Sex Addiction and the City
Steve McQueen on 'Shame's New York state of mind
"I think we live in overstimulated times. We crave stimulation for its own sake. We gorge ourselves on it. We always want more, whether it's tactile, emotional, or sexual. And I think that's bad."
– Deborah Harry as Nicki Brand, Videodrome, 1983
Shame opens with a cinematically perfect sequence: Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is riding the subway to work. His face is lean and pensive, his grooming and clothes immaculate, his posture erect, altogether the portrait of a man decidedly in control of himself. That changes, intricately, sublimely, when he catches the eye of an equally beautiful young woman sitting across the aisle (former Austinite Lucy Walters). An exquisitely flirtatious, silent back-and-forth ensues, intercut with images of Brandon in his sterile, New York City apartment, relieving himself of his urges in the shower. It's the first signal post of trouble ahead of – and behind – Brandon, a cipher of a man in an enigma of a city, with one hell of an intimacy problem. He is, we discover, being devoured from within by a mammoth addiction to sex. Emotion is beyond him. It is a sickness, and Shame itself has the palette of poison; dankly antiseptic blues and greens dominate. This is what New York City would look and feel like if David Cronenberg were mayor.
Directed by Brit Steve McQueen (Hunger, also starring Fassbender), Shame is heady, subversive filmmaking in the sense that it's a cautionary commentary on a society awash in easy, no-frills sexuality that itself uses the lure of cinematic sex to make its statement. That statement is, of course, that too much of a good thing can lead to addiction, which in turn must be reinforced by more of the same. The film turns on a vicious sexual cycle that becomes conversely, irrevocably, less fulfilling the more Brandon tries to fulfill his own sexual needs. It's a process of self-toxification that leads not to carnal bliss but to something approaching robotic desexualization.
In a cultural (and digital) landscape that practically concusses the libido on a moment-by-moment basis – whether via Internet porn, the ever-increasing sexualization of the youngest marketing demographics, or the simple fact that sex, increasingly, sells everything – the notion that this is all a bit dehumanizing is likely downright provocative (no pun intended) to anyone under the age of 30.
"I'm not interested in being provocative at all, really," says McQueen, speaking by phone from New York. "I was just trying to make a film about a person who has an addiction and who's trying to deal with it. Yes, I imagine the majority of people do not have this sort of addiction, but the majority of people do, indeed, have sex. So in that sense the film is provocative, but it's also a film about something that everyone knows about. It's about people like you and me, like the audience, and how we navigate our way through this world we're living in right now."
As noted above, this world bears an uncanny resemblance to several of Canadian filmmaker (and, truth be told, provocateur) David Cronenberg's films. In terms of the message being sent, it's a recursive echo of the Torontonian's ultraprescient Videodrome, but it also immediately recalls the seething, deviant sexuality of Dead Ringers (Fassbender himself parallels that film's Jeremy Irons in terms of sheer warped-charismatic intensity).
McQueen dismisses the connection, but his film is nonetheless imbued with a sense of sex and death (literally and figuratively) intertwined. Which is understandable given the by now well-publicized addictive nature of the Internet and its darker environs, which, as McQueen discovered while researching the darkness prior to shooting Shame, can be something of a gateway drug to full-blown sex addiction.
"When I heard of the idea of sexual addiction at first," McQueen admits, "I laughed, honestly, I did. But once I discovered what it does to people and the devastation it causes, it ceased to be funny."
He continues: "In terms of researching the subject of sexual addiction, I didn't know anyone personally who was an addict, but of course I knew some who were promiscuous with other people and whatnot and would have a good time doing that, but to be promiscuous is to be very different from, I think, being sexually addicted. When you're an addict, it's something that actually controls your whole entire life. It's all-encompassing. It's like alcohol addiction. You cannot go through a day without getting through a bottle of whiskey. A sex addict can't get through a day without relieving themselves several times a day or having some sort of intensified sexual activity. And in the end, of course, it can ruin someone's life.
"I ended up talking to a lot of sex addicts, across the board. I mean, we spoke to straight men, we spoke to gay men, we spoke to anyone and everyone, although oddly enough we weren't able to speak to any women. What we found out was that the women, in general, were putting themselves in places of danger, you know, listing themselves on Craigslist and so on."
That sense of danger, more personalized, more internalized, more from within than from without, pervades every gorgeous-horrible frame of Shame, which gradually offers granular nuggets of nonspecific information about its protagonist's vaguely vampiric lifestyle. We see Brandon at work, but we're never privy to what exactly he does (we do learn that his work computer is "filthy with porn," as his boss describes it, attributing what is actually Brandon's overriding mindset to a horny intern). Eventually Brandon's sister Sissy (a brilliant, crumpling Carey Mulligan) turns up and there are intimations of past abuse, possible incest, and other sordid backstories. But McQueen keeps things abstruse and off-kilter, the better to evoke Brandon's hollowed self.
Does the director agree that we're living in more sexually stimulative times thanks to the rise of the Internet and the 24/7 barrage of sexualized imagery it allows for? Not that that's necessarily an inherently bad thing, of course. Sex has traditionally been at the forefront of every emerging technological advancement, from lewd woodcuts to the advent of the printing press to, most relevant here, Thomas Edison and other early cinematic pioneers in risqué movie-making.
"Absolutely," he says. "It's exacerbated the situation, and obviously it's never been more available than now. Pornographic websites are the single most visited type of site on the Web. Fine."
McQueen continues: "Sex in itself is not the issue here. It's like anything else. Alcohol is not a problem or an issue. It's when you start abusing the thing, be it sex, drugs, whatever, that it can become this dehumanizing force in your life. And these days it's very easy to get lost in this kind of stuff. It's a very attractive proposition. But it's an enabler.
"And also, of course, a city can be an enabler, too. That's part of the reason that the film is set in New York. It's a place that provides 24-hour access to excess. It's a city that's at your disposal literally around the clock."
Having seen it, it's impossible to think of Shame being shot anywhere else. McQueen and his longtime friend and director of photography Sean Bobbitt render New York City in the chill, spare colors of malaise. It pulses not with sexuality (or, we should say, not a healthy sexuality) but with the throb and groan of a fever hot enough to cause organ failure. (Again, no pun intended.) Ostensibly, this is New York as McQueen found it, although anyone who's been there lately will find the visual diagnosis disturbing.
"I've been working with Sean for 11 years now, and we talk a hell of a lot about what we want to see onscreen and what we want to do to get there. I really just wanted to see New York as it was. We didn't particularly flex our muscles in any way to make New York into anything specific because that's really the way it was when we were there. Lots of natural lights and real locations.
"The deciding factor in how we photographed it was Brandon's ritual: where he lived, how he would get to work, how he would walk to the subway, where he'd get his dry cleaning, his takeout, all of that sort of banal, everyday ritualism that makes up one's daily life. And a lot of those locations aren't pretty. I imagine that if I was making a commercial, I'd have used much more beautiful places to shoot, the sort of New York that people always seem to have in their imagination. But what we wanted to have was New York City as it actually is."
Shame opens in Austin this Friday. See Film Listings for review and showtimes.