There was a full house last night for the BAFTA preview and Q&A of Steve McQueen's hotly anticipated new film Shame at the Cornerhouse. His first feature length film Hunger, which examines the 1981 IRA hunger strike in the Maze prison, received great critical acclaim and a number of awards, and whilst the setting and topic of Shame could hardly be more different it shares the same uncompromising, intense and clear-eyed depiction of a topic that most would rather brush under the carpet.
The film explores the life of Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender who also took the lead role in Hunger) an outwardly successful, attractive and confident New Yorker who, we soon find out, is a highly functioning sex-addict. Able to control his life to the nth degree he builds up a complex system of ritual in order to feed his addiction and keep it hidden. The opening scenes of the film emphasise this repetition and ritual, showing his routine each morning - get up, play answerphone messages, get a drink of water, pee - and snippets of his daily life including sexual escapades. It is in these first scenes that we first encounter the disruptive presence of his sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) who leaves a series of increasingly desperate messages on his answerphone.
Shortly afterwards she turns up at Brandon’s flat, having let herself in unbeknownst to him, and he bursts in on her taking a bath thinking there’s an intruder in his flat. This scene, which shows Sissy standing in front of Brandon dripping and naked whilst he wields a baseball bat, a tight knot of contained aggression, lays bare the essence of their relationship as we will see it played out throughout the film - she is open, needy and defenceless; he is cold, taut and full of pent up anger.
Brilliantly, the song that Sissy has chosen to play at full volume whilst she is having her bath is Chic’s I Want Your Love. Not only does it exquisitely express her desperate desire for her brother’s affection, but it is also perfect shorthand for the city of New York itself. Taken alongside the two other New York classics that are played in the first section of the film - Blondie’s Rapture and the Tom Tom Club’s Genius of Love - it presents us with a picture of the city as alive with sexual possibilities, moving to its very own relentless beat.
This is contrasted to one of the tenderest, and simultaneously, most uncomfortable scenes of the film, which depicts Sissy singing a melancholy, drawn out version of the Frank Sinatra classic New York, New York in a downtown club, watched by her brother and his boss. This is one of the few scenes in the film where Brandon’s guard is let down and he exposes his vulnerable side. For Brandon and Sissy the city of New York is a painful mix of pleasure, possibility and desire.
In the Q&A after the film and in interviews elsewhere McQueen has played down the choice of New York, stating that it was only because they were better able to locate psychiatrists and recovering sex-addicts that were willing to talk to them in New York that the film ended up being set there. Initially McQueen and his co-writer, Abi Morgan, had tried to start their research in London. When you see the film, however, it’s hard to imagine that any other city could so perfectly have captured the sense of arrogant entitlement that defines our age of late capitalism, an era where we can access anything we want at the touch of a button, including prostitutes and hardcore porn.
Clearly, as with Hunger, this is not a film for the faint-hearted. There are numerous graphic sex scenes, as is appropriate for a film about sex addiction, and unlike many Hollywood films this is not a redemptive story where the central character’s trauma is laid bare, his psychological distress explained and thus anaesthetized. We are never told Brandon and Sissy’s back story, save for a few details - they moved to Jersey from Ireland when teenagers, and their childhood has self-evidently been a difficult one. As Sissy says “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.” Crucially we learn most from what is not said. At no point in the film are Brandon and Sissy’s parents mentioned. Not once. Their past is that great unmentionable thing which now manifests itself in the present, shaping their lives in ways that are utterly beyond their control.
This holding back of information makes Shame a fascinating film and clearly differentiates it from the majority of other movies being made at the moment. This is coupled with uncompromising camerawork which captures the actors with a level of intense scrutiny. McQueen frequently lingers on uncomfortable scenes and brings the camera in close, using a great number of detailed head shots or extreme close-ups of parts of the body such as hands.
The scene where Sissy sings New York, New York is a perfect example. We stay with the scene for the duration of the full song, focused for the majority of it on Sissy herself, shown from the neck up. Towards the end of her performance we switch to Brandon, again showing only his head, allowing us to witness his reaction, made vulnerable for once and unable to prevent tears from welling up in his eyes. We then switch back to Sissy and see her also fighting back tears whilst she sings.
McQueen matches the intensity of the subject matter with an intensity of gaze that is both beautiful and repulsive. Mimicking Brandon’s cycle of sex-addiction, we are trapped in a circle of desire and disgust whilst watching this film. Shame is undeniably beautifully shot and incredibly alluring, but is also lays bare the shameful compulsion of addiction and its consequences. As McQueen said in the Q&A the film is “very now.” We live in an age where nothing is denied to us, and everything is desired. More than anything else McQueen has presented us with an unflinching psychopathology of western excess.
What is it about the late 1960s and 1970s that makes me keep going back? I could watch endless hours of archive footage of that period and not have dried up my desire to see more. There’s a kind of passion about that era that I need to see. Perhaps it’s some sort of antidote for the flaccid, self-centred time I find myself in. Perhaps I just love the way it all looks, especially through bleached out grainy film. And I certainly ADORE the way it sounds - Talking Heads, Arthur Russell, Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers, Neu, Can, Kraftwerk, Fleetwood Mac, Gil Scott Heron - these are some of my all time favourite artists. No doubt I romanticise, but I love the 1970s. And all those mighty-strong women….BIG HEART.
Clearly then, I was not going to miss seeing Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 at the Cornerhouse this week.
The film brings together fascinating archive footage of the period, collected by Swedish journalists at the time, and edits it into a sort of chronological ‘mixtape’ that takes us through the significant events of those eight years. Much of the material shows a more intimate and relaxed side of the movement’s leaders, such as Stokely Carmichael, who is most frequently depicted delivering one of his trademark confrontational and acerbically witty speeches.
One of the most beautiful moments is when Carmichael takes the microphone from the Swedish interviewer and takes over the interview with his mother Mabel. He gently but firmly coaxes his mother to speak out load the discrimination she and her family have felt because of their colour, and her reticence and his firmness perfectly illustrate the change in attitudes between the generations.
The film is fascinating also for what it tells us about Sweden in this period and Europe’s attitude to America. One thing I had not realised before was the importance of Sweden as a country that granted asylum to American draft dodgers and military deserters during the Vietnam war. And in 1972 Sweden’s President, Olof Palme, caused further diplomatic upheavals when he likened the U.S.’s massive Christmas-time bombings of North Vietnam to Nazi atrocities.
As is stated in the introduction to the film, this is not a comprehensive analysis of the Black Power movement, but just one view through the eyes of some Swedish journalists. It has to be said that this film does not fully explore the contradictions and complexities at the heart of the movement and for the most part only presents voices who were in favour of their methods. This is emphasised also in the reflections of those younger who have been influenced by the movement, such as Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu, which are played over the footage.
Both have clearly found much to draw on and derived much strength from the views and actions of the Black Power movement. And when you see Angela Davis and many others speak passionately and powerfully about the injustice and violence they have suffered at the hands of racist white America it is beyond churlish to indulge in a high-minded ethical debate about the rights and wrongs of moving away from Ghandian non-violence. Indeed, Davis herself vehemently upbraids the Swedish interviewer in the film for asking such a stupid question.
The film puts the archive footage to the fore and ultimately the viewer must decide what to make of it. Alongside the voices of the famous figures of the movement - Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, Eldrige Cleaver and Kathleen Cleaver - there are many interviews with residents of Harlem, Brooklyn and Oakland California. In particular the frank description of one young girl’s fall into prostitution and abuse at the hands of her stepfather sticks in the mind.
This particular interview comes late on in the film and shows how the movement is diffused and torn apart by the influx of drugs into poor black communities in the 1970s. By following the history of the movement into the 1970s, the film tells the story not only of its powerful uprising, but of its frustrations, challenges and ultimate defeat at the hands of powers beyond their grasp. As the voices on the film attest, their is no doubt in their minds that it was no accident that their community was suddenly riddled with heroin. A chilling thought, and something that we should all reflect on.
Written and directed by Goran Hugo Olsson; edited by Hanna Lejonqvist and Olsson; music by Ahmir Questlove Thompson and Om’Mas Keith; produced by Annika Rogell; released by Sundance Selects.