“The diseased, anyway, are more interesting than the healthy. The words of the diseased, even those who can manage only a murmur, carry more weight than those of the healthy. Then, too, all healthy people will in the future know disease.”
– Roberto Bolano, 2666
It’s almost a pity that Steve McQueen won an Oscar. Yes, I understand that those gold statuettes represent the pinnacle of achievement for any film-maker. And 12 Years A Slave is seminal for an academy that once elected Driving Miss Daisy as a progressive vision of race relations in America. McQueen, for better or worse, has engaged in an increasingly aimless rite of passage.
But watch Shame, really watch it, through the eyes of the chaste or the emotionally ruined, and tell me that he needed it.
This is a film Kubrick might have made had he discovered hardcore pornography. Or maybe Bresson; it mimics the eroticised obsessions of Pickpocket, hands sliding, fingers rippling, in and out, in and out. It is the perversion of endless, uncontrollable repetition. But even those great men, one holy, yet muddied, one utterly mechanical in his creations, could never dream this. And we imagine that we have seen it before. Fassbender has something of Patrick Bateman here; even the sartorial choices lend themselves to sexual butchery. But McQueen is not Eaton Ellis, nor does he strive to be. This is not the brutal emptiness of Generation X, and Brandon’s compulsion is not so simple as murder. We have here something altogether new; callous, chrome-like, surrounded by the grand sterile wilderness of New York (and who would live here if it looked like this?), a man fucks his way through a life.
He is not searching for human connection. Nor does he crave women. What he needs is orgasm. But orgasms, and here it seems the movies have lied to us, are nothing. It is crucial that we do not witness sex, not really. Oh, we see that sanitized, vacant idea of it, the one which has infected the young men of our world and that we call pornography; Brandon himself cannot move past the idea that sex is pornography, and thus pornography sex. Meaningful connection, the idea that a beautiful woman, or even a not-so-beautiful woman, could waltz into a life and enact great change, has not dawned on him. Everything is a sex object, even his sister, the lovely earthy Cary Mulligan, who comes back into his life and stirs repressed desires. You could call it incest, but it’s unclear whether Brandon can distinguish between his own sister and the great swath of walking vaginas that pass him every day, in the streets, on the subway, in the darkness of bars and hollows. It is clear that somewhere, in the combined childhood of these two people, something terrible has happened. ‘We’re not bad people‘, insists Sissy. ‘We just come from a bad place.’
Brandon is abusing himself, and so ultimately begins to abuse those around him. His mask begins to slip. He tries, desperately, to find somebody, to make love, real love, but his body fails him. Moments later we see him viciously fucking a prostitute. He beats his sister because she slept with a work colleague. You feel the air rushing out of your body, and a creeping coldness. But McQueen does, at the last, offer glimmers of a hope, though it takes terrible bloodletting before we get there: Brandon, back on the subway, staring into the middle distance, spurns the advance of a young married woman, the rubbing together of nylon-coated thighs.
Or does he? McQueen leaves many things open to interpretation. Perhaps, he is insinuating, our translations of this film reflect our own desires, the sexual desensitisations of a 21st century becoming increasingly governed by online representations of sex; a disturbing thought. If we aren’t shocked by this film, if we don’t find something disgusting at its heart, what is left for us? This, not fucking, is what McQueen is deeply concerned with.
Nobody here won an Oscar. Of course not.