My parents told me about the movie ‘Shame’ as they went to watch it shortly before its general release as part of a film festival. They seemed to be most interested by the fact that Michael Fassbender spent large portions of the film with his penis on display. As for the rest of the movie, they could not say much except that they found it a bit unsettling. There was no sense of connection with Fassbender’s character – he was inexorably Other. The plot of the movie is simple: Brandon (Fassbender) is happily getting on with his life, working in a high-powered job in New York and then masturbating and fucking as much as possible in his spare time. Then his ‘emotional’ sister drops onto his doorstep and forces the kind of intimacy on him that his type don’t really enjoy. He finds it more difficult to hold his lifestyle together under the weight of his sister’s demands for intimacy and relationship. Eventually he tells her that she is a parasite and that she should bugger off. This coincides with his sexual ‘addiction’ spiralling out of control and then she slits her wrists as a result of his rejection. She survives. It is left ambiguous at the end as to whether Brandon has changed his ways.
With the plot out of the way, the thing that is perhaps most strking about Brandon is how normal he is, at least as a representative of the male population at this point in time. In many ways, I felt like it was my life being depicted on screen. I too have spent most of my life shying away from intimacy, chasing sex by every means possible: wasting days helplessly lost in internet pornography and contacting girls in chatrooms for ‘casual relationships’, dating numerous girls at a time and still looking for more. And yet I don’t get the impression that I am so abnormal. Indeed, intimacy in the kind of sense that it is really hoped for and aspired to is very much the exception rather than the rule. As the philosopher John Gray writes of the character ‘Utz’ in Bruce Chatwin’s novel of that name: ‘It is true that in many ways [his life] is a poor one. It lacks deep friendship, abiding love or any commitment to a cause. But in these respects, how different is it from most people’s lives?’. Brandon, like most of us, is trapped somewhere between his dread of both loneliness and of relationships. While the rest of us choose any number of distractions (from a couple of glasses of red wine a night to taking food far too seriously to going away on holidays to working a full-time job to logging onto the internet to reading books to writing essays to having hobbies and so on) to keep us chugging along, vaguely oblivious to the dread that lies beneath, Brandon chooses sex.
If reviews are anything to go by, most people watching it wonder about his family life. Late in the film his sister says: ’We’re not bad people, we’ve just come from a bad place’. This titillating snippet alerts us to the possibility of abuse, maybe even sexual abuse. Brandon’s behaviour is then easily shifted to Other, to pathology, to Not Us. Yet what if that which motivates much of Brandon’s behaviour is more simple, more mundane than that? Is that not a more unsettling way to view it as it then implicates the rest of us? In his agonized grimace of orgasmic release, is he not at least letting out something of the repressed emotion that the rest of us carry and manifest in any number of other less dramatic forms? What if Fassbender’s behaviour is simply a response to the recognition that he is going to die? If, as David Foster Wallace put it, the role of fiction is to ‘aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it’, then dismissing Fassbender’s behaviour as pathology rooted in childhood abuse is a classic form of the denial that sustains the dread. In this case, Fassbender is little more than a freak, a subject of our voyeuristic scrutiny, to be examined but not understood. Yet this seems precisely the wrong conclusion to draw from the movie. In fact, Fassbender is us, or at the very least he is me. And I am a high functioning, well-liked and well-respected person. I am fairly normal. I sit fairly close to the middle of the bell curve.
To me, Brandon is predominantly bored. The opening scenes of the film suggest a monotony to his routine, while his intense, leg-tapping absorption in internet pornography suggests the kind of immersive sense of release that one enjoys so much when relieved from boredom. In conversation with a date, Brandon dismisses the notion of marriage or even relationships, suggesting that in the end the couple will have nothing to say to each other, they are ‘just bored of one another’. Later he tells the same date of how he would have loved to be a musician back in the 60s. When she says that she is happy being alive at this time and in this place, he comments on how boring the world is. His day-to-day life is an itch, a bored, dissatisfied restlessness, ever ready to tip over into anxiety, depression and despair. Once again, how different is this from most people’s lives? Forced into relationship by his sister’s extended stay, Brandon can only come to see her as a ‘parasite’, sucking away his freedom and autonomy by forcing intimacy upon him. When she tries to justify her presence, he ends up shouting at her repeatedly ‘How are you helping me?’. Yet of course she is the only person who will ever help Brandon, who will ever care enough about him to shake him out of his impoverished lifestyle.
It is interesting that in a film called ‘Shame’, we only see Brandon with his head bowed at the end, as he sits besides his sister’s hospital bed after her suicide attempt. Even here we are led to believe that his head is bowed in tiredness rather than shame. Brandon’s shame is embodied, yet remains deep within him. We can see it come to the surface in certain moments of sexual release or occasional flashes of vulnerability before his calm exterior re-assembles itself, machine-like, ever protective of its self, however wounded. For those of us who carry around our shame, depression and madness hidden deep within, this brief connection with ‘one of us’ gives us that space to breathe, that crucial sense of not being alone in the world. And yet we still find ourselves grappling for some aetiological explanation of his ‘addiction’, preferably in some form of childhood sexual abuse, that will serve to re-inforce his Otherness. We may succeed in othering Brandon, but as far as victories go it is rather a hollow one, like claiming belief in free will because you can raise your hand voluntarily.