Shame by Steve McQueen
A disturbing movie for unexpected reasons.
First off, it’s not shocking, which says something about how pornographic images of sex (as opposed to other kinds of images) have saturated our culture, public spaces, private imaginaries. The desire to show all is matched today it seems by a sense of having seen all.
The movie is most interesting for how it imagines a private space in the city. The city in this story is merely the backdrop for an intensely private drama and the occasion for beautiful photography. The landscape is window dressing (literally in the many scenes where characters are seen in front of or through window glass). And other characters simply don’t exist as anything other than place holders. The protagonist is alone and to the extent he feels shame at any particular moment, the feeling emerges from his brief recognition of his loss of contact with others. When others break contact with him–in a bar, in a restaurant, at work, in an apartment–and look away, then he has failed and shame is what he feels.
If the pornographic desire to show all can become a vehicle for carving out a private space for individual experience and then remind us that this private experience can support our need for emotional connection with others (which is what I think this movie suggests), then feeling shame may be the most positive emotional experience available to us today. And if that is the case, then all that queer work on abjection and identity construction in marginal communities might become a major tool for understanding dominant cultures in the age of Facebook. Holy shit, right?
ps–my main annoyance with the film was that (and maybe this relates to my last point?) “rock bottom” is signalled in the movie by two queer encounters. One anonymous in a gay bar, the other bought with two women. Why is such a “risky”, “taboo-breaking” film about sex so boring in its sense of the bounds of what shameful sex is? Apparently treating women like meat might be bad, especially if it goes too far or happens too often, but anything not one man, one woman is really really bad bad bad right from the very start. …Stupid stupid stupid.