Friday, December 16, 2011


The devil lies in the details, but also in two long sequences in Steve McQueen’s Shame. The details are the facts of the film’s central character’s existence. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lives in nameless high rise, one of those glass boxes that populate the tonier parts of Manhattan. It could be Chelsea or Noho or Soho; in this case the address is 9 West 31St.  Brandon gets off at the 28th Street stop of the R. He also listens to vinyl, has a volume of collected excerpts from Henry James on his otherwise spare bookshelves and comes home to find his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) naked in the shower.  Brandon works in a modern office and has problems with his computer which is infected with all kinds of porn. He also likes fleeting encounters, has problems with relationships and has to push his sister out of bed, though she doesn’t exhibit any conscious desire to consummate their relationship. The two long sequences take place on a train where he exchanges meaningful glances with a young woman and in a bar where the camera focuses on Sissy singing “New York, New York”.  Back in l969 Rip Torn starred in a film called Coming Apart  that was remarkably similar to Shame, taking place in a l969 version of the high rise apartment Brandon occupies (in the later case the  locale was Kips Bay) which was also the site of compulsive and often hostile couplings. Fassbender is reminiscent of the young Rip Torn in the seductiveness of his sullenness and violence. Shame  has been trumpeted as a film about compulsive sex, but it's really about solitude. It’s a 21st century version of  Strindberg in which relationships are absent and violence is simply unleashed on the self. Brandon steps into his existence like an alien, a creature from outer space landing on earth or an earthling landing on a strange planet. There's a temptation to look at the source of Brandon’s problem as incest or sex sites, but these are really just symptoms. Ironically though the film is full of sex and has an NC-17 rating, you would be better off employing an existentialist than a Freudian in looking for answers to what makes this Sammy run. Drive is unleashed to quench uncomfortable affects and yet the character seems to be suffering from a sense of what Heidegger defined as Unheimlichkeit The word literally means not-being-at-home, what common folk call alienation. Freud actually used Unheimlichkeit to refer to a sense of the uncanny which he associated with anxiety, but it’s an anxiety at being that Shame portrays rather than the kind of anxiety that has its root in some permutation of the Oedipus Complex.

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