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What is Shame?

Shame‘Shame’ is a disturbing, much admired, Steve McQueen film that has been misleadingly reviewed, but deserves our serious attention. Let me put my reasoning in provocative language: ‘Shame’ depicts with chilling realism the degeneracy of high-end capitalist life style in the urban landscape of Sodom on the Hudson, otherwise known as ‘The Big Apple,’ that is, New York City. This sterile glitter of clubs and bars, loveless sexuality, acute alienation, and shady business operations is a city within the city that somehow co-exists with the world’s most innovative, abundant, and world class cultural life that continues to contain in its midst many enclaves of normalcy, humanism, and personal fulfillment. There is a central confusion in the film, perhaps deliberate: the city is portrayed as if it can be reduced to this skyscraper reality of nefarious business ventures and the flashy life it offers its operatives.

Most reviews focus on the torments of the main character, brilliantly enacted by Michael Fassbender in the role of Brandon Sullivan, a mid-level employee in an unidentified hugely successful money making enterprise where profitable deals are celebrated in a soulless atmosphere of total indifference to what goes on beyond the glass walls enclosing this outpost of digitized finance capitalism. Is it any wonder that Brandon suffers from an amputated imagination, leaving him in lonely pursuit of sexual gratification?

His own inextinguishable decency is disclosed when he withdraws from making love to Marianne, an office mate and the one person in the film who retains her dignity despite the corrupting environment. Brandon understands at that moment, and only then, that sexuality is one thing and love and intimacy quite another. It is worth observing that Marianne, well portrayed by Nicole Beharle, is the only African American presence in the film, possibly suggesting that this whole capitalist escapade is a white racist self-willed implosion posing apocalyptic dangers for the human future. In my political and moral imagination, what is depicted by ‘Shame’ is not to be sharply distinguished from the militarist willingness of Beltway strategists to plan wars to preserve privileged access to oil reserves for the West.

Of course, the film works as ‘entertainment’ because of its narrative and our engagement with its characters, either pro or con. The interaction of Brandon with his younger sister, Sissy (beautifully rendered by Carey Mulligan), is a study in converging contrasts. In a sense Sissy seeks access to the dubious world of her brother by succeeding as a club singer, highlighted by a deeply sad and drawn out interpretation of the signature song, ‘New York, New York.’ Brandon in the audience fights back tears, apparently realizing in some sense that this city, or at least his experience of the city, has robbed him of his soul, and that his sister grasps this reality in the song with depth that is both personally rending and suggestive of the Faustian Bargains that alone will open doors to the lavish joys of the city.

In fact, the song is sung with such a display of understanding and authenticity that it seem inevitable that suicidal behavior becomes Sissy’s only unlocked door as she is incapable of enduring a future without genuine love and a sustaining emotional community. Sissy’s hysteria is the counterpart to Brandon’s hyper-alienated sex addiction. There is a mysterious keynote assertion by Sissy seemingly meant to comprehend their messed up lives: “We are not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” Perhaps, it would be more illuminating if the script had read, “We just came to a bad place, or tried to.” As it is, we are never informed about the character of the bad place in their past, and the line has resonance without imparting meaning.

One of the most erotic moments in the film is an attempted subway stalking by Brandon of an attractive woman with whom he exchanges enticing glances. He follows her to the exit, but loses her in the crowd after a chase that exhibits his desperation and amorality (as the camera let us know earlier that the woman was wearing a wedding ring). The film ends with a similar encounter, although this time the same woman more explicitly encourages contact, which Brandon keenly observes, but chooses to ignore by not following her. Perhaps, this suggests the overcoming of shame by Brandon, shame as understood in its dictionary sense of ‘a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.’ (Oxford English Dictionary) Brandon seems to have learned enough during this narrative to transcend his shamefulness for at least this revealing instant. Whether Brandon’s momentary epiphany expresses an enduring transformative resolve or is merely a transitory gesture is not resolved by the film, but appropriately consigned by the director to the realm of our imaginative speculation. If transformative, it would require Brandon to seek other work outside the city within the city, and move to a modest hangout in Brooklyn or somewhere far away.

Dwelling on the personal suggests to me that McQueen fails to understand the savage cultural critique that represents the core trans-personal meaning and significance of the film, and what makes it worthy of commentary. Or put more ironically, does this insistence on emphasizing the personal tell us that a commercially acceptable film must be about people not the system if it wants the imprimatur of Hollywood and the reviewing cognoscenti? It is notable that the most thoughtful reviews that I have found all devote their attention to the foreground of these personal struggles and all but ignore the setting that disposes, if not determines, the options available to individuals caught in such a maelstrom that is both exploitative of others and destructive of their better selves.

An admirable feature of the film is its effort to capture the real time experience, allowing the camera to linger and giving the viewing audience space to reflect on what is happening. This is a liberty rarely taken by a director who seeks financial viability as a continuing assurance that there will be support for future projects. I assume that McQueen’s eminence as a famous filmmaker frees him from such anxieties, but it should not be forgotten that Hollywood is as tied to Wall Street as Brandon is connected to his lovely, lost sister. I would hope that the Occupy polemics directed at Wall Street are soon extended to express a measure of empathy to the winners, that benighted 1%, as well as to the victimized 99%, so as to achieve the spiritual coherence that respects the Gandhi /Tahrir legacy so often invoked by those inhabiting the tent cities around the world. Whether intended or not, ‘Shame’ helps us complete this circle of victimization, by illuminating the fallen lives of those who seem to prosper by gaming the system. 

For me the real source of ‘shame’ is not this personal humiliation of the characters, but the shamefulness of their constructed societal environments that seems calculated to achieve an acute alienation that suspends ethical judgment, a goal greatly facilitated by the insidious blending of the wonders of cyberspace with the secretarial skills of gifted entrepreneurs.


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