Steve McQueen’s film about a sex addict in New York, played by Michael Fassbender, will not be shown in Singapore. Censors there have demanded that certain scenes be cut. In particular, a graphic threesome involving Fassbender’s protagonist Brandon Sullivan and two women offended the authorities. Even after these alterations, Shame would only have been shown to those aged 21 and over. Faced with the prospect of his original work being butchered, McQueen has decided not to release the film in Singapore.
To which I say, good for him. The issue of censorship often only raises its ugly head above the parapet because of films like The Human Centipede or The Human Centipede 2. Such films are designed to shock and give the censors a problem. Many of them aim to be banned or controversially released, which will fuel curiosity and word of mouth. The filmmakers behind such gruesome, low budget projects know that turning their movies into forbidden fruit is far more effective than any marketing campaign their funds could afford. This is why a large chunk of film critics always argue, in the inevitably heated debate that follows any act of censorship, that the disgusting films should be shown to an adult audience, unedited, at the cinema. Without the allure of a ban, the argument goes, the films will flop at the box office and demand for them will fizzle out.
There are flaws to this view but this is beside the point. Shame is not shocking for the sake of it. There is nothing gratuitous about the sex and nudity. Every shot of a bare buttock or a naked nipple contributes to the overarching theme that defines Brandon’s life. Rarely is the sex erotic, it is simply there, a necessary part of existence. Shame is a gripping study of addiction, which needs to show the audience the everyday reality of its main character’s all consuming compulsion. In other words, the shocking bits on the screen during Shame are a by-product of characterisation and storytelling. Unlike The Human Centipede and its infantile class mates, Shame is a grown up film, with bags of artistic merit.
It really isn’t an exaggeration to talk about Shame as though it were a work of art. Steve McQueen’s background as an artist shines through in the camerawork from the very start. But I’m talking about more than the beautifully long shots of New York (that jogging scene!). There’s a reason that Shame caused such excitable critical buzz and won itself nominations during awards season. The film works well as a whole, despite having standout moments that sear themselves into your memory, like Carey Mulligan’s sensual rendition of ‘New York, New York’ or Fassbender’s brooding stares on the subway.
It’s a poetically tragic story at times, even with its sordid subject matter, which tackles a contemporary issue in society that remains a genuine taboo. The film’s title is incredibly apt and the runtime is confidently concise. Not a single scene is wasted. Sadly, by taking on a real and current issue that is rarely addressed, Shame became too raw to win big awards like Oscars and Baftas. American voters for the Academy Awards didn’t like confronting the harmful sexualisation of their society. This is a terrible shame (pardon the pun) because it’s the choice of issue that gives the narrative its overwhelming force and worth.
Clearly I appreciate McQueen’s artistry behind the camera, as well as his work on the script with Abi Morgan. But for me the real crime of the awards season was that Michael Fassbender did not win anything notable for his performance in Shame. Jean Dujardin was excellent in The Artist and Gary Oldman deservedly captured the British imagination with his role in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. However, compared to what Fassbender does in Shame, these performances are mere imitation. Dujardin channels the spirit of silent cinema’s stars, whilst Oldman copies and slightly reworks Alec Guinness’ original interpretation of George Smiley. Ok, that’s harsh and inaccurate, but for me Fassbender trumps both of these outstanding examples of acting. He is the glue that holds all the masterful pieces of Shame together. His intensity is extraordinary, all the more so because of the way he offsets it with intimacy.
The best scene in the entire film, for me, is when Brandon tries and fails to be intimate. He whisks a work colleague away to a stunning penthouse on a whim. At first, he appears to be enjoying the fact that he knows this woman and they are not just meeting for sex. However, when she tries to make love to him, he cannot go through with it. He cannot cope with the eye contact, the kissing, the possibility of love.
To censor this scene would be utter madness. It would rob audiences of a sublime moment of cinema, a moment of truth, a moment of art. It is painful and awkward to watch, whilst also being captivatingly moving and real. Fassbender conveys frustration, vulnerability and dozens of other emotions, simply through glances, gestures and movements. The foreplay in this scene is so lifelike, playing out like a stumbling dance on the bed. For many, this will be the most erotic scene in Shame, because there is tenderness and seduction on offer, rather than a mere brutal release of pent up desire.
Shame should never be censored because everyone will have their own favourite scene. The ingredient that makes Shame feel more like art than an ordinary film is ambiguity. All art is ambiguous, open to multiple meanings and interpretations. Fassbender’s longing looks on buses and trains will be alluring to some, but repugnant to others. McQueen is right to deny the censors the chance to spoil any ambiguous component of his story. This film deserves and demands to be seen, but only as it was originally intended.
The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.
Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.
Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.
As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.
The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.
All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.
If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.
The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.
Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.
Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.
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