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Shame

12 Jan

Shame – directed by Steve McQueen. Drama. 101 minutes Color 2012. ★★★

The Story: A handsome thirty-year-old ad-man pursues sexual release in every spare moment, and even in some that are not.

It’s beautifully filmed and shot and acted by performers of the first order. Carey Mulligan plays his sister exquisitely. James Badge Dale has the right-on-the-money, live-wire inventiveness of Cagney as his boss. Nicole Beharie stuns us with her telling performance of the co-worker who dates him.

And Michael Fassbender is stuck with a misconceived main role. On camera, getting up naked, going to the bathroom, screwing, we get nothing from his character that we need from a good story, although we get everything we could possible expect from a good actor.

The idea that an individual’s soul and psyche can be transmitted to film without words is not feasible. The words would be interior. But we here instead have only the skim of his addictive actions. The Lost Weekend did not make this mistake. Addiction does not speak for itself. For in its isolation it is highly aware of the consequences and rituals of its deeds. Hell is never quiet.

The mistake may arise from the notion that film is mainly a visual medium, a medium of physical narration, a mistake perhaps arising from its visual charms and possibilities. Or a mistake falsely and callowly taught in film schools. Sometimes no speech is needed in film, true. Sometimes no speech is needed in written fiction also. But the inner verbal process is always needed, and “pantomime” (a technical term for the actor’s physical manifestation) has its limitations and things it cannot show or do. Perhaps the error arrises out of undue adultation the great rhetoric of Silent Pictures.

But Silent Pictures were not silent. In them people are always talking. Just because you cannot hear them does not mean you do no understand what they are saying. You know exactly what they are saying. For Silent Film actors are physically engaged in what they say and they respond to what is said to them – just as actors do in talkies. Just because we cannot hear them or read their lips does not mean we do not know what they are saying. No. And of course there were the placards. And of course, to spell things out, there was far more music in Silent Pictures than in talkies.

In Silent Pictures pantomime played a part which it still plays in film, by every talking actor in every scene, although the Silent Film actor might telegraph things a bit more. This did not hinder the realistic acting of Gloria Swanson or Mary Pickford or Laurette Taylor. Their styles are quite modern.

But, to take the silent craft of Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Harry Langdon as the dernier mot on screen narration is a modern folly, since it is to disregard that they were not actors but clowns and always playing against the settings. And clowns never speak. Film actors must speak. While it is true that in film actual words must be wordless, words are not extraneous, but half the job, and story must provide them. At least in certain films, and Shame is one of them.

Shame starves us of the words needed to grasp what the character is going through. But a raw description of the story reveals there is no opportunity for it. The sister is thrown away as relevant only to the convenience of the brother’s exterior life. The character she could provide as a confidante is lost. And the film is without monologue.

Instead, are we expected feel what he is going through simply because he runs in the rain or gets blown in a gay bar? I’m sorry, it’s not enough. We are supposed to experience his shame. But we don’t. Through no fault of the actor, it is never articulated. For shame is a human emotion that exists with words always. It is always something we are telling ourselves or are hearing others tell us. It is never readable as a gesture, as a sex act, as a run in the rain.

The sex addict story still needs to be told. The director is a good director. He also wrote it. What a shame. Someone still needs to write it.

 
 
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