Thursday, 12 April 2012

What isn't being said: Reading the non-dialogue of Steve McQueen's films

Steve McQueen's films aren't exactly what you would call wordy. His previous film Hunger reduced most of its dialogue to one frenetic scene between Bobby Sands and Father Dominic Moran. Instead, Bobby's infamous hunger strike is conveyed through painfully long and intimate takes, the camera fixed on Michael Fassbender as he disappears before our eyes. The unimaginable pain of starving to death is represented by the unblinking witnessing of an absence, growing ever greater and more and more awful. So, the dimming light in Fassbender's eyes, the paper-like quality of translucent skin stretched tighter over a ribcage, the stillness, the silence.

Steve McQueen is one of those directors who remind us of the enduring appeal of film as a form. The moving image, stripped of speech, can still hit you in the gut. McQueen knows this and he allows his camera and the viewers the time to appreciate its impact. It helps that he works with excellent actors, the kind of actors that could have bewitched silent movies audiences in the 1920’s. Fassbender, for example, is the kind of actor who can carry an entire scene with one look.

So from Hunger to Shame. From starvation to sex addiction. Both, in their own way, are a denial of need although the roots of their behaviour are distinctly different. Bobby Sands was motivated by the kind of political commitment that goes far beyond his concern for his own body. Whether you agree with his politics or not, his destruction of his body is single minded and coherent. It doesn’t flinch. Brendan, on the other hand, has no such connection with his body. His sexual addiction is paradoxical in that it really has nothing to do with desire. He does not have sex because he truly wants another person. He has sex to forget, to become invisible, to erase the past and the future. There is nothing spontaneous or sensual about Brandon’s addiction. It is all ritualised behaviour, as boring and functional as the daily loops he makes around his apartment from bathroom to bedroom.

McQueen goes to great length to emphasis Brendan’s dysfunctional need to maintain order in his life. His apartment is spotless, his clothes impeccable. The camera does not move around him, he moves around the camera. But not in any way that could be considered free. Brendan’s insistence on order and control is there, simply because his life is impossible without it. There are some pretty big and scary ghosts inside Brendan, looming just beneath his immaculately groomed surface, and he could not even begin to put them to rest so the best he can hope for is sex as a vital daily distraction, the centre-piece of his airtight routine. The wordless scene Fassbender shares with a married woman on the subway is an acting master class on subtlety but also, demonstrates the tenuous grip he has on his sexual compulsions, loaded as they are with his demons. Yes, we see that so far, he is still a respectable member of society, still able to command a woman's attention without descending to the cringe-worthy leechery of his boss. But this veneer of respectability is wearing thin. We can see this in the way her gaze goes from flirtatious to uncomfortable, in the way a sexy two-way exchange becomes more like a one-sided assault. As he urgently follows her off the subway carriage, as she, just as urgently, tries to get away from him, we glimpse the kind of predator Brendan could become.

This is the kind of slippage which repeats itself in the central relationship of the film. The woman from the answer phone messages is not an ex-lover; it is his sister. Except that their filial relationship becomes murky and uncomfortable when he barges in on her in the shower and neither seem concerned about her remaining naked throughout their entire exchange. When she sleeps with his slime ball boss, their foreplay coming across loud and clear through Brendan's apartment walls, he gets more disturbed than this admittedly uncomfortable situation calls for. As he sits in a fetal position on the floor, desperately trying to keep the sounds out, he loses all sense of being self-controlled and self-assured. He looks like a child. And like a child, his only solution is to run away from the problem, literally and figuratively. And then we have McQueen's most beautiful scene from the film, one long continuous shot following Brendan jogging through the streets of New York to classical music. It is a scene which manages to depict movement and stillness simultaneously, the sounds of the city drowned out to produce a paradoxical sense of calm through physical exertion. Which, of course, makes sense when we consider what we already know about Brendan. The music and the distance of the camera also acts out the defense mechanisms deeply embedded within Brendan. He becomes obscured to our view. This Recording suggests that the way in which McQueen forcibly distances us from Brendan betrays a lack of depth, a commitment to style over substance and a lazy evasiveness.

But it could also be argued that the extra barrier McQueen erects between an already elusive protagonist and the viewers is necessary to further illustrate Brendan’s deep emotional detachment. As Brendan runs, he rebuilds the walls inside himself. He regains a tentative sense of control, which for him is detachment. In this way, rather than being lazy or ill thought out, McQueen’s stylistic choice accurately mirrors Brendan’s dysfunctional psyche. Which, looking at Hunger, is something that McQueen is quite partial to. Also, McQueen has never really been interested in mimetically giving the viewer all his character’s secrets. He prefers the art of inference. Which, when you think about it, is closer to reality than the disembowelment of a life in under two hours. Very rarely do people go into the gritty details of the worst things that have happened to them, even with people they are close to. Sharing is one thing; a blow-by-blow account is quite another. Trauma makes its mark on people in subtle ways, in ways that can become painfully obvious, even without words. As you spend more and more time with someone, you might learn snippets of their past but you might also be rendered dumb by the way a look, a gesture, an action, reveals what they simply cannot say.

And this is what we get in Shame. A look, a gesture, an action; all very powerful illusions. Even the words, as little as they are, speak volumes. Kitty’s answer-phone message to Brendan: ‘We’re not bad people. We’ve just come from a bad place’. Vague, it may be but it is just enough to confirm what the film has been very quietly exploring. Anything more would have been, in my opinion, too heavy-handed for such a subtle film. Like well-written poetry, Shame understands the importance of blank spaces, of what isn’t being said. In its biggest moments of melodrama, McQueen insists on moving away, on obscuring, on silence. And this is a brave decision when it might be easier to fully explain Brendan and Kitty’s dysfunction with some good old-fashioned exposition. But then he would be a far less fascinating film-maker. If the pathos of film comes from it reflecting life, the importance of McQueen’s films comes from his understanding that so much of our lives exist between and beyond language. Even when not damaged or addicted or dying, words often fail us and then, as McQueen knows, the space left can become truly cinematic.