Intimate knowledge of fake people

April 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

However overwrought the climactic sexcapade, however embarrassingly trite the scene in which Brandon howls – on his knees – into the rain, the key to the abiding value of Shame (2011) lies in its potential to be a cultural bonfire around which viewers and beholders can gather and discuss and speculate; in other words, its relative reticence regarding character backstory and psycho-summarising. It just happens that this very quality is the focus of a great deal of the criticisms levelled at director Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature, even coming – at one point – from this very mouth.

A common complaint is that Brandon, embodied to a tee by Michael Fassbender, remains a cypher even at the film’s “unsatisfying” completion; that too many questions go unanswered, questions like ‘why is Brandon addicted to getting his rocks off? What past traumas have driven him to such an existence? To what (or where) does Brandon’s sister Sissy refer when she says “we just come from a bad place”? What happened to them and why? Goddamn it, who is Brandon?

Unfortunately, Brandon doesn’t exist. While he may be a composite of New York sex addicts whom co-writers Abi Morgan and McQueen interviewed, he is at day’s end a fiction, invented by the aforementioned pair and embodied by a fine performer for purposes of expression and/or inquiry. Nor does it help that Brandon is a man running from himself, craving some escape from whatever backstory there is.

What indeed is the moral value of layering a fictional entity with painstaking detail when thousands upon millions of flesh and blood will be no more than a statistic to you and me? Of what consequence is it – and of what consequence should it be – that Brandon was this or that, or that this happened to him, or that? Why does it matter, and to whom?

It could be argued that Brandon’s opacity as a character is an intentional attempt by his creators to deflect attention from whatever specific events may have led him to a life of sex dependency in preference of enticing, in the viewer, a desire to ponder the universality of Brandon’s affliction, his plight.

Suppose Morgan and McQueen opted to pepper the narrative with elucidatory biographical nuggets: intimations of childhood abuse or something equally unspeakable? Money could be bet and won on the assertion that, at the end of myriad screenings, hushed murmurs of sympathy would go out to Brandon, a response in itself only natural and right. Sadly, the conversation often does fail to advance past a consensus regarding the unquestionable ramifications of any number of social evils, a regrettably impotent outcome for a film with a clear desire to kick-start a broader sophisticated discourse in spite of its more didactic trappings and ham-fisted narrative turns. It’s a pity then, considering the efforts taken to keep things open-ended, that this open-endedness is bemoaned and deemed a marker of subpar writing.

Subpar or not, poverty does not equal austerity. Clumsy expression of an idea is one thing; refusal to dole out distracting backstory is another. For an art form largely beholden to precepts of story and character, a degree of respect – if not admiration – ought to be afforded those artists who choose to favour culturally relevant ideas and the ensuing dialogue over the fabricated intricacies of fabricated people, however charismatic or sympathetic they may be.

So as to appease those hitherto incensed by this apparent assassination of character and story, this is no such assassination. There are scores of masterworks like Raging Bull and Ikiru whose creators are wholly and justly invested in rootling to the very core of their protagonists, whether real in Jake LaMotta’s case or invented in the case of Kenji Watanabe. But even these artistic attempts at intimately understanding one human being’s life and times can be poorly served by an obsessive focus on gossipy minutiae which can ultimately overshadow that which truly informs a person’s psychology and behaviour. To reiterate, knowing that Jake LaMotta’s father exploited the crap out of him on a regular basis may shed light on a life of violence in and out of the ring, but does it really get to the essence of why Jake was as punishing to himself as he was to his opponents, and why he was fated to repeat his own mistakes ad infinitum?

But if, at the end of the day, one takes ultimate joy in knowing the census details of individuals, let them practise this urge on their friends, their neighbours, their workmates, random acquaintances they run into on the street and in lifts, not on fake people, and especially not on those created as embodiments of ideas and themes and primed as catalysts for a greater conversation, if not as a primary means to entertain.

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