December 5, 2011
Shame and New York
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:
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.
"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.
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