviews of Shame suggested a twenty-first century version of Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet, an unsexy drama about people have on-screen sex so troubling to look at that it takes years after viewing to look at a jar of peanut butter without squirming. Entering the cinema I expected a bleak drama about addiction.

But it’s not, really, despite what the press kit might say. Shame is about the relationship between Brandon and his troubled sister Cissy, played admirably by Carey Muligan. If anything, it’s a bleak drama about families and, more generally, about wider gender disparities in America. Because Brandon and Cissy are presented as two sides to the same person. Except that he’s smart, successful, and able to get laid without much effort, while she’s sexually confused and barely employed, a victim of some unspoken past that we as an audience never really fully understand. From their first interaction, when he stumbles upon her naked in the shower and she makes no effort to cover herself, we are uncomfortable with their own physical comfort with one another, even though emotionally there’s obviously a lot of fucked up history between them.

And that’s where Shame goes where I wish it hadn’t.

I had a conversation about sex addiction with a friend a few months ago, and how what’s pathologized in straight men (and women) is basically what a lot our gay friends consider routine behavior. Yes, promiscuous fucking can have consequences sometimes, and those deserve to be addressed. But the idea that a fondness for sex is necessarily rooted in some kind of fucked-up upbringing is just dumb. Have you ever had casual sex? It’s fun!

I hope that’s not what Shame is doing, although I’m still undecided. Are Brandon’s urges to pick up married women on the subway the same as Cissy’s urges to constantly leave needy answering machine messages. (Relatedly: do real New York businessmen even have landlines in 2011?)

The vagueness works pretty well, though. Details aren’t explained any more than they need to be, and I like that. Brandon says that he was born in Ireland and moved to the US as a teenager, while Cissy describes herself to Brandon’s boss as a Jersey girl. Is he really that much older than she is? Is one of them lying? Does it even matter? At least once, during a failed hookup, there’s even some intentional confusion about what’s happening.

I do like the movie, though, for its atmosphere and, let’s be honest, for the movie’s treatment of Fassbender’s body. His sex face is 99% less silly to look at than most porn performers’, and also I like how the movie gets all the dick shots out of the way at the beginning. We don’t need to fantasize, because we see it right away. And it is magnificent, especially during a gratuitious(ly awesome) rear-view pissing sequence.  The only flaw, visually, is a really brief scene where we’re introduced to Brandon’s porn collection.  It’s jarring and unnecessary.  But it’s also about ten seconds in a hundred-minute movie.

Fassbender’s suave performance is really good, actually, as is Mulligan’s in what is probably the tougher role. She’s troubled and needy without being condescending or trite. The music is all spot-on, the editing works well, including the lengthy scenes of Fassbender running and of Mulligan singing a rendition of “New York New York” so slow that even Cat Power would be embarrassed.

If you get a chance to see it, go. I had to drive to Boston, because Providence is a backwater sometimes and also one of our only two art-house screens has been showing My Week With Marilyn for two fucking months now.  It was worth the drive, though.

1 Comment so far
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I’m very interested in seeing this film…

Comment by Derek Fairclough

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