Steve McQueen’s latest film Shame, like Hunger, features Michael Fassbender. I thought it was great. Later, I happened across a short review in Pittsburgh’s City Paper in which Harry Kloman damns the film with both faint praise and outright criticism. According to Kloman, “There are no new insights or emotions, and some choices do more to advance plot than character. It’s about sex addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his waifish visiting sister (Carey Mulligan), both of them damaged by circumstances that writer/director Steve McQueen (Hunger) never reveals, let alone explores.” On the contrary, I would suggest that there are indeed plenty of new insights here, but it’s the second sentence of this quote which really irked me. The lack of exploration of such circumstances is clearly deliberate and exactly McQueen’s point (among further points). He doesn’t need to explore yet another abusive childhood. We can quite easily imagine for ourselves what sort of things may have happened to these characters when they were kids or teens — we all know these stories by now. Instead, Shame is a psychological portrait of who they are in the present. Whatever one’s childhood, we all live in the here and now, and understanding the issues that have formed us rarely if ever alleviate them. In other words, McQueen knows full well that such an exploration would be boring and pointless.
What matters most is the immanence of the present moment: headlights of the subway gleaming on the painted iron posts in the station as the train approaches, the bleak westside docklands of Manhattan in the cold grey rain, the walk sign that has somehow fallen over, so that the lighted figure of the man is upside-down. One further point of this film is McQueen’s vision of New York. I thought of it as a contrast to the portrait of Manhattan put forward in Woody Allen’s films. The far western end of Chelsea is not exactly the obvious choice for a filmic Manhattan location. Annie Hall and Manhattan romanticized New York, even at the height of its decay (the late 70s), while Shame argues an alienating, hollow place in the cleaner, safer 2010s. In a recent interview, McQueen asserts, “You are always framed by the city. There’s always you and this huge metropolis. So what does it do, mentally? It must make you feel insignificant in a strange way.” This is crystallized in the scene where Carey Mulligan / Sissy performs the song “New York, New York.” It seems to echo the singing scenes in Annie Hall, but the piano accompaniment here breaks the song apart, and the vibe is more that of struggle than triumph. But sure, it also matters, the effects of whatever it is that makes us us — and clearly both the main characters in the film are struggling with this in different ways. But McQueen doesn’t have to explain every little thing. Kloman appears to think we need that explanation. I don’t.
Kloman ends his short review, “So I’m still waiting for a drama about people who can make endless love and not end up in a gutter” — as if McQueen were actually moralizing about sex (a charge also made in the longer and better review by A. O. Scott for the New York Times). Yet there is in fact no such moralism in Shame. There is a seemingly crucial moment toward the end, when Brandon is having sex with two prostitutes, when a look of anguish comes across his face. Later still, after his sister attempts suicide in a mess of red blood, he collapses onto the pavement in the rain. But at every moment (it seems to me, anyway) it is apparent that this is the story of two individual people, not a lesson for humanity. It is these particular people (and the performances are utterly convincing in this regard) who are going through these things; that’s it. Ultimately, we cannot be sure if their lives will really change. We think we see some kind of expression of shame on Brandon’s face for a second, but he might not recognize it as such himself. The message that Sissy leaves on Brandon’s phone before her suicide attempt (“We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place”) on the surface appears to validate Kloman’s fixation on their past circumstances. But I think it’s the first part of the statement that is more important. Neither of these characters is a “bad” person; they are just people. Most of us come from a bad place in some way or another, probably, but what I’m more interested in is what life is like, through art, despite all that. What sort of things a filmmaker like McQueen notices when he’s thinking of these situations.