Tuesday, January 31, 2012
A Rarer Problem
I recently read New York times media and culture reporter David Carr's autobiographical book The Night Of The Gun. I liked the book, or maybe it would be more accurate to say I was intrigued by it. Carr himself is an interesting case study in human foibles and capabilities. I was going to say a kind of window into the darker parts of the psyche, but I think this phrase kind of bangs me into the big rock which is blocking my path: we all have our foibles and failings, but Carr's particular struggles with drug and alcohol dependence only resonated to a limited degree with me. The rest was lurid spectacle.
And so it is with Steve McQueen's film Shame. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a Manhattan businessman struggling with sex addiction. The film is a stark look at classic addiction behavior, Brandon's daily life revolving around an unending series of orgasms got through a variety of means. When his sister Sissy (Cary Mulligan) finds herself without a place to live and no means of supporting herself, she moves in with the reluctant Brandon, which severely impedes his freedom to pursue his addiction. As he is not savvy to his problem even to himself, let alone to his sister, the resentment at the enforced behavior modification builds quickly. His world begins to unravel, a situation not helped by Sissy's own instabilities. She's not a sex addict, but her life is characterized by an ongoing string of bad decisions, mostly concerning men. Brandon is none too happy to have her living on his couch in any circumstance, and her messiness and inconsideration quickly make life intolerable for Brandon. They're both in a bad place in life, and neither is really equipped to help the other, or indeed to accept help if it came knocking.
While gripping enough to watch, I confess I struggled to find empathy for Brandon's problem. Not toward addiction per se: while I have always steered clear of the things that are likely to get me into trouble--i.e. drugs and alcohol--I think I can recognize elements of my personality that might contribute to compulsive behavior. Food is indeed a lifelong issue for me, one that feels very like managing an addiction. But I don't know how much that fact enables me to relate to the addictive struggles of another. I suppose we all have our self-destructive tendencies, but few of us are full victims do those tendencies. David Carr's demons very nearly did him in, and the glory of his story is the climb he managed out of so deep a hole.
Brandon's addiction to sex is as difficult to relate to, despite its familiarity in parts. He is an attractive (and enviably proportioned) guy, someone to whom women seem drawn like moths to flame. That's one set of perhaps distancing characteristics; for most of we mortals, this is more the stuff of fantasy than reality. But other elements are maybe less foreign: most guys have some familiarity with the black hole (sorry!) of internet porn, and most of us are aware of the magnetic allure of a beautiful young woman in a restaurant or on a subway train. But the extent of Brandon's issues--the degree to which these passing-normal things have overrun any semblance of a normal existence--make them so clearly pathological, that I'm surprised he would not have sought help prior to the time of this story. And without an ability to say "I've been there; I know that place," the movie was more like witnessing a train wreck than anything else. But that's the story, as it were, even if its subject matter is more obscure and discomfiting than the standard fare.
Briton McQueen is a newcomer to feature films, and this one is beautifully shot on location in New York City. Both Fassbender and Mulligan are excellent in their roles, as are the supporting roles. Though not a pleasant story, it's a well-made and moving film. I expect we'll hear more from McQueen.