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December 5, 2011


Shame and New York

Shame, Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender

You know how when you watch a Woody Allen movie set in New York, he always make the city look beautiful and sophisticated, but also personal and lived-in, and after the movie you might feel that, just by walking around the streets, this wonderful city belongs to you a little bit?

Well, Shame is like the exact opposite of that. Steve McQueen's new movie about a sex addict living in an expensively bland Manhattan makes New York look impersonal and bleak. His New York certainly doesn't belong to you, but you probably wouldn't want it to, anyway. A young Steve McQueen lived here for a while with his family, and briefly attended NYU ("hated it"), but seems to have retained none of the tenderness that other directors have for the city. Though he did find his childhood experience with the 1977 blackout "quite exciting. A lot of people were stealing."

"New Yorkers live and work in the sky," he said in an interview in Time Out. "You're always in the perspective of this metropolis, aren't you? Who are you, in the context of this city? It can make one feel very small. Maybe it's just too much."

That feeling of being lost in an overwhelming city fits with the movie, which isn't a complete success but is really good in some ways. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a quiet, handsome, corporate guy who is uncontrollably addicted to sex. You could watch an interesting double feature at the movies right now, with Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, trying (and failing) to understand and control the interplay of sex and mental illness in himself and his patients, and Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in Shame, not even really trying to understand or control his self-obliterating behavior. He's great in both, and a lot nakeder in the second one.

Anyway, Shame's New York is a place where hardly anyone has normal sexual or romantic interactions. The married people cheat, the emotionally open people are also suicidal disasters who always fall for the wrong person, and everyone else seems to regularly have sex with strangers in public or is in fact a sex addict. Only the prostitutes seem to be totally fine with themselves and their sex lives. It isn't beautiful or glamorous; one of the movie's recurring locations is the Standard Hotel, a hulking grey slab that looks simultaneously ugly and expensive. In one hotel room scene, a character looks out the window and comments on the "amazing view", which is not anything like amazing. It's a dingy industrial wasteland, like this:

Shame, in the Standard Hotel


Another reason the Standard might not use scenes from Shame in its marketing materials is the hilariously rude exchange between McQueen and a manager of the hotel's roof bar, Le Bain, that the Times captured in an interview with McQueen and Fassbender.

McQueen was rather annoyed when a loud crunching bass line began pumping through the bar's speakers. It was 4 p.m., and the place, the exclusive celebrity-friendly Le Bain, was nearly deserted.

"Excuse me?" Mr. McQueen bellowed. "Can you turn the music down?"

He was met by a manager, clearly unmoved. "I have people coming in," he said, talking over Mr. McQueen's protests.

The director stayed polite -- "Look, I don't want to fight with you," he said -- only to be met with a smirk. "I don't want to fight either," the manager said. "Whatever," Mr. McQueen said, waving him off, but the manager persisted. "What does that mean?" he asked, in a mocking tone. "What is 'whatever' about?"

It was a bizarre, aggressive moment, and Mr. McQueen seemed to sour after that. He had lost track of his earlier point, and, as the manager walked away, he uttered a quiet, vigorous expletive.

That's New York for you. Sex addicts, hookers, and bitchy bar managers.

categories: Movies, NYC, Sex
posted by amy at 1:37 PM | #

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The Tmes review, in the section on whether you should bring children or not, points out that its NC-17, and that children will have to go elsewhere to learn that sex can sometimes be fun.

Also, did you see that Almodovar movie about skin? Because I really don't want to and I'm looking to you to confirm that prejudice.

Posted by: T-Rock at December 6, 2011 10:17 AM

Yeah, I saw that comment on the NC-17 rating. I was confused. Is A.O. Scott saying that casual/purchased sex is presented as (sometimes) fun in this movie? Does he think Leaving Las Vegas makes drinking look fun? Well, sure, sometimes it does a little, but I bet there are many movies out in theaters right now that make sex look one thousand times funner than Shame does.

Shame mostly makes it look like something that fills you with self-loathing and makes you want to destroy yourself, then do again as quickly as possible. I disagreed with a lot of A.O. Scott's review, though, and the tone of it makes me suspect that he's a little jealous, not of Michael Fassbender's character, but of his sizable Ewan McGregor.

Here's the review:

I have also avoided that Almodovar skin movie. It looks creepy and like it might involve grossly erotic surgical scenes, and I don't need that. I love Almodovar movies, but mostly when they involve Carmen Maura, or Penelope Cruz in padded butt pants.

Posted by: amy at December 6, 2011 10:43 AM

I haven't seen Shame yet, but your description of the way the movie depicts NY is exactly how I feel about it. Any of the charm and glitter that people see has really never been there when I have visited. I associate summers with the smell of rotting garbage everywhere and being physically unable to see the horizon line. I get a pervasive sense of being in a "pit," small and easily disappearable.

Posted by: Colin at December 7, 2011 12:43 PM

But New York is a concrete jungle where dreams are made of! It's famous for movie stars and where the streets are mean, except that Vancouver is where the sets and the crime really are.

Penelope Cruz wore butt pants in Volver! Next thing you'll be telling me Marilyn Monroe dyed her hair.

Posted by: T-Rock at December 7, 2011 5:25 PM

Well, next time you find yourself in New York, Colin, you might try taking a walk in Central Park, riding the Staten Island ferry, or humping a total stranger next to the West Side Highway. Just like the locals do!

You're right about the summertime garbage smelliness. By August, the odor is usually mixed with fetid urine. Definitely the grossest time to be here.

Posted by: amy at December 7, 2011 11:52 PM

The one really fond memory I have of NY is visiting Washington Park (I think) for the farmers market and buying some grapes that I have never had before. Seriously, the grapes were the best I have ever had.

And conversely, the way I summarize the smell of NY in the summer: "Rotten bananas and sex."

Posted by: Colin at December 8, 2011 10:59 AM

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