Mondays with Schobie: The uncompromising Steve McQueen
It’s hard to think of a filmmaker whose directing career opened with a stronger one-two punch than Steve McQueen. And yet for all the praise that initially greeted Shame, the British artist-turned-director’s brilliant follow-up to Hunger, there has been an almost equal level of condescension.
I think Shame was the most misunderstood film of 2011. For me, it was also the best, a devastatingly powerful distillation of just what modern addiction is. With its recent release on DVD and Blu-ray, I hope folks who may have been wary about seeing an NC-17-rated film in the cinema will take a chance on it. If they do, I hope they’ll be more open-minded than many of the film’s critics.
I think Tim Grierson wonderfully summarized some of the reasons why Shame received some mixed notices upon release in a post on IFC’s website.
“If you haven’t seen it,” Grierson humorously writes, “perhaps you’ve heard a little about it.” There’s the first problem. Shame came (no pun intended) saddled with several controversies. There was the full-frontal nudity of, ahem, well-endowed star Michael Fassbender. Then there was the NC-17 rating. Plus, the hype from writers like me, who had the opportunity to see the film at film festivals like TIFF, and emerged stunned by its level of insight.
Tone was an issue for some. After praising Fassbender’s fearless performance, a recent DVD/Blu-ray review in Entertainment Weekly stupidly stated, “Too bad the rest of the movie's so glum and chilly.” Okay. So a film about sex addiction—addiction—isn’t a happy-go-lucky f-fest. What a shock.
Take it away, Tim Grierson:
“Because of the NC-17 rating, Shame was viewed through the prism of being a movie ‘about sex,’ an understandable impulse considering the main character’s proclivities. But look closer at the film, and you’ll notice that Shame is about the agony of addiction. Usually, that disease is portrayed in the movies through characters who have drug, alcohol or gambling problems. We see the highs, but then we see the crushing lows. But with Shame, there is no high: Brandon is at a point in his addiction where he’s merely trying to keep from imploding, which means a constant search for more and more sex.”
This, then, is the anti-Californication.
“Shame’s austere, dour tone drew complaints from some that the film was too mannered, offering an unrealistic portrait of sexual addiction in order to make a pretentious art film,” Grierson writes. “I disagree completely. Though a touch heavy-handed at times, Shame seems to adopt the joyless, extreme mindset of its outwardly composed main character.” Eyes Wide Shut was saddled with similar complaints: “The sex wasn’t fun.” That’s the point, kids.
While Shame’s critical response was mostly positive, 2008’s Hunger drew almost universal praise. Available in an absolutely phenomenal Criterion Collection Blu-ray, it tells the grim yet inspiring story of Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army member who died in 1981 following a lengthy hunger strike.
Watching McQueen’s two films back to back recently, the parallels were clear. Both expertly subvert audience expectation: Shame takes a positive (sex), and instead portrays it as an addiction every bit as soul crushing as heroin abuse. Meanwhile, Hunger takes starvation and shows it to be (in this case, anyway) a heroic act.
In both films, there is a feeling of unstoppable velocity, that the only end possible for Fassbender’s Brandon (in Shame) and Bobby (in Hunger) is destruction. “All of this has to come to an end,” says a priest to Sands during a long debate scene. “It’s done,” Sands replies. “It won’t be stopped.”
For Brandon, the same line applies to his addiction. Even at film’s end, following a personal tragedy, the audience is unsure whether Brandon is “cured,” or “changed.” He simply is.
This is McQueen’s onscreen world, and it’s an uncompromising one. He and Fassbender—the new Scorsese-De Niro?—next take on slavery in Twelve Years a Slave, the story of a free Northerner who was kidnapped and forced into slavery. Is there any other filmmaker so fearlessly plunging into such topics? I don’t think so, and it makes Steve McQueen a true original.
• I’ve been a devoted reader of New Musical Express since about 1994. At age fourteen, the weekly British music newspaper was my lifeline to information about my favorite bands, and it gave me a special feeling to be buying something that felt like it was “mine.” This was not Rolling Stone, or Spin, something I could find at the supermarket. Living in the suburbs and too young to drive, I had to work to get this one. (First at Elmwood’s Home of the Hits, then at Borders.)
The NME is still around, although I haven’t purchased a paper copy since the early 2000s. Now, its website nme.com is the flagship product.
But in The History of the NME, author Pat Cloud brings to life the heady days when the British rock world revolved around this hyperbolic mix of hero worship and idol-killing. He also accurately interprets just why those who once loved the paper remain so enthralled with its past.
“There aren’t many people who read the New Musical Express regularly for any length of time that have ever truly shaken off its grip,” he writes. “Once the pages of NME were literally the only place in the world where you could find out where Red Lorry Yellow Lorry or Kingmaker or the Groundhogs were next playing in your town.”
Those gig listings benefited me little, yet that, too, made them fun. A place in which my favorite bands could be seen in concert easily and their music was always attainable was truly a place of fantasy. It lent an air of wistful desire to every issue of NME, and I treasure those feelings.
While the book skimps a bit on my favorite eras, Madchester and Britpop, and the lack of any actual NME covers is regrettable, the stories from legends like Nick Kent and Chrissie Hynde more than make up for these issues. This fascinating book will be released here in the States in June, and it’s a must-read for any Anglophile.
For more information, see the book’s website.
• I’ve also been enjoying Ben Taylor’s Apocalypse on the Set, which takes a fun, often illuminating look at nine disastrous film productions: Twilight Zone: The Movie, Heaven’s Gate, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Apocalypse Now, Fitzcarraldo, Pulgasari, The Crow, The Abyss, and Waterworld.
Some of these stories have been well told already—there are fine books about the makings of Munchausen, Heaven’s Gate, Apocalypse, and Fitzcarraldo, and the latter three even warranted documentaries devoted to their messy creations.
But there’s something about these stories that is endlessly involving. From Brando showing up on the Apocalypse set overweight and underprepared to Klaus Kinski’s rage at director Werner Herzog during the making of Fitzcarraldo, these are parts of modern cinematic lore that can be revisited over and over again.
And smartly, Taylor unearths some new details about the other films included, specifically on the sad death of Brandon Lee during the filming of The Crow and James Cameron’s obsessions during the torturous Abyss shoot.
He even found a film that was totally unknown to me, North Korea’s Pulgasari, directed by—wait for it—Kim Jong-Il. (The late dictator is actually credited as producer, but as the author explains, he seems to have run the show.) It’s a monster movie. And its story is a so-wild-it-has-to-be-true treat.