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In my first piece for The A/V Club, a "For Our Consideration" late-game defense of Steve McQueen's film about addiction. Comments over there are already getting, um, exciting, so add yours there, or keep it here if you prefer. Thanks for reading.
Posted at 07:12 AM in Criticism, Movies | Permalink
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January 12, 2012 at 10:13 AM
For some reason, am beyond affronted by the commenter who feels like he needs to explain to you, "a Chicago writer," what the 1/2/3 train is *really* like. GLENN KENNY KNOWS FROM THE NEW YORK SUBWAY SYSTEM, MISTER.
Claire Kenny |
January 12, 2012 at 10:17 AM
Funny thing is, Fassbender never even TAKES the 1/2/3, it's always the N or R. But thanks for sticking up for my subway acumen, honey.
Glenn Kenny |
January 12, 2012 at 10:22 AM
Yes, but what do Fluttershy, Zodiac Motherfucker and Tarkovsky's Former AD have to say? ;-)
January 12, 2012 at 11:06 AM
Maybe re-title the article "What Steve McQueen Gets Right About Addiction" and cross-publish in Slate?
R D |
January 12, 2012 at 11:20 AM
David Ehrenstein |
January 12, 2012 at 11:22 AM
My problem with the film was that it applied the behavioral markers of addictive behavior as found in addictions such as alcoholism/substance abuse to high frequency sexual desire which might be a) a compulsion rather than an addiction or b) neither an addiction nor a compulsion.
The trickiness of Brandon's final descent to same-sex sex -- hitting bottom in addiction speak -- plays out differently depending on an individual viewer's take on high frequency sexual behavior (my husband is training to be a psychologist specializing in sexology and has convinced me over many conversations that the addiction model is not the right one. I still hold out for a diagnosis of compulsive behavior, but his research leads him to believe it is neither. Instead it is a cultural problem about how sex is stigmatized in order to control its manifestation).
Since McQueen presents high frequency sexual behavior in the guise of an addiction, I am not surprised that viewers who have addictive personalities and/or experienced addiction will connect with the markers he deploys.
Brian Dauth |
January 12, 2012 at 11:45 AM
Those are interesting points, Brian, and I'll try not to take the condescension in which they're couched personally. You may note, however, that in my reading of the film, Brandon's last-act foray is considered not as a bottom but as a binge, one whose components are not unfamiliar to Brandon. The movie's ending leaves the question as to whether he's truly hit bottom unsettlingly open. To me at least, it looks as if he's starting another loop.
Glenn Kenny |
January 12, 2012 at 11:59 AM
One more thought: since my personality leans towards compulsion rather than addiction, I would not feel an affinity -- scary or otherwise -- with the character and his situation. I would not say that laughter is the most fruitful response to the film; but I would aver that if one does not accept the film's premise that sex is an addiction, then a chasm opens up between spectator and artwork that all the finest mise en scene and performances cannot bridge.
Also, if one believes that McQueen gets the addiction/compulsion question wrong, this disconnect allows a viewer the opportunity to look for all the other things that he gets "wrong" in the movie, since there is no "buy-in" to the film's world at the most basic level.
Brian Dauth |
January 12, 2012 at 12:16 PM
I'm neither a psychologist specializing in sexology nor to my knowledge an addict of any kind (it'd be totally tasteless and callow to joke about addiction to Dave Kehr's blogroll, right?). That said, Brian's comment gets at what I found shallow and disappointing about the movie. McQueen's understanding of his protagonist's situation is that "addiction is addiction" -- I know that's from an interview, but I think that's the portrait in the movie as well. This may result in a powerful depiction of substance addiction, with sex serving as a kind of placeholder for booze or drugs; one way to read Glenn's touching Onion piece is as celebrating a movie that captures the reality of alcoholism. But I guess from what I've seen of people whose compulsive (in the vernacular sense) high-frequency sexual behavior has highly negative impacts on their lives, "addiction is addiction" is a lazily inaccurate way of understanding what's going on.
January 12, 2012 at 12:24 PM
If, like you say, something like traditional dramatic catharsis was the film's goal, then it failed utterly for me because of poor dramatic construction. The problem isn't that addicts in real life sometimes go from point Z to point Z, stuck in an endless self-hating rut of binging, the problem is that movie stories need some kind of arc. Even the most desperate and down and out protagonists (think TAXI DRIVER or LEAVING LAS VEGAS even) have to want things and do things that bring them into conflict with other characters in the story. Imagine if SHAME had started with that dinner date scene, maybe the best scene in the film, and we'd really thought he might be able to fall in love and this had played out for long enough to make us care? As far as I can tell, Brandon has nothing to lose the whole time, nothing he wants, tries to get or risks anything for. He'd already given up on his sister before she arrives and he's so emotionally closed off the entire time that we can't really known what he's feeling. And the final contrivance with the sister's wrist slitting at the end is so silly it belongs in a Lifetime movie.
Let's be real about the procedural details for a minute. I have to agree with Anthony Lane about those porn mags -- retro and not believable. Not to mention how Brandon gets caught by his boss at work with porn all over his company hard drive -- is he the only male under 40 who's never heard of "clear history"(not to mention that he seems to work in a glass office sitting right across the table from another guy...so how does her jerk off in there again???). Too many of the details seem thoughtlessly larded onto the scenario to pump up the psychological backstory without any real consideration of how exactly any of this might have played out.
But what really made me hate the film virulently were the pretensions to deeper meaning, like when Brandon gets an inner life courtesy of Glenn Gould playing J.S. Bach on his iPod while he runs off a confusion boner in a Chantal Akerman long take.
I'm not saying it's not possible to make an art film like the one Glenn describes (like the one I wish I'd seen), where the hell of compulsion is a kind of endless secret torment, it's just that SHAME definitely isn't it.
(Oh by the way, somebody should tell McQueen that it's only okay to bite on famous titles when your film is actually good. What's next for him, 8 1/2?)
warren oates |
January 12, 2012 at 12:28 PM
Not to jump down your throat, @warren oates, but "something like traditional dramatic catharsis was the film's goal" is exactly what I DID NOT say.
Glenn Kenny |
January 12, 2012 at 12:31 PM
Sorry. You're totally right. Okay, sure, then empathy instead of catharsis. But if it's just empathy for Brandon's silent suffering and no cathartic arc that McQueen is after, why is the film 90 plus minutes instead of 10-15 minutes of, say, a single scene of Brandon resisting his addiction once and then giving into it? Wouldn't that be enough for mere empathy? How does all this time we spend with somebody who doesn't change (or isn't even offered an actual chance to change that he messes up) paid off?
warren oates |
January 12, 2012 at 12:41 PM
I am a regular reader of this blog but I am signing in under a pseudonym to protect my privacy. I am a sex addict. I have been in recovery for 10 years. I have had a compulsive disorder that makes me use sex as a means of escape since I was a teenager. It is an extremely destructive, addictive set of behaviors that I have worked hard to learn to control, but it is an addiction, no doubt about it. My behavior and though patterns when I am in my addiction mirror those of your typical alcoholic, drug addict, or compulsive gambler. I have nearly destroyed my life with this addiction, and I'm lucky to have something approaching a normal life today as a result of finally understanding how to manage and mediate my addiction.
I have worked with a number of skilled and highly-trained psychiatrists who specialized in addictive disorders, and none of them have ever debated the reality of sex addiction with me. If you understood what I have been through, and what I've witnessed from the hundreds of people I've met in treatment, your conclusions might be different.
Those that claim sex addiction doesn't exist are simply in denial. Would you call alcoholism a "high-frequency drinking behavior?" You could demean any addiction simply by couching it between "high-frequency" and "behavior." It's an absurd semantic argument. Whether I use alcohol, cocaine, gambling, or masturbation to unlock a specific set of chemicals in my brain in order to escape the high and lows of everyday life, the end I'm trying to achieve remains exactly the same.
But because of this constant denial, those of us suffering from it continue to hide in plain sight, because to acknowledge our issues invites skepticism, dismissal, even outright hostility.
@Brian: Your husband is welcome to his theory, but his theory is not my reality. You're speaking of something you clearly know little about, and I find it rather insulting.
The problem with the film as I see it is that many viewers are either ignorant of sex addiction or they assume it doesn't exist. McQueen shows rather than tells, and the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions. Many seem to think Brandon is *just* over-sexed, but Brandon's compulsive behavior extends well beyond just trying to bed women. If a person responds to bad news by masturbating as Brandon does, that implies that his behavior stems from something more serious than simply "chasing tail" as some people have described it. How many people get bad news at work and respond by retreating to the bathroom to masturbate? Does that seem remotely normal or acceptable?
I wonder if Brandon were depicted hitting a more obvious bottom and then seeking help, with an expert explaining sex addiction and qualifying Brandon's behavior for him and the audience, would that make this a better film? It might make this film more palatable to those who are ignorant of sex addiction, but I don't think it would necessarily improve it.
John Gall |
January 12, 2012 at 12:55 PM
Has anyone seen Caveh Zahedi's I AM A SEX ADDICT, which gets at all these issues much more effectively?
I believe everything Glenn and John Gall write about their addictions, but I still think SHAME is a terrible film. I liked HUNGER very much and hope the obviously talented McQueen will have a better script next time around.
warren oates |
January 12, 2012 at 01:28 PM
It's been a long time since I saw the Zahedi film, but my impression of it, or my recollection of my impression of it, is that it's too coy and faux-ingratiating by half, at least. But I was in a somewhat different place then, so I might want to check it out again...except that I've continued to balk at Zahedi's provocations in the interim. We'll see. In any case (not that I'm trying to shut down the discussion), Mr. Oates and I are gonna have to agree to disagree for the nonce.
Glenn Kenny |
January 12, 2012 at 01:38 PM
Just for the record, loved the piece and always happy to see you writing lengthy pieces. Will this be a regular thing for you on AVClub?
January 12, 2012 at 03:47 PM
@John Gall--I think part of the reason that people feel disinclined to consider sex addiction a "real" addiction is because of the perception (accurate or no) that people who are...mmm...disinclined to monogamy will call themselves sex addicts as a way of excusing more garden-variety bad behavior. (Though of course considering one's addiction some kind of free pass to do whatever one wants is a clear sign that one is not ready to actually address the addiction, anyway.)
But then that doesn't explain why there are psychological professionals around who also don't consider this addiction "real," which confuses me, too. Maybe they're equating addiction with physical dependency? Which isn't really accurate--one might be able to withdraw from one's addictive behavior without lethal side effects, but that doesn't mean that the behavior doesn't trigger the same dopamine reactions that keep a addict's brain hooked.
Claire K. |
January 12, 2012 at 06:03 PM
@ Brian Dauth: I'm wondering what you understand the difference to be, exactly, between addiction and compulsion. Is this some new development of the psychological lexicon, or am I missing something that the dictionary doesn't explain?
January 12, 2012 at 06:37 PM
Also, Glenn: A great, acute piece. I hope you do more like it. I still haven't seen SHAME, but I've taken your comments on it to heart, and look forward to viewing the film.
January 12, 2012 at 07:12 PM
I apologize Glenn. I did not mean to be condescending.
John: I did not mean to insult you, but I have my opinion and my husband has trained under psychiatrists who disagree with you. And yes, I have masturbated at work (and other places) when I received bad news, and I consider it perfectly normal to do so (as normal as choosing to chew a stick of gum when I get some bad news). Masturbation is a wonderful stress reliever, and after my self-pleasuring, I went on about my business. I write more below about the problematic notion of establishing normatives when it comes to sexuality and its manifestations. Also, it seems to me that you are equating the term "compulsive behavior" with "addiction." I do think that sex can become a compulsive behavior (like hand-washing and many other behaviors), but I still believe it is not an addiction.
As a queer, I am leery of any approach that pathologizes sexual behavior and tries to present it as an addiction. Glenn: I think it is great that you were one of the few critics to see how the hit-bottom moment can be seen as homophobic, but McQueen's approach also leads you to observe that "Brandon doesn't have sex like normal people." How do normal people have sex? The majority of my life has been spent fighting against the notion of normative sexual behavior. I am sure that if I asked you if there was such a thing as normal sexual behavior, you would say "No." And yet, the terms of McQueen's work cause you to write as if there were such a thing that could be quantified.
For example: I came out young enough to experience a pre-AIDS gay world. Life was wonderful. I could have quick sex on the way to work/school; during lunch; and after work/school. I could incorporate into my daily routine stops for sex -- sometimes I was lucky in the subway bathroom at 42nd Street and 6th Avenue (one of the best along with West 4th Street) and sometimes not. But I stayed for as long as I liked and then headed off for my destination. There was no addiction; just a non-normative way of incorporating sex into my life. A heroin addict needs his fix; an alcoholic needs her drink. The object of addiction causes biological changes in a person that leads to cravings. All the sex I had caused no changes to my body akin to those brought about by using heroin or drinking. The object of an addiction gives rise to the addiction. Compulsive behavior fixes on a behavior (hand-washing or masturbating) and manifests itself through that behavior. But washing your hands or masturbating does not lead to an addiction the way smoking crack cocaine can. A person can become compulsive with regard to sex, but there are not biological alterations.
Sex is a behavior that many people wish to pathologize. It is one of many thousands of behaviors that people can become compulsive about. But these other behaviors are rarely referred to as addictions. But sexual compulsion is termed as an addiction in cultural discourse so that it can be lumped together with other addictions and -- more importantly -- the opprobrium they elicit from people. Avoid heroin -- you will become addicted! Don't have sex -- you will become addicted.
John: I would guess that understanding yourself as a sex addict has helped you, and that the validity of that narrative is important to you. I am sorry that you take my disagreement with your discourse as an insult. I have my own discourses: I am a queer, fabulous, sexually adventurous man. There are hundreds of thousands of people whose narrative of my life would read otherwise: in their eyes I am a degenerate pervert who willfully corrupts God's plan for humanity. Should I feel that they have insulted me because they do not see my life as I do? No. People are allowed their own discourses. Your truth is your truth. My disagreement with your discourse cannot alter that truth, any more than the discourses of gay-bashers and queer haters alters the truth of my narrative.
January 12, 2012 at 08:01 PM
The above post is by Brian Dauth. I could not get it post no matter how many times I pasted it in the box. In the past, I have relied on the good graces of Glenn to post my replies when they did not take, but not wanting to bother him again, I tried logging in through yahoo and it worked. Why I became "D" in the process I have no idea.
January 12, 2012 at 08:05 PM
@Brian Dauth (D), though I share your dismay at our culture's tendency to pathologize all but the most narrow range of sexual behavior, it doesn't follow that sexuality is therefore entirely exempt from pathology. I can't think of a single basic behavior or biological process (eating, sleeping, cell growth) that lacks the potential to present as a pathology (anorexia, sleepwalking, cancer), so why would sex be any different? While your non-normative sexual behavior sounds like it's brought enjoyment and adventure to your life, John Gall's sexual drives sound like they made his life unmanageable and unhappy, which is a hallmark of addiction. There's no indication that he's "term[ing] his behavior an addiction...so that it can be lumped together with other addictions and...the opprobrium they elicit from people." There's no attempt there to negate or marginalize *your* sexuality. He seems to me to be taking issue with YOUR negation of HIS.
Claire K. |
January 12, 2012 at 09:47 PM
"There are hundreds of [millions, FTFY] of people whose narrative of my life would read otherwise: in their eyes I am a degenerate pervert who willfully corrupts God's plan for humanity. Should I feel that they have insulted me because they do not see my life as I do? No. People are allowed their own discourses. Your truth is your truth. My disagreement with your discourse cannot alter that truth, any more than the discourses of gay-bashers and queer haters alters the truth of my narrative."
Sorry, I'm calling bovine scatology on that -- as chemically pure a case of schoolbook relativism as I have ever seen.
There is noway nohow a statistically significant number of gays would not "feel ... insulted" by being called "a degenerate pervert who willfully corrupts God's plan for humanity." There is noway nohow a statistically significant number of gays would respond that "people are allowed their own discourses" and that "disagreement with [the gay-bashers'] discourse cannot alter that truth." And I really really REALLY doubt that if I were to say to you IRL that you were "a degenerate pervert who willfully corrupts God's plan for humanity," that you'd be so sanguine.
Victor Morton |
January 12, 2012 at 10:19 PM
Noway nohow on worstward ho is it for nothing disjecta ill said expelled what where without words pricks.
January 13, 2012 at 06:11 AM
"Sex is a behavior that many people wish to pathologize."
"Shame" presents its anti-hero from the very first shot as a damaged individual. He's lying there before us in bed in obvious distress. What happens as the film progresses doesn't make things any better for him. Most tellingingly he can't perform with a very atractive and pleasant woman (who finds him desirable) after going out on a date with her. Relationships are an impossibility for him. He wants bodies to fuck and nothing more.
Happy to say I've enjoyed a lot of casual sex in my time but never in so dehumanized a fashion -- even at the Baths or in the Rambles.
Going to a gay sex club to do it with another guy is indeed presented by the film as "rock bottom" -- his tree-way with a pair of hookers being a step "back up" as it were. The men are in darkness -- the women in full, blinding light.
Fassbender has a nice cock, but McQueen never shows it erect.
David Ehrenstein |
January 13, 2012 at 09:49 AM
It's so lovely to have Claire here. Wanted to say that, so maybe she will come back more often.
And by the way, Claire, I also read--OK, skimmed--that AV Club thread, which would kill Emily Post if she weren't safely dead already. And just like you, the single comment that made me righteously angry on Glenn's behalf was the one alleging that he doesn't know what the subways are like. 1974, my foot!!
The Siren |
January 13, 2012 at 11:04 AM
Oh, thank you, Siren! I do my share of lurking-without-commenting, but sometimes I get an urge to pipe up. :)
And yes...I started to skim the AV Club comments thread, and found it all just too dispiriting. I thank you for joining me in my subway indignation!
Claire K. |
January 13, 2012 at 02:27 PM
wow. Glenn i love your piece . And i love this thread. As a cinephile who is also an addict (not a sex addict though..just good old coke and heroin!) , i have not found any blogs or reviews or cinephile friends to share my take on this film until now. I am in recovery (i have a little over 11.5 yrs) While I 've never suffered any sex addiction(or "Sex Love Addiction" as many of my friends in the rooms call it) I have certainly fellowshipped with a lot of people who are afflicted. For the people in this thread who waste time arguing whether it is just compulsion (fyi...big symptom of disease of addiction is obssessive thinking leading to compulsive behaviors) or a disease, my response is who gives a shit? this is all besides the point. I'm leaving the big decisions up to the AMA. In the meantime, I saw a lot of truth about Addiction (drugs and sex and otherwise) in this film, and it only lost me in some of the odder, less authentic feeling tangents, like much of the Carey Mulligan stuff and the way the film ended up punishing both of it's sufferers for their transgressions and for their dis(ease(s).
This film is worthwhile alone for three things: 1) the honesty in the run that Fassbender's character bursts out in ...the semblance of a yuppy jogger's control betrayed by the time of nite and the use of exercise as therapy in desperate attempt to physically move past difficult feelings/ attempt to keep oneself from continuing certain destructive behaviors...2) the scene where Fassbender's character quickly throws out all his porn (i identify with what Glenn wrote about this...i recall throwing out straws and half bags and maybe once as much as half a bundle of dope..) This is a great scene for physically depicting both the measure of the weight of 'shame' for addicts. in much of active addiction there is a back and forth between acting in pure denial and these small windows into the reality of how far down we've gone and how disconnected we truly are to our own behavior..how it exists in spite of and despite ourselves..and Fassbender and McQueen really captured it in this scene...no easy feat. One could argue that the this sequence is one of those perfect crystals, later expanded and distended in the long scene where he dates an actual friend . That third of the film really chronicles how the charater is yo yoing between trying to control his affliction and then reverting...and all this is fueled by the shame occurring in those moments of clarity. 3) the subway scenes...these are PERFECT! i really do find SHAME flawed..but still SO worthwhile for the aforementioned reasons. i really hope more people can open their minds to this film...
January 18, 2012 at 03:19 PM
Way late here but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading this piece. It made me wish I liked SHAME more, which too often (for me, anyway) was reductive and broad when it should have been nuanced and specific, and with too many set-pieces that felt mannered and self-conscious. Still, Michael and Carey are giving in their all, and Steve McQueen's Manhattan is a gleaming and pretty thing, I wish the writing was there. Anyway, I hope I get to see your byline at AV Club more in the new year.
January 18, 2012 at 09:21 PM
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