Shame

It has become my belief that the cultural issue which will define my generation, and transform my kids’ generation, is sex. Like the way my parents navigated the transformation of race and gender in America, we are navigating a transformation around  sex. By “sex”, I mean anything connected to what we do with our bodies for sexual stimulation or emotional connection – activities which are as old as time, but which have never been examined in the bright light of the mass-culture theater. Until now. I include of course homosexuality, which in many ways is the most overt aspect of this phenomena. But it is the beginning, and many years from now I hope we will give thanks to our brave gay brothers and sisters who have moved the subject of sex into the evening news. One may protest and say, no it’s not about sex, it’s about human rights. I agree. It’s about the human right to have sex with, love and touch consensually who you want to. This is why it freaks out the cultural conservatives and the religious right, who are deeply invested in not talking about or examining this territory. They are invested in shame.

Shame is the name of a movie I saw today which I found provocative and profound. Ostensibly about the sex addiction of the main character Brandon, played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, I found it to be more about vulnerability and fear. Or rather, the fear of vulnerability. Like all high-functoning addicts, he has organized his life into a pattern which supports his addiction, and any disruption in that order he finds intolerable. The movie begins with a loop of him getting out his bed as a female voice from his answering machine says “Brandon . . . pick up . . . pick up . . . pick up . . . ” Then he arrives at work to find his computer is being carted away, and the disruptions begin.

Carey Mulligan as Cissy

The voice on the answering machine is his sister, Cissy, also a brilliant performance by Carey Mulligan. As covert and secretive as his sexual behavior is, hers is equally overt and melodramatic. She is the low functioning addict, needy and infantile, and possessed of a childlike creative gift which she displays while singing the most beautiful and agonizing treatment of “New York, New York” I’ve ever heard. It is the collision of this deeply damaged brother and sister that forms the dramatic motion of the movie.

Michael Fassbender as Brandon

This is the first movie I have seen which begins to examine the way our lives have been changed by the availability of pornography for free and in private through our computers. I maintain that this represents a cultural change on the same level as the creation of the television. It moves a kind of entertainment from one medium to another and in so doing, completely alters the way that entertainment is sold and consumed. Thus, it changes the entertainment form itself, and it changes us.

We are becoming a people more and more isolated from each other, and more and more infected by a vain attachment to that isolation, fueled by electronic media, like the kind you’re enjoying right now. With TV, the American public gradually began to stay inside in smaller groups to enjoy entertainment that was previously delivered live and in theaters. And while movies and plays didn’t go away, they had to change in order to compete with this new entrainment delivery system, which piped drama and comedy directly into living rooms. Gradually, we became less communal as a people and more private, ordering take out and staying in to watch TV, instead of going out and making an evening of it, with dinner followed by a play, or a movie with drinks after. These activities became special occasions, and generally reserved for those who can afford them. Think of the nickelodeons – movie theaters with cheap seats in every neighborhood. Like the vaudeville houses they killed, they themselves were annihilated by the advent of television. As we as a culture saw less and less of each other, we saw more and more of what large companies want us believe is each other: the fantasies we are entertained by in commercials and sit-coms, the people on the screen. We think – oh right, that’s us. But . . . it’s not.

There have always been venues for sexual entertainment. I am in a musical now which deals with the rise of burlesque houses as vaudeville gave way to cinema. Sex, it seems, is what remains when the more conventional entertainment has moved along. But commercial sex is driven by the male libido, and so it has a simplistic and predictable arc. It is about the longing for satisfaction, the pursuit of it, the promise of it and finally, the delivery of it. Then it repeats. There is an orgasm at the end of the cycle, real or implied. This is what Mama Rose taught her daughter Gypsy: make ’em beg for more – and then don’t give it to them. But burlesque failed because ultimately it is an exercise in frustration . . . for straight men. The orgasm is missing. And so pornography – which had been around for years hiding in the shadows – crept slowly towards the center. It engaged the male need for pursuit of satisfaction by hiding behind the seamy walls of red light districts. You had to travel to nasty places to get it, but once there, you got it all the way to the happy ending. Now, with the internet, the happy ending has come home. And the public walls of shame are gone. See Taboo’s Death.  Anyone can enjoy moving pictures of anything in complete privacy, and to the rest of the world seem perfectly normal. The bedroom has become the red light district.

Steve McQueen on right directing Shame

Shame is an exquisite examination of the consequences of this phenomenon on a particular type of person. I am that type – addictive in nature. And so it is really not a movie about “sex” per se, if by sex you mean that life-affirming, playful and erotic exchange between two people who are simultaneously turned on by and in love with each other. In fact, it is about a brother and sister who cannot experience sex by that definition, but who long for     . . .  something. Something deep and primal. Something that might have once been good but has somehow been misshapen and beaten into something grotesque and self-destructive. In one of the ways I found the movie satisfying, it makes no attempt to psychoanalyze or explain these two deeply flawed people. I like that, because it makes it harder for us in the audience to categorize them, to say smugly, oh I see, that’s why they’re like that.

They’re also attractive people. He is evidently successful at what he does. I like that too. They’re not “monstrous”. In fact, they’re both kind of hot. And that’s one of the devastating aspects of this syndrome, in which desire and sex are the means of our own demise, that it lives in the world of seduction, excitement and beauty. Beauty, which, as Rilke explains, is the need to be loved expressed in outward form.

This is the core of their dilemma. They cannot love or be loved, and yet they can have all the sex in the world. And so they diminish, tragically, as the movie progresses. In one of the most frank scenes in the movie, Brandon becomes impotent in bed with a beautiful woman he knows is capable of love. Then, after she leaves, he fucks a call girl. It is a terrible circle of hell he inhabits.

Michael Fassbender

The irony of this cultural transformation we are in the midst of is that ultimately, it will end in the de-emphasis of sex. Shame points us to the truth that what we do with our genitals is less important than how we care for the people we love, and that includes ourselves. This 21st century sexual revelation will change the way we define marriage (the religious right is right about that), the way we define fidelity, family and the value we place on monogamy. This is the sexual story I tell in my novel The Deception of Surfaces. In ten or twenty years it’s not going to matter as much who we have sex with. And who we have sex with will not define who we are in a family with. To some, this is the road to Sodom. To others, this is the road to sanity and liberation. Shame ends with a question, and so will this post. Which road do you think we’re on?