Monday, February 13, 2012

Why 'Shame' Might Be an Excellent Argument Against Casual/Anonymous Sex

Look, I'm no prude. As I declare beside my photo to the right (I'll pause while you scroll to find it...), I'll do anything twice. Within reason, naturally. One has to set some limits.

Unless you're Brandon, the New York City boy Michael Fassbender plays in Shame, which opened in Australia a few days ago to all of the expected, and deserved, rave reviews. Brandon makes me feel like a bit of a monk, and not just because of his sexual escapades. (God knows I've had my share of those). Here's a guy who will jump naked on top of his little sister (played by Carrie Mulligan, whose interesting and appealing character deserves a movie of her won) and, unflinchingly, start fighting with her.

In some ways, Brandon reminds me of the character Ryan Gosling plays in Drive (which coincidentally, also co-stars Mulligan). Both are haunted anti-heroes of few words whose hard-edges are sandpapered just enough to give them rooting value. They may not say much, but they're the kind of guys with whom I wouldn't mind sharing an after-work beer (and not just because Fassbender and Gosling are two of the most gorgeous guys in Hollywood). You want them both to get happy endings.

Shame has been described as a psychological study of sex addiction, but Brandon is never diagnosed in the movie, and I wouldn't be too quick to pass judgement (the film isn't either). Yes, his sexual proclivities cause him to be late to the office. His work suffers, his computer hard drives as well as his closets are full of porn, and he gets his ass kicked for messing with the wrong guy's girl.

Still, many people would kill for his lifestyle (great job and one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with a view), minus the constant pursuit of 30-minute stands. And look at Brandon's married boss. He appears to chase women with all the vigor that his marital status will allow. Were he single, Shame might have been a two-man show.

Brandon could be one of Samantha's conquests on Sex and the City, the cinematic counterpart to the character Charlie Sheen used to play on Two and a Half Men, the straight counterpart to Brian Kinney on the U.S. Queer As Folk, the hunky boy next door, or one or two cubicles over. In other words, so-called sexual addiction might be more pervasive among the general populace than we think, a point driven home graphically, and perhaps stereotypically, in a gay bar that's a hell of a lot seedier than any I've ever been to in real life. It's makes sex clubs and saunas from Buenos Aires to Bangkok look high society!

If any scene in the film rings false and gratuitous, it's this one, and I'm not just saying that because of how broadly and unflatteringly it depicts gay men in New York City. Here the movie seems to be saying, "This is how low the straight guy will go in the pursuit of temporary bliss and a happy ending." Misstep.

Fassbender's performance is a marvelous balancing act of the physical and internal. I'm not going to say that he deserves George Clooney's or Brad Pitt's spot on the Best Actor Oscar short list, but it might be time for the Academy to force Clooney to stretch a little, and start rewarding actors who flaunt their penises as readily as they do actresses who show us their tits.

Brandon may have a cocky gait, especially when walking out of his bedroom in all his full-frontal glory, but Fassbender plays it so that his insecurity shows, too. He's a player who, the occasional hiring of prostitutes aside, never makes the same move twice. We see him playing shy guy and jerk at the bar, and both work for him.

The pose that doesn't work for him is bachelor No. 1, the guy who goes on a normal date with his co-worker Marianne and reveals that he isn't necessarily wired for commitment, or conversation. His interactions with his colleague are some of the most uncomfortable to watch because they say the most about how damaged Brandon is. Did his obsession with sex lead to this, or did this lead to his obsession with sex? The movie doesn't give him much of a back story beyond hinting that he and his sister were raised in extreme dysfunction.

Though I wouldn't call the banter between Brandon and Marianne particularly scintillating, it reveals so much, about Brandon, about many guys who are driven purely by sex. His unsuccessful attempt here to give into carnal desire indicates, on Brandon's part, a lack of a fundamental ability to connect without anyone sexually unless it's anonymously. (Of course, the cocaine he snorts beforehand probably doesn't help matters.)

While watching Brandon running around town in Shame (curiously, via subway rather than in taxis, possibly because it's not as easy to score in the back seat of a cab), I was reminded of a conversation I had this past weekend with Andrew, a 26-year-old accountant who does not appear to suffer from sex addiction or addiction of any kind. We talked about travelling and that near-euphoric feeling you have for the first 36 hours after arriving at a new destination, even somewhere you've been before. He made an interesting analogy between peripatetic types and people who indulge in rampant casual sex.

Some frequent travelers, he suggested, reach the point where they can never really settle, call anyplace home, because they are always chasing the high that one feels when landing in a new place. Similarly, after years of having anonymous sex, one might lose the ability to connect with people in a meaningful way because they are constantly chasing the high of sexual discovery, a body they've yet to experience, as is the case with a Thai rent boy he knows. Out with the old, in with the new. Fuck, rinse and repeat.

After watching Brandon go through the motions for nearly two hours, I wondered if he would ever be able to connect with anyone. I don't think I saw him laugh during the course of the entire film, and the only real conversations he had were shouting matches with his sister. Sure he scores, he gets lucky, sometimes without even trying to, but in the end, he's as unlucky as any beautiful loser in Buenos Aires, Bangkok, or New York, New York.
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