Home Video Hovel- Shame, by David Bax
Steve McQueen’s Shame is now available on DVD and Blu-ray but I found the film to be such a stupendous slog that I can’t imagine feeling the desire to pick it up off a shelf and revisit it. That said, it is filled wall to wall with remarkably meticulous compositions so I suppose one could mute the sound and have it on the TV in the background when hosting the world’s most boring party.
Shame is the story of Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, a successful New Yorker who has a high-level position in a tastefully nondescript office and who lives in a magazine pictorial of an apartment that looks too production-designed to actually accommodate human life. Brandon is a sex addict. We know this not because the pursuit sex is ruining his life (he’s doing well at his job and he has plenty of time to clean his apartment, apparently) but because, when he does have sex, he just doesn’t seem to enjoy it very much. When his sister, helpfully named Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to stay with him, Brandon’s choreographed existence gets knocked out of order, though in a way that manages to still seem practiced and pretty to look at.
As I alluded to already, the film’s main problem is that it doesn’t make any effort, apart from Fassbender’s pained facial expressions, to depict his addiction as the insidious, desperate destroyer that real addiction is. In contrast, Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus, despite having some problems of its own, went to sometimes sickening lengths to describe the way in which its lead character debased himself for any brief sexual gratification. Brandon, on the other hand, doesn’t even have to try. Beautiful women (and only beautiful women) spend the entire film struck dumb by his mere presence, tripping over themselves to get next to him. He seems to have magical powers that extend beyond the already pretty miraculous fact that he looks like Michael Fassbender.
Similarly, the rest of the world in which the film takes place seems to operate under no recognizable rules of civility or human behavior. One of the film’s centerpiece scenes, for instance, involves Brandon and his boss David (James Badge Dale, trying his best to inject some life into the project) go to see Sissy sing at a lounge of some sort. She is introduced, she sings an unbelievably, interminably slow rendition of “New York, New York,” and then she’s done. It’s fucking hilarious. Its only rival in the comedy department might be the later scene wherein Brandon cries while in the midst of a threesome but keeps the threesome going.
Occasionally, something enjoyable to watch will suddenly take place. A long tracking shot of Brandon jogging at night while music by Johann Sebastian Bach plays is undeniably transfixing. And in the few instances when the mise en scène lets the screenplay off the floor long enough to catch its breath, Fassbender and Mulligan remind us of their talents. Yet even those scenes aren’t completely untouched by McQueen’s precious hands. One exchange between the brother and sister while they’re sitting on Brandon’s couch is particularly strong yet it is marred by the distracting fact that there are old black and white cartoons playing on the TV. This scene takes place at night. What station is showing those cartoons? Does Brandon own them on DVD? What about this man suggests that he is the type of person to buy old black and white cartoons on DVD? McQueen doesn’t seem to have considered these questions. He just liked the way it looked, I guess. That seems to be the motivating factor in nearly every decision he made in constructing Shame.