Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Steve McQueen's Shame: A Review

I saw Shame today. I like Michael Fassbender in most the films he's done with one exception: Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

I generally tend to not judge accents as I'm a veritable soup of idiolects myself. However, Fassbender's accent in Inglourious Basterds is the stuff of headaches. But back to the Steve McQueen's Shame.

I like Fassbender's work a good deal. There's a certain gravitas he projects that few actors have the ability to carry. Born in Germany and raised in Ireland, he's a picture of cultural and linguistic diversity which is perhaps the reason why he appears to effortlessly play anything from a New Yorker to an aristocrat a-la-Jane-Eyre, or an X-Men-er.

The premise of Shame is the 'text' of shame and how it is engendered within a Judeo-Christian framework regardless of how far from prescribed religiosity it finds itself. I found the form of the film beautifully mimetic of a religious ritual. One good decision McQueen made is to go for Fassbender. It takes courage to take on certain roles and I most definitely don't see a Brad Pitt or a Clooney doing the same thing. Ok, maybe Colin Farrell or Jared Leto who by the way came to a mind a lot when viewing this film. Think, Requiem for a Dream, perhaps.

Most critics regard the film to be an examination of modern/urban sociality and how much the contemporary person wants to be tethered to others even though a good deal of current life seems to be about heightened individuality and insularity. McQueen's cinematic strength is not content, however. As a matter of fact, it rarely is. One thing he seems to do well, however, is explore the substance of form. The shots are clean, fast but not furious. McQueen's choices made me think of Doug Liman's portraiture styles. The camera rests on the characters just long enough till it gets moving again to the next point in the plot. Incidentally, this is how the film manages to deviate dullness. Aesthetically, this film is rich. Some of the city shots were also reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn's film Drive.

The past few years, at least since the actual boom of web 2.0, there seems to be little, if any, change in aesthetics. Incidentally, Vanity Fair's Kurt Andersen has a new article out on the question whether we as a culture are stagnating aesthetically. I thought of it while watching the film, actually. You can read it here.

I suppose it makes sense that form remains the one last frontier that's resisting change as all else around it has been changing mercilessly. Think technology. Hanging on to one thing seems to be the one crutch one needs to cope with the novelty and unpredictability of everything. Or is it? This seems to be the question that Brandon, the main character, tries to answer and eventually reject. Much in life seems to come easily to him. Much but not everything. He seems to bridle all else but basic urges about things he deems utterly trivial in broad daylight and when in the company of full lucidity.

Brandon seems to have it all on the surface. He's well employed, is generally well liked, at least on the surface, and seems to be governed by self-discipline. Only, he doesn't seem to do so as well as he appears.

He appears to want to connect to the world but the world seems to move simply too fast for him. His attachments are flimsy and most of the people he meets are forgettable. There seems to be a crisis of supply and demand when it comes to meaningful human connectivity. Brandon wants the opposite of what he has but the urban survival camp doesn't seem to be capable of providing it. He desperately wants the opposite of what he can get and every time he tries to leave his patterns of living, he falls right back into the known regardless of how much it is mired in dysfunction. Every night he goes after a new pursuit so that the next morning he can go back to all he knows.

Carey Mulligan plays his sister. I have only liked her in one film, An Education. All the other films that have ensued are nothing more than an imitation of her debut film. But then again, it would be hard to compliment a character who needs little support. Fassbender is no Pitt. He needs little support from other characters. A better script would have helped, no doubt.

Jessica Chastain is good in this. Very good. She's another example of an underrated performer often stuck in incoherent filmic choices, think the widely overrated The Help.

In sum, I enjoyed seeing Fassbender and I enjoyed the cinematography of Shame. What I didn't enjoy is McQueen's verbose effort to school the audience on addiction. His effort was, at best, sophomoric. His director of photography, however gets an A. Fassbender gets a solid A- but only because there's only that much he can do given the script.

In Shame, he is close to aces.

This film won't make you want to go back and brush up on your Descartes. Or perhaps Kant. It might just make you want to watch a bit of Kubrick and perhaps get a bit melancholy that he's been gone for a bit over a decade now.


Steve said...

Was wondering if you'd seen this yet. I like McQueen but I'm not a fan of the any of the people in this movie with the exception of Fassbender. So, now, i'll have to watch it. As you say, 'tip of the hat' ;)

Unknown said...

I haven't seen it yet but I best go fix that. thx.