Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen, 2011
#18, 2011 Skandies
Shame begins with a nine-minute sequence that seems tailor made to introduce the concept of montage to undergraduate film classes. A man and a woman make mutually appreciative eye contact on a New York subway train. But intercut with these point-of-view shots of them looking at each other are a series of moments from the man's day-to-day life, and we discover that he's a sexual compulsive. His life consists of nothing but picking up women in bars, hiring prostitutes, and jerking off to porn on his laptop; the only respite is his generic corporate job, and even there he takes frequent breaks to retreat to a bathroom stall and masturbate. This juxtaposition changes the whole tenor of the eye contact scenes. What in isolation might have looked like two people making a connection now looks like predator and prey.
Juxtaposition shapes interpretation on the larger scale too, of course. I watched Shame right after watching Tuesday, After Christmas and Take Shelter, and I saw significant commonalities. The distinguishing feature of Tuesday, After Christmas was the way the director would just plunk the camera down and let an entire scene play out; Shame doesn't do quite the same thing, but it's closer to that end of the spectrum than to the standard practice of showing the minimum that establishes what's going on. There's a point at which the protagonist goes for a jog, and the camera jogs alongside him down West 31st Street, from 5th Avenue all the way to 7th Avenue and Madison Square Garden, crossing Broadway and 6th Avenue en route, in one unbroken shot. That bit works pretty well, but this sort of thing can backfire. There's a scene in which the protagonist goes to see his sister sing that "start spreadin' the news" song, and instead of showing the first couple of lines and then cutting to people clapping the way most movies would, this one shows the whole damn song. Five minutes, four seconds. It's excruciating. She sings it so-o-o slo-o-owly. Which would be bad enough if the song actually were slow, but it's not. She's just doing it wrong.
The parallel to Take Shelter runs even deeper. Both it and Shame are about a man who develops a compulsion he can't control and whose life disintegrates because of it, leading to a moment when his stoic exterior crumbles and he starts vomiting up gallons of acting juice. In Take Shelter this takes the form of a bug-eyed, spittle-flecked diatribe at the Lions Club supper: "THERE IS A STOOORM COMIN'!! LIKE NOTHIN' YOU HAVE EVER SEEN!!!" In Shame the break isn't verbal, but rather what Mike D'Angelo calls the "tragic-orgasm face", a feat of wild mugging that comes with a laugh track when Jim Carrey does it. Basically, Shame boils down to this: