All too frequently, I get fed up with the business of producing movies and TV, feeling that I can’t make something great within the Hollywood system. But, right before I get to the point where I actually retire and make bitching on Vulture my full-time vocation, I always encounter a film that runs up against all of the constraints of the entertainment business and evidences the quality and originality that seem to be lacking in most every film released by the major media companies. In past years, I’ve been inspired and reinvigorated by such movies as Apocalypto, No Country for Old Men, and Let the Right One In. And this year, as I once again found myself thinking it’s impossible to take risks and be original with a film that’s not made on a micro-budget and only seen at film festivals, my hope was renewed. Though I find Thanksgiving, like all holidays, to be a perfunctory practice of false feeling, this year I did have reason to give thanks, and it was for Steve McQueen’s Shame, a film about a handsome and charming New York executive (played by Michael Fassbender) with a dark and overwhelming sex addiction, and his relationship with his unstable sister (Carey Mulligan).
The specialness of Shame (which opens this Friday in limited release) is evident in the many ways in which the film takes the opposite, less safe approach of most films. Specifically:
Full-Frontal Male Nudity: McQueen and Fassbender show what they need to show, given the subject matter. McQueen doesn’t pan away from male genitals, or crop the frame to avoid it. Sure, we’ve all seen dicks in films, usually as a punch line — Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Ken Jeong in The Hangover — but the tone here is different and serious. Shying away from graphic content in a movie about a sex addict would lack integrity and remove the viewer, rather than making him or her feel the journey of the character. And because of this explicit but necessary choice, the violence-accepting and sex-eschewing Motion Picture Association of America has given this film an NC-17 rating. This will surely have a severe downward impact on potential profits for this film; some theater chains, like Cinemark, will not exhibit an NC-17 film, and the largest retailer in the world, Wal-Mart, among others, will not sell NC-17 DVDs. I hold Fox Searchlight in high esteem for deciding to pick up the film for U.S. distribution, knowing that the director had final cut and that it would certainly garner a rating that would prove a financial handicap.
Ambiguity: Unlike in most films, where exposition is blasted at the audience as soon as possible, we don’t get much more than a hint of how Shame’s two leads were damaged prior to our meeting them. Several years ago I worked with David Mamet on a project, and he explained to me that the unmotivated offering of a character’s background was unreal and manipulative: After all, when you meet someone in real life, you don’t immediately learn why they are the way they are. In Shame, which takes place over a relatively short time span, it would be artificial to learn too much, too soon about these characters. And by organically imparting information about them, through the events and the film’s real, if sometimes taciturn, dialogue, it draws the audience into the story and furthers a more engaged experience.
Uncompromising Acting Choices: Actors often receive praise for portraying diseased characters (John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Mathieu Almalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses), because their struggles are heroic and relatable. But while Fassbender and Mulligan’s characters are diseased, they aren’t heroic and one may not even sympathize with them. Because we don’t know much of their backstory, there is no mitigating factor for their distasteful behavior. Many actors don’t like to play unlikable characters; I’ve had conflicts with several over it. When actors portray someone engaging in distasteful behavior, they have to infuse some of themselves in that character to make it work; their reticence is understandable, as it would be inhuman to not be concerned with and personalize the audience’s reaction to their creations. Further, in this film, Fassbender and Mulligan deliver completely un-self-conscious performances in circumstances where, as human beings, it would only be natural to want greater protection. Mulligan, when we first see her, is totally naked in very harsh light — not the kind of thing that someone concerned with their “movie star-ness” would feel comfortable doing. Fassbender is naked often and usually in sexual situations that quickly lose their sexiness and become somewhat ugly, because the character is quite obviously disconnected from his partner and only getting his fix.
One-ers: For me, most of the best films contain sequences with few or no cuts between different camera angles. Shame keeps the audience engaged not only through storytelling and acting, but also with long sequences made from just one long unbroken shot (a “one-er”), or very few. Some of the most lauded scenes in film history are one-ers, like the famous scene in Goodfellas where we follow Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco from the parking valet to their table at the Copacabana. And when you think about it, your experiences in life are long one-ers. Another benefit of an “unbroken scene” is that it forces the actors to absolutely nail their performance, as there will be no opportunity to build a scene in editing by blending and manipulating takes and angles. It also puts a lot of pressure on a director to think through the composition of the shot. With Shame, it often feels like we are looking at a painting, with everything that is in the frame having meaning and being used to accentuate the purpose of the scene. It takes confidence to limit a scene to one shot, but it is hard to imagine a great director not being confident. I think many filmmakers would love to reduce the number of angles they shoot, but film studios tend to push for more coverage, since it gives them comfort in knowing they can more easily demand changes to scenes after they are shot if there are more pieces with which to put together the puzzle.
One last thing that I like about Shame is something you can’t see onscreen and really shouldn’t be an issue: The director is a black man. It is still ridiculous how few black directors there are and, especially, ones who are not relegated to making films about some element of the black experience. There are many other aspects of the movie that I loved, but I don’t want to write about them, as they would force me to give away plot and incident, the surprise of which is something to be maintained.
So, knowing it is still possible to make a film as powerful and original as Shame, I may have to continue trying for a while longer. But given that the movie was funded by British film company Film4 and the British Film Institute, and was written and directed by an Englishman and stars European actors, I should probably consider relocating to London to allow myself a better chance at achieving my goal.
Gavin Polone is an agent turned manager turned producer. His production company, Pariah, has brought you such movies and TV shows as Panic Room, Zombieland, Gilmore Girls, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Follow him on Twitter @gavinpolone.