Non-film: Steve McQueen’s “Shame”
by Mark Fisher
Steve McQueen’s Shame, a study of sex addiction starring Michael Fassbender, is one of the talking-point films of the awards season.
In Shame, Steve McQueen transforms New York into a non-place. Marc Augé coined the term to refer to the anonymous and interchangeable zones of transit—retail parks, shopping malls, airports—which increasingly dominate contemporary culture. We learn that Shame’s lead character, sex addict Brandon (Michael Fassbender), was born in Ireland but grew up in New York, and his migration handily captures the transition between McQueen’s first feature, Hunger, which dealt with the 1981 hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, and the new film. McQueen has pointedly left behind the heavily coded, multiply overwritten territory of Northern Ireland’s Troubles in the 1980s for the bland vistas of upscale New York in the twenty-first century. These are quite clearly high-end non-places—the apartment in which Brandon lives, the office where he works, and the hotel where he takes a co-worker for a failed liaison have the unobtrusive minimalism which still connotes expensive taste. But they remain non-places: it’s sometimes difficult to know whether we’re in Brandon’s apartment or the hotel room. Shame’s New York is as lacking in temporal as spatial signifiers. At points, the film’s soundtrack pointedly calls up an older moment, when music could capture a particular time and place. The disco of Chic and the post-punk of Tom Tom Club and Blondie that Brandon hears in clubs and bars were once rooted in a specific New York era, but they’re now as “classic” in their own way as the Bach that Brandon prefers to listen to as he jogs through the city.
Apart from his sex addiction, practically everything about Brandon is generic, depersonalized. His job, never fully specified, seems to be something in advertising or branding. This vagueness profoundly irritated Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: “every scene ladled with big dollops of cinema’s most respectable cop-out: ambiguity … Shame wears its emptiness like a badge of honor; McQueen is trying for banal blankness, and though he succeeds in that respect, you kind of wish that a filmmaker (and one with a background as an artist at that) would aspire to do more than just say nothing.” But far from being something that you might expect an artist to refrain from, isn’t compulsory ambiguity precisely a signature of so much contemporary art, which regards “saying something” as an unpardonable vulgarity, and which would far rather “raise questions” than make any kind of determinate statement? When McQueen does try to say something, Vishnevetsky complains, it is staggeringly clichéd: “’sex can be both a dehumanizing and transcendent experience’ (you don’t say!), ‘addiction can take over a person’s life’ (really?), ‘people are often motivated by past trauma’ (well, I’ll be!), and ‘we live in a culture that nourishes emotional isolation.’” At its worst, Shame comes off like a standard melodrama remade with arthouse ellipses, complete with what Rob White called “conventional therapy-speak psychology that holds childhood responsible for adult compulsions.” At its best, however, Shame isn’t “saying nothing” so much as it is telling something about nothing, about the non- of the non-place.
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