27 December 2011

For Shame! The Story of a Sex Obsessed Man

I got on the bus late yesterday afternoon and found a seat across from a very beautiful young woman. I started to steal a second glance but it felt wrong. I knew immediately that my reluctance stemmed from having just seen Shame, the new film about a sex addict named Brandon (Michael Fassbender).

Watching pathological behavior is a sure cure, if temporal, for indulging at all. A viewing of The Lost Weekend (1945) would keep a normal person off the sauce for a bit. Director Steve McQueen --

let me just interject here that I think it terribly wrong for this gent to be using the exact full name of the late great actor who only left this world 30 years ago. Talk about too soon. I know its his given name, but how about at least going with Steven or Stevie

-- casts such a long unflinching eye of a sex obsessed man, that the viewer will long to spend a chaste evening in the company of aged aunts.

There is a relentlessness to Brandon in the sating of his copious sexual desires that would be admirable in someone selflessly serving humankind. But as his are strictly carnal pursuits, the story is imbued with the sadness of watching the addicted. There are short term lovers, assignations with call girls, work time jaunts to the john for quick wanks and internet porn aplenty. Anyone with a merely active libido will feel comparatively impotent. But any admiration will soon turn to revulsion.

To make the story a bit more than a character study, we are introduced to Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who comes to stay with big brother in his New York city bachelor pad. She's no day at the beach either. Her problems are different in nature but in keeping with the sex theme, Sissy climbs into the sack with big bro's married boss.

Sissy needs big brother, for a place to crash, if nothing else. He is a sorry excuse for an older sibling. Not only does he fail to nurture, but he inflicts rages on the poor girl. Her ultimate action will come as no surprise. Of course Brandon can hardly be expected to help his baby sister when he can do so little for himself. He can do sex but love is beyond him. Brandon's one attempt at a normal relationship ends badly, despite the fact that Marianne (Nicole Beharie) falls for him. Any woman would. Brandon is suave and handsome. A real ladies man -- if he could just curb his appetites.

Shame is effective for a number of reasons. Principally among them is Fassbender's performance. He's so effective because he doesn't preen and act like some handsome would be stars, but embodies characters ala Sean Penn. You believe Fassbender because he is not mimicking behavior but doing it. Shame also works because McQueen's direction is a driven and persistent as his film's main character. He never backs off from the story. It benefits from being beautifully shot. It is never pretty, but always interesting to look at. Manhattan at night has looked better on film, but as a back drop for this story it looks just right indeed. The score is appropriate too. It veritably fills the mood of the story; particularly when McQueen uses the Goldberg Variations.

The problem with a film like Shame is where to go with it. The aforementioned Lost Weekend and The Gambler (1974) starring James Caan made very different choices about how to deal with their obsessives. The wrong choice is always a happily-ever-after ending. There is no such thing for the addict, who at best gets a daily reprieve. But one can show the lifetime healing process set in motion. Alternatively we can have the main character spiral totally out of control. Bleak but realistic. Finally we can see that the pattern continues. Life goes on, no telling what will happen next. The functioning addict in constant motion.

I always feel a character's fate must be consistent with what the story has depicted and the tone of that story to that point. Here is where Shame is subject to debate. Upon reflection  I was satisfied with the ending. Others I'm sure will have wanted something more. Or less. I'll not spoil it for anyone who's not seen Shame. I was  pleased with the film as a whole. But Shame is a difficult, if not an impossible movie to love. It is more to be admired. Anyone with personal experience or knowledge of addictions will be reviled by  while oddly understanding Brandon. The whole concept of too much is never enough is at once disturbing and familiar. Shame relates the story of one man's addiction and does so with power and conviction. And there's no shame in that.

22 December 2011

Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays, Some Yuletide Thoughts

One Christmas when I was a mere lad of 22 years I wished an acquaintance a Merry Christmas. I was unaware of the fact that the recipient of my seasonal greetings was Jewish. He (figuratively, of course) bit my head off. A few thoughts: 1) I was likely the latest in a long line of ignoramuses who's bestowed a Merry Christmas on him and he'd reached his limit. 2) He over-reacted. 3) Is it so horrible to have someone offer you good cheer for a holiday you don't celebrate? No.

That story now having been related, I must further add that this is the only time in my life anyone has snapped back at the proffering of a Merry Christmas. I have since been careful to go with the sanitary Happy Holidays when there is any question as to whether the other person celebrates Christmas.

American society has done a good job of recognizing that not everyone in this land makes merry on December 25. Allowances are now made for those of other faiths. True, some have gone overboard such as in calling a Christmas tree a Holiday tree. Come on, the only holiday the indoor tree with the trimmings can be for is Christmas. 

Christmas still reigns supreme as the holiday of the year in terms of shopping, decor, ubiquitous music, TV specials, adverts and the like. Yet there are still those chuckleheads at the ever hilarious Fox News that whine incessantly about a War on Christmas. Their primary complaint, of course, being the the re-branding of so many things that are Christmas, like trees and parades, with the word Holiday. At worst the whole deal is a tad silly, but a war? Would that all wars were so benign.

I have loved Christmas from the time I was a small child, through my teen years, young adulthood and now as I approach geezerhood. It is a life long infatuation that has had next to nothing to do with what some call "the true meaning of Christmas" i.e. the supposed birth of the savior. Christmas is wrapped up (no pun intended) in a lot more than Christian beliefs. There is of course the fact that the time of year to celebrate the birth of Jesus was appropriated from the pagan solstice festival. But Christmas has come to have a lot of goodness associated with it that no amount of commercialization can destroy. (And by the way, the first complaints about the over commercialization of Christmas date back well over 100 years.)

There is a spirit of Christmas that doubtless has its origins in Christianity but is largely non denominational. Two of the better examples are Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the classic holiday film, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Two stories that are timeless, not to mention beautifully told. A Christmas Carol has been made into a whole slew of feature films, several of which are quite good, one of which stars Jim Carrey. It is also been part of TV plots since the birth of the medium. 

In both stories visitations from the dead are required to set a man straight. George Bailey of IAWL doesn't realize how wonderful a life he has and how positive an impact he's made on so many lives. The angel Clarence shows him the light and thus earns his wings. In ACC, visitations by four ghosts (I'm including Jacob Marley) show the, let us say, Scroogelike Ebenezeer Scrooge, that holding tightly to all his monetary gains, especially at the expense of other, while ignoring the plight of the less fortunate, is a morally bankrupt way to live and die. You might say this is the original clarion call of the 99%.

There are hints to the birth of the holy redeemer in both tales, but these are essentially secular stories. Their messages are of loving one another, appreciating who we are and what we have, taking good and proper care of these lives and friends and family that we are so lucky to enjoy.

Christmas, many of us lament, comes but once a year. So too Groundhog Day and Presidents Day Weekend, but no one gets all weepy about their quick departures. Christmas gives us color (the trees and their lights alone) carols, and presents. Yes it is better to give than to receive but that doesn't mean a wrapped box with your name on it is anything to sneeze at.

I conclude with the following wishes to you all: Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Hyvaa Joulua, Feliz Navidad, Frohe Weihnachten Buon Natalie, Lacus non leo and of course...Happy Holidays!

19 December 2011

Tis the Season to See Movies, Hugo and The Artist are Cases in Point

“I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I
had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.” - From the Bell Jar by Sylvia Path.

Hemingway said that you start with one true statement. And that was it. Long time readers of this blog, which nowadays would appear to be myself and Gladys Kupinchenck of Akron, Ohio (Hiya Gladys, how's tricks?), are  no doubt aware that my writings have been few and far between of late. Annoyingly, I often take up space discussing the paucity of my postings.

I am so sorry.

Now is the time when Hollywood releases it's prestige films. The Oscar buzz movies. The hoi polloi are packing theaters to escape both the cold and families that are congregating in and about their living rooms. Despite my cynical tone, as a film afficiando I revel in this movie season as part of the joy of the holiday season. Seasons greetings.

There are actual good movies on the big screen and the weather is condusive to a brisk walk to the cinema and the cozy shelter of the movie house and its flickering images.

Saw a corker the other day. The Artist. It is a silent film and a love letter to another era and a beautiful one at that. Martin Scorsese's Hugo is also an ode to film history.  Saw that one recently too. Great (and even very good) art often comes from love. As much, even, as it does from suffering. Maybe more, hell I don't know. Suffice to say that art is borne of our deepest, richest feelings. And great art is elevated if it comes from a true expression of those feelings.

You'd be hard pressed to find someone who loves films as much as Scorsese. He has a reverence for the old and has spear headed efforts to restore and protect movies of yore. Hugo concerns a young lad's discovery of the pioneering French director Georges Méliès  portrayed here by Ben Kingsley. The setting is early 1930s Paris, principally at the Gare Montparnasse. Hugo is a gorgeous movie to look at, never mind the story. I suppose I should have seen it in 3D and may yet do so. In regular ole D it's quite the looker. But I was principally taken in by the story, particularly after the title character (Asa Butterfield) and his equally precocious female companion Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) happen upon a film historian who gives them a brief film study course that I wish had gone on for hours. It features scenes from some of Melies' actual films as well as from other very early film movies. So cool.

The Artist begs the question: why have there been virtually no silent films made for the past 80 years? One has to assume that it is all about the mighty dollar which in the movie world tends to pander. Charlie Chaplin stubbornly continued to make silent features years after every once else went sound. He understood that films are primarily a visual medium and that a lot of dialogue can get in the way of the story. To a far lesser extent, great directors like John Ford tried to minimize dialogue and emphasized sceneary while Bergman focused on faces. Neither one needed a lot of yakking to tell a good story.

The Artist is not done tongue and cheek and it is not a gimmicky movie. It is  the story of a silent film star whose career and life start to unravel as silents give way to talking pictures. There are plenty of laughs and much pathos and the most charming cinematic mutt since Asta. There is also a spectacular performance by lead actor Jean JuDardin. He, like his co-star Berenice Bejo, are stars of the French cinema. Director Michael Hazanavicius and much of the crew are also French, but most of the cast are Americans and the movie was filmed in the states.

If The Artist manages to be a commercial success we may see a few more silent films. This would be dandy provided they came from the spirit of story telling and not capitalizing on a fad. Hey, you never know, sometimes the studios bust out a really good film, and often they hit cinemas in December. Tis the season.