By Armond White
This exclusive CityArts series will chart recent releases that failed to to get Oscar nominations. Yet, just like the Oscar-nominated fare, these movies are not a part of film culture; but exist outside what moviegoers care about and talk about. Their staggered release delays the effects of film on the public; they don’t want for popular response; they’re made simply to stroke filmmakers’ egotism.
If Michael Fassbender was a Fassbinder, Shame would not be about “sexual addiction” as British director Steve McQueen promotes it, but it would have displayed the psychological and social conditions that separate private desires from public acceptance. The late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most compelling films Querrelle, Fear Eats the Soul, I Just Want You to Love Me, Fox and His Friends weren’t merely controversial–they did more than put its actors’ bodies on display as in Fear Eats the Soul’s famous full frontal male nudity in 1974–but went to the heart of human sexual/social struggle, all the while reconceiving film narrative–and that’s what made the Fassbinder name.
Steve McQueen is not a film artist as Fassbinder was but a museum installations pseud. He contrives Shame’s story as a project about yuppie New York sex addict Brandon (flashed by Michael Fassbender) and his drunken younger sister Sissy (Carey Crybaby Mulligan) who flirts incestuously. Steve McQueen doesn’t narrate the difference between instinct and indulgence; he uses Michael Fassbinder, a good actor, the same way he did in Hunger–exploiting his body. That’s McQueen’s true medium–from the feces murals in Hunger to Fassbender’s European physical traits, an ethnic and sexual prototype including his penis (on floppy display in the early scenes). McQueen repeats typical art school disgust with the body and its urges
But a greater question than Fassbender/Brandon’s self-abuse is McQueen’s self-neglect. Shame is doubly alienated–McQueen disregards the regular approaches to sex inculcated in his black British cultural background (seen in Isaac Julien’s good films) and so pretends to express white sexual habits. (Brandon’s liaison with Nichole Beharie as a willing black co-worker is the least honest interracial movie sex since Spike Lee’s confused Jungle Fever.) Plus, as Brits, McQueen and Fassbender foolishly set their story in New York City while disregarding the Apple’s particular erotic landscape. A subway cruising scene that bookends the film is not authentic or credible like the great cruising sequence in DePalma’s Dressed to Kill–a pre-AIDS 1980s time capsule, just as DePalma‘s Whitney Museum peep-art conversation captured pre-porn era New York in his 1970 Hi, Mom!.
McQueen’s sexual tourism includes assignations at The Standard Hotel in the Meatpacking District and excursions through Chelsea, leading to a vaguely homophobic red-lit gay inferno sex club sequence (de rigeur among pseuds as in Rampart) yet never offers a sense of emotional reality. McQueen can’t shake the ‘artist’s’ preoccupation with “disturbance” and “subversion“ so he includes a risible montage of “the ugly face”–Brandon’s anguished, unending orgasm during a threesome with a blonde and an Asian hooker. (It’s followed by a remorseful subway episode to reveal working-class desolation).
McQueen doesn’t go where Fassbinder’s movies, DePalma’s, Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris or even Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge dared to mark sexual territory. Shame is actually a sex-phobic art fraud.
By Armond White