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Shame

Addicted to the Surplus

In On Belief, Slavoj Zizek discusses that while in the 19th century there was a small number of available addictions, into the 21st we have allowed for their proliferation. While before the main areas would be alcohol and drugs, sex and power, now we can be addicted to junk food, the internet, extreme sports and television. As Zizek says, “life…loses its tautological self-satisfactory evidence: it comprises an excess that disturbs its balanced run. What does this mean? The promise of the theory of risk, society and global reflexivization is that, today, one can be “addicted” to anything – not only to alcohol or drugs, but also to food, smoking, sex, work…” In Steve McQueen’s film, Shame, Michael Fassbender’s character Brandon is addicted to sex, but in myriad formulations. Through the course of the film, he will have shown an interest in girlie mags, videos, internet porn, webcam links, prostitutes, casual heterosexual and, by the end, homosexual assignations. There may even be a hint of incest with his sister who tells him at one stage on one of the many answering machine messages she leaves on his phone: we are not bad people; we just came from a bad place.

If McQueen’s films is of interest it rests chiefly on its fascination with the accumulating addictive possibilities within the sexual rather than our interest in Brandon as a psychological character. This is no doubt partly why McQueen decided to keep the back story to the minimum, utilising it well for the purposes of justifying why he has cast two British actors in the role of people from New Jersey. In one scene at a restaurant, on a date with a work colleague, Brandon explains that he and his sister are from Ireland, but brought up in the States. Most of the time, though, McQueen focuses not on what Brandon was, but what he has become. He is a success story with a complicated back story, but by eschewing the back story and focusing on the present moment, the film allows for a messy background to permeate the foreground as addiction.

Zizek’s book looks at how belief functions in our culture as he wonders about what metaphysical lack might be responsible for our addictive capacities. Zizek is hardly religious, but he would be wary of dismissing faith. In contrast McQueen says “but for me, this film is not about judging anything; it’s not about morality. It’s about someone who is just in this world and who deals with what he’s got. Here you are, deal with it. The whole idea that God put us here or whoever put us here on this earth—it’s absolute nonsense.” (Vanity Fair) Indeed, McQueen addresses this question pragmatically in an exchange between Brandon and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) when Sissy needs looking after and Brandon says it isn’t his responsibility. He didn’t bring her into this world; hence he is isn’t responsible for taking care of her in it. But what happens if we don’t have a higher being to help us navigate our duty towards others, and if someone assumes there are no responsibilities beyond parental obligation? Brandon is by no means a moral character and yet he possesses the gravity of the self-aware, even in moments where he is offering the contradictory and hypocritical. As he talks to his sister on the couch he tells her that she can’t keep seeing his boss with whom she has already slept. He is both married and Brandon’s work colleague. Yet this doesn’t stop Brandon attempting a relationship with a work colleague of his own, nor chasing a woman on the metro who is clearly married. Yet this is where the gravity of the self-aware comes in. One reason why Brandon is so tortured is that he can see the contradictions in his own personality and the drive that leads him to various sexual encounters that empty his body of sperm but seem to remove something more vital from him also. He is not an oblivious character like his work colleague David (James Badge Dale), who thinks nothing of chatting up women instead of being at home with the wife and kids, and who seems oblivious to the crisis Brandon is in. During one scene where Sissy sings ‘New York, New York’, the film holds almost exclusively on Sissy’s face as she sings, before cutting to Brandon listening, tears forming in his eyes. After she returns to the table David is ecstatic about her singing; Brandon says it was good. To boost her ego and to half-ignore Brandon’s feelings, he says Brandon was so moved he was welling up. It is a moment that sums up well David’s obliviousness to the texture of situations and Brandon’s increasing feeling of alienation. If McQueen is right to insist that there is no God looking down on us or after us, then we have to look on at ourselves and take care of others. This needn’t be a moral necessity as McQueen insists he doesn’t want us to judge morally, but it is about keeping in balance our awareness of ourselves and our responsibility towards those we care about. A conflicted character is aware of the dilemma; an oblivious figure indifferent to it.

Perhaps the best way to understand the film’s style is to attend to this question of taking within ourselves the responsibility previously abdicated to God. We are aware of the nature of our deeds and our behaviour to others in God’s eyes, but how to make a film where we have to look closely at ourselves and muse over how we are treating others? The film offers numerous examples of echoing moments that at the same time manage to avoid being merely ironic. Early in the film, Sissy looks like she might throw herself in front of a train. The scene opens on a close up of Sissy’s feet at the edge of the platform and cuts to a medium shot of her leaning forward as Brandon enters the frame and tells her to stop fucking around. Later still, David sees that she has in the past slit her wrists and she laughs it off as she says “as a kid I was really bored.” Late in the film there is an accident on the underground not long after another desperate call from Sissy. Has she thrown herself in front of the train? David returns home desperately and finds that she has instead slit her wrists again. Other echoes include the woman on the train at the beginning turning up once more at the end, her hand clasping the rail as it did at the beginning, but this time Brandon stays in his seat. We also may note the use of ‘The Goldberg Variations’ when he goes for a night run to escape his sister’s presence in the flat (she is screwing his boss), and later when he runs home hoping she is there. These are just some of the echoes the film plays with, but what matters is that the film manages to offer a cinematic self-awareness without falling into ready irony. When for example Brandon says that she shouldn’t be chasing after a married man, we have earlier, literally, seen him chase after a married woman. Yet the difference between cinematic self-awareness and cinematic irony may rest on the question of value. The ironic moment would play up the hypocrisy; McQueen wants to play up the contradiction. If the hypocritical would indicate that Sissy should do what he says and not what he does, the contradictory acknowledges that Brandon knows that he is wrong to lecture his sister when he is incapable of living up to his own value system. If we don’t find this moment amusing it rests on the gravity of Brandon’s self-consciousness. A similar line from David would have been ironic.

Though McQueen insists his film is not religious, it does seem to ask what it is that we might be ashamed in front of. Shame can function a little like a social adhesive, it holds together a value system because of our fear of what others might think if our behaviour became public. In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre addresses the problem of shame thus: “in fact, no matter what results one can obtain in solitude by the religious practice of shame, it is in its primary structure shame before somebody.” Sartre adds, “by the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgement on myself as an object. For it is as an object that I appear to the other.” Yet Sartre also says that we are a specific type of object in the eyes of the other: we are ‘touched to the quick’ by their gaze upon us: “shame is by nature recognition. I recognize that I am as the Other sees me.” Brandon seems both ashamed and shameless, as if he cannot find in the eyes of another the recognition of his own shamefulness. When he is on the date with his work colleague he says that he doesn’t understand why people would wish to get married these days; he can’t see the point. He cannot seem to understand that part of that point would be to have another’s set of eyes upon us, a figure not so much of authority as of emotional equality. That in their eyes we want to be the best person we can be, and in our eyes they would wish likewise. There is potential tyranny in this, and how many long-term couples look at each other with the eyes of one who knows the faults and foibles of the other and offers their judgement in harsh looks and petty niggles, masterfully explored for example in a couple at the beginning of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage? (And who can deny Bergman is a key director of the problematic of shame – enough to name one of his films exactly that?) But it is as though Brandon cannot find the eyes in front of which he can be ashamed. This is part of his value and also part of his feelings of worthlessness. Though there are many moments in the film that could cast shame upon him, his judgement upon himself always seems harsher than any other could manage. Whether it is David informing him that his computer is virus-ridden because of the filth found on his laptop, Sissy bursting into the bathroom and finding him masturbating over the toilet, or proving impotent when he does try to sleep with his work colleague, Brandon is a ‘shameful’ creature, but where shame cannot quite touch him in the Sartrean formulation. “There is however no question of a comparison between what I am for myself and what I am for the Other as if I found in, in the mode of being of the for-itself, an equivalent of what I am for the other…the very notion of vulgarity implies an inter-monadic relation. Nobody can be vulgar all by himself!” Brandon seems to possess shame so internalised that no external look can penetrate it, and a selfishness no person can make contact with. “I wanted to make a movie about now.” McQueen says. “There’s a kind of selfishness—no, the word is ‘entitlement:’ there’s a certain amount of entitlement going on. It’s in the air. You point a camera and you catch it.” (Vanity Fair) David’s sense of entitlement would appear shameless: he is a married man who thinks nothing of going out and getting laid, and thinks nothing either of hitting on his work colleague’s sister, apparently indifferent to her troubled nature in those healed slit wrists. If nothing can make him feel ashamed of himself this would be because he has too little capacity for shame; Brandon would appear to have this capacity to such a degree that no one can shame him in turn. Or rather, the socially-oriented shame he might feel would be weak next to the emptiness he seems to exist within. It wouldn’t quite seem fair to say that Brandon is either selfish or entitled: it would be a misdiagnosis. He doesn’t look like a man who is interested in taking advantage of decadent times, just realistic about living in those times and surviving as best he can.

Early in the film David, Brandon and others from work are out on the town celebrating a deal when David chats up a woman at the bar who has eyes instead for Brandon. There is an ellipsis where we see David and the woman dancing, to the woman and her friends going off in one direction, and Brandon putting David into a taxi. As he starts to walk down the street, Brandon sees a car pulling up and a woman asks if Brandon wants a lift. It is the woman from the bar. Brandon gets in and she speeds off, and in long shot we hear the beeping of a car horn as a cyclist crosses the street and the car zooms past it. We can’t see whether they have skipped a red light or if the cyclist has crossed a busy street though the car has right of way, and we do not know how drunk the woman happens to be though she was drinking Tequilas earlier in the evening. Both the long shot of the car, and the ellipsis from earlier in the night and at the end of it as they leave the bar, may nevertheless leave us wondering how much motivation has gone into this encounter, and how reckless the woman happens to be. From the little we know, we might see that she is selfish, but we cannot know whether Brandon has arranged things in such a way that he would get David in the cab and out of their hair, whether it was her plan, or whether there was any plan at all. McQueen manages to convey to us a selfish environment without quite telling us who in particular happens to be to blame. Maybe the casual way McQueen elliptically offers the scene adds to the sense of entitlement he wants to show: here are people whose motivations are less important than their opportunities. They don’t even have to work very hard to have their pleasures met because the environment lends itself well to them getting their immediate needs addressed without much effort.

The film doesn’t want to investigate the moral implications of casual sex, though we cannot pretend there isn’t a moralistic streak in McQueen as a director, and so let us concentrate chiefly in the second part of this essay on how on occasion he falls into this moralism and in other instances escape it. He can dawdle over injustice with an aesthetic somewhere between the empathic and the emphatic, with the pain of the observer and the judgement of the shrill. The scene in 12 Years a Slave with Fassbender whipping his black slave lover comes to mind, as well as the scene here where Fassbender humps a willing sexual partner against a glass wall. McQueen walks a thin line between giving the time and attention to a scene that a more commercially oriented filmmaker would eschew, but who nevertheless contains within his sensibility a moralism that can turn a scene of observational acuity into a moment of maudlin assertiveness. It is least present in Hunger and most apparent in 12 years a Slave, which makes the latter often close to a bad film. If Hunger finds the means by which to focus on the specifics of pain over the call to judgement, 12 Years a Slave offers the reverse. Let us call it the law of specific indifference: if we believe that the scene offers more moralism from the outside than attention to emotional detail from the inside it risks flirting with this law, no matter if it avoids an easy moral meaning in the first instance. It is perhaps because great directors like Antonioni, Bergman and Tarkovsky achieve this capacity to convey a value so much greater than the diegetic seems to demand that fine filmmakers attempt it: McQueen, Ceylan and Zvyagintsev for example offer scenes that arrive at the judgemental over the disinterested. Yet they don’t quite indicate a soul beyond the self but a judgement behind the material. While Antonioni can film Monica Vitti’s vacillations in Red Desert from a connotative distance that indicates a radical empathy, Zvyagintsev, for example, can fall into a ready socio-political assertion, evident in the presentation of the parents in Loveless: they too easily take on the properties of bad parents symbolically, functioning as symbols for a Russia that isn’t looking after its own. It takes a fine director to attempt the indirect and the aloof, but only a few filmmakers can go beyond the judgement often implicit in such a shot. Only a very good filmmaker would attempt it; only great directors achieve it. And of course some filmmakers achieve it in one film, and don’t quite manage to do so in another: Hunger and Leviathan are more successful than 12 Years a Slave and the nevertheless impressive Loveless. Each viewer may have different examples, believing that Ceylan, Zvyagintsev and McQueen are great directors, and use some instances while ignoring others to prove their point, just as we might ignore moments of weakness in Antonioni, Bergman and Tarkovsky to play up what we believe is their greatness. Our chief aim here isn’t to define the greats from the merely very impressive, but to try and understand what goes into this approach, an approach that wishes to complicate a judgement a film which wants instant and categorical response is likely to insist upon. Often this instant response in the latter examples isn’t only one shot (as we find in the more ambitious method we find in Antonioni and others), it is based on a conjunction of shots that can all the more completely convey a categorical meaning, and a clear sense of judgement: the moral meaning in the first instance.

In Gandhi and A Room with a View, for example, we see how this works. Whether Gandhi, in South Africa, is getting thrown off a train or stopped by thugs on the street, the film makes clear Gandhi’s humanity and intelligence, and the stupidity and prejudice of others. There is no ambivalence as the film cuts between Gandhi and his persecutors: we are firmly and instantly placed as the viewer good guys. This isn’t to suggest that we should be on the side of the racists, or even neutral within the sequence. It is more that director Richard Attenborough finds scenes that can confirm our own prejudices in the viewing. Uneasy diegetic experiences can allow for easy viewing responses, no matter if at the time the film was made (1982) apartheid was very much in place and Britain had a Prime Minister supporting it. In James Ivory’s A Room with a View, Maggie Smith is peremptorily talking to her niece and the film cuts to a couple of old ladies looking on and looking at each other as the cut leaves us in no doubt that the film doesn’t take kindly to Smith’s judgemental tone, while offering one of its own. In such scenes we know we are in the hands of nothing more than a craftsman: someone who knows how to lead the audience by the nose but doesn’t see that such visual, moral and narrative assertiveness might lead others to hold theirs.

To say more about this while returning our focus on Shame, let us think of two scenes that show McQueen holding a shot and managing to avoid easy judgement in the viewing of it. After Sissy, David and Brandon return to Brandon’s flat, he can’t sleep as he hears his sister and his work colleague screwing in the next room. He slips on his tracksuit and running shoes and goes for a run in the quiet New York streets. McQueen films Brandon jogging through the city in one take and we are not simply watching a man disgusted by his sister’s behaviour and angered that he cannot get some rest. The scene takes on a quality of its own as we follow a man’s movements and a city’s nocturnal activities. The shot would have been ruined with a cut back to Sissy and David, even if that is the reason Brandon goes for the run in the first place. The film has extricated itself from the limits of its own diegesis, as we see Gandhi and A Room with a View cannot hope to, and we feel 12 Years a Slave fails to. If we are right about 12 Years a Slave, this suggests that the long take is only as good as the ambiguity it can generate. If it lacks that ambiguity we just arrive at a certitude no less assertive than in a much shorter shot: hence the law of specific indifference. The scene’s judgement is so much more pronounced than the scene’s specificity. To create ambiguity is not the same as filming reality. As that great admirer of the long take and realism in cinema Andre Bazin insisted, “every form of aesthetic must necessarily choose between what is worth preserving and what should be discarded, and what should not even be considered. But when this aesthetic aims in essence as creating the illusion of reality, as does the cinema, this choice sets up a fundamental contradiction which is at once unacceptable and necessary.” (What is Cinema?, Vol.2) This is the contradiction of knowing that art can only be achieved by choices being made, but can only be chosen against a restraint that happens to be the reality out of which it is filmed. Bazin’s resistance was to those who he felt didn’t attend enough to this contradiction.

Thus when Brian Henderson points out in ‘The Long Take’ that “Bazin’s position on the long take and mise en scene is somewhat equivocal”, that is the very point. Henderson adds that Bazin’s resistance to an overly expressive mise-en-scene would rest on “cinema’s relation to reality”, and “hence shies away from any account stressing the independent, expressive possibilities of mise en scene or of any other category of cinema.” What Bazin emphasises isn’t the expressive potential of the camera, nor simply its capacity to record the reality in front of it, but the productive tension that comes out of these two places. If we have the former even if within the context of the long take, we still have the overly expressive; if we focus on the passive recording of reality we have the flaccid. In the scene where Brandon jogs through the city, McQueen allows the motivation to remove itself from the presentation. In other words, while Brandon is motivated to get out of the flat because his sister is having sex in it with his colleague, once he is out on the road we are unlikely to assume he is still thinking exclusively of their encounter. This is why the cross cut to them in the apartment would be fatal. Instead, we are more inclined to wonder whether Brandon often goes running late in the night, if he does so seeking pleasure or to escape from desire. We are also left wondering about the city at night as if we can view not only Brandon running but the city itself that he happens to pass through. The balance between Bazin’s need for attending to reality and at the same time exploring an aesthetic is easily achieved in this scene.

Our second example is the scene after Brandon and Marianne (Nicole Beharie) have gone for dinner and they walk along a New York street towards her subway stop. Again the shot is one take and again McQueen manages to generate a degree of ambiguity in the scene. The scene’s throughline rests on the sexual tension between the pair of them, but rather than playing up the tension as obvious sub-text, McQueen instead allows for tensions elsewhere to develop in a playful, enquiring and comical manner. At one moment Brandon tells her to touch the back of his head and leads her to jump as he barks back. He then insists she touches it as she notices something strange and he insists it is a remnant; that he must be a throwback to the neanderthal period. As they keep walking the odd person walks past and some people move towards them in the background as the scene remains realistic rather than expressionistic, dialogue heavy but not expositional in the delivery. As they approach the underground station, at the top of the stairs, Marianne slows down and offers a look on her face that indicates a nice evening has been shared but she isn’t quite sure what will happen next. There has been no suggestion Brandon has offered a gesture of intimacy thus far and we can read Marianne’s expression as both expectant and perhaps mildly resentful – as he has either left it to the last moment or doesn’t see in it a moment of possible seduction at all. We will know as she may not that Brandon’s comment about being a remnant is both an amusing remark but also a self-diagnosis: that Brandon’s relationship to sex can’t seem to countenance emotion but only desire.

In each of these long takes, McQueen achieves ambiguity of meaning without leading to flaccidity of drama. It is perhaps so often this fear of the flaccid that makes many a filmmaker direct with the certitude we see in the examples from Gandhi and A Room with a View, but there is also a danger that in holding a shot too long a judgement that can manifest itself as immediate becomes no less judgemental for being extended. If Attenborough had lingered for longer on Daniel Day-Lewis’s face (he is one the thugs), would greater ambiguity have been present in the scene? Probably not – the moment would have become more exaggerated because Attenborough is not looking for any complexity in the thugs in the first place. The long take is only as good as the gaze upon it; only as ambiguous as the ambiguity the director wants to put there. This is why we might feel that a much spoken of scene in 12 Years a Slave, with central character Northrop hanging from a tree, his feet only just able to touch the ground enough to stop him from dying, is impressive but unequivocal. We are in no doubt that Northrop has been treated appallingly from the instance of his kidnapping, to his employment at a slave plantation. As McQueen holds the shot for several minutes, allowing us to see other slaves going about their business in the background of the shot, so we have righteousness given a sort of tautological moral extension. The longer the shot goes on, the more we feel the weight of McQueen’s condemnation, but there isn’t much room in the shot for us to think around it and on it, as we find in the long take of Brandon jogging and Natalie and Brandon walking along the street. The shot in 12 Years a Slave functions a little like Jacques Rivette’s famous attack on the tracking shot in Kapo. Writing in Cahiers du Cinema he noted “just look at the shot in Kapo where Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on the electric barbed wire: the man who decides at the moment to track forward and reframe the dead body in a low-angle shot – carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final frame – deserves only the most profound contempt.” Serge Daney picks up on this saying that though he has never watched the film he agrees with Rivette in principle and believes that many of the filmmakers he loved would do the opposite of Gillo Pontecorvo in Kapo. “Opting so early for the panoramic shot in Ugetsu instead of the tracking shot in Kapo, I made a choice whose gravity I would only measure ten years later, amidst the late and radical politicization of Cahiers after 1968.” He then talks about how he would find Pontecorvo’s political position admirable (he directed Battle of Algiers) and Mizoguchi’s rather less so, but that didn’t alter the fact that as an aesthetician Mizoguchi was much the more significant. What he could see in Mizoguchi was a modesty in the face of enormity; in Pontecorvo, in Kapo, the assumption that he could sum up that enormity. We may feel the same way in the scene from 12 Years a Slave, as well as in for example in lengthier shots in Schindler’s List and Amistad. It isn’t that the subjects should be ignored, but that the morality comes out of the negotiation, well aware that the event is in the past and the film merely a reenactment.

The long take is thus never a priori one thing or another, and in shame we might wonder how it functions in the context of the film’s title. which has as much to do with the camera positioning as the length of the take. How does one convey shame in the form, how to to suggest that shame isn’t chiefly a moral problem but an alienating one? At one stage Brandon walks along the street, looks up and sees a couple screwing, one taking the other from behind. We watch with him for a lengthy four seconds and then the film cuts from the back of his head to show us more of the apartment block. In one flat someone retreats from the window; in another someone pulls a curtain across. These are perhaps atomised individuals just as the man looking on is atomised too. This is the Antonionesque problem reformulated for our times, evident also in other shots including the one immediately following the block of flats, with Brandon at dinner with Marianne and we first see them in an exterior shot that splits the frame,  a shot also in evidence at the beginning of the film when Brandon, walking naked around his flat, ignores a message he receives from Sissy, and a bit later, when Brandon listens to his sister pleading with a lover on the phone. It is also evident in the numerous shots through glass, at Brandon’s office. The film suggests if Brandon is addicted to sex it is partly because he is alienated from others, exemplified in a shot from outside the restaurant which is also from Brandon’s point of view. The films cuts from the restaurant’s exterior with Marianne inside, with Brandon looking on. We might assume this is a man ambivalent about the date, but it might be more interesting to see him as a man who wants to feel the perverse distance between things and who will close it no less perversely. A few scenes later he and Marianne are beginning to make love in a hotel room when he cannot continue. A moment later he is still in the room but now with another woman, presumably a prostitute he has called like room service. We see him screwing her in exactly the same way as the man was taking the woman when Brandon was looking up at the window, and McQueen gives us a similar shot from outside the building too. This is alienation meeting addiction, with Brandon incapable of intimacy but able to perform within various forms of commodification. What the camera indicates is that Brandon’s addictive personality is part of a wider malaise indicated in McQueen’s remark about selfishness. The question then becomes how to manifest this malaise with enquiry rather than judgement, with the capacity to frame the problem rather than moralise upon it.

In 12 Years a Slave, we feel that the frame gave way to the moral as it became another film in what we will call the Kapo tradition: Gandhi, Amistad, Schindler’s List. Shame escapes such strenuous moralising as it generally balances the need to explore with the need to enframe. If McQueen had focused more on the selfishness of Brandon’s actions rather than the self-aware relationship he has with his addiction, the film would have fallen into moralism. There is nothing oblivious about Brandon and little in the film that doesn’t align itself with the nature of that self-consciousness. This doesn’t mean that Shame isn’t sometimes obvious in its meaning and cumbersome in its creation of tension, as we find with the woman with the wedding ring who seems to make herself available to Brandon at the end of the film as she refused to earlier, and in the scene where Brandon fears for his sister’s life and we wonder whether she has thrown herself in front of a train. But at its best, Shame asks what shame happens to be within the context of social atomisation and personal addiction, how the problem of the former leads to the manifestation of the latter, and when caught in the latter or the former healthy being becomes hard to attain. If Zizek notices that addiction has become ever more prevalent in modern society, then this needn’t only rest on capitalism’s capacity to generate more choice in every area of our lives, and so subsequently in addiction too, but that something in capitalism as capitally focused rather than communally emphasized, makes this all but inevitable. Zizek, the complicated Marxist, would no doubt agree, seeing that just as the point of capitalism in its 19th century form was to create surplus capital as profit, 21st century capital offers surplus choice as addictive possibility. Brandon is a creature of his times and a victim of material surplus. We can judge that harshly or comprehend it analytically. McQueen, for all his talk of societal selfishness and entitlement, manages to register it analytically in film form, and also, with compassion, with co-feeling. The film manages to indicate the problem Brandon has living in an environment that is too weak to shame him, as if McQueen tries to find a gaze upon him that would, a shame from within Brandon’s own shamelessness. In this it escapes well the law of specific indifference, and hints at an escape from the frivolity of the surplus; that shallow dimension of addiction.

©Tony McKibbin