A Tragic Cycle
The complex, recurring shots in the opening scene of Shame (2011) demonstrate the deeply tragic feeling and regimented lifestyle of a sex addict. Director Steve McQueen charters typically untouched territory in his latest film, chronicling the habitual practices of Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, within the contemporary Manhattan landscape. The film’s preamble is its own small narrative, a collection of flashbacks and forwards glued together by an integral, yet subtle subway scene that starkly contrasts with the more overt sexual content we see throughout the film. McQueen’s captivating opening and immediate jump into Brandon’s everyday life exemplifies the challenges he will face in the remainder of the film- his cyclical erotic conquests as well as his confluent private and public lifestyle- immersing us into his strict sexual world.
In the first shot of Shame, Brandon lays in his bed, spread out over a sea of wrinkled blue sheets covering only his torso. The stationary camera captures him from above, motionless, almost cutting him off at the top of the screen. The positioning makes it clear that there was a woman next to him the last night, and while Brandon’s figure focuses the eye, emphasis is also on the unoccupied pillow below his head. His hand is purposefully placed near his covered crotch. He lays there for almost a good minute completely silent, expressionless, gazing, and deep in thought while a small ticking clock fades up. He sheds his covers and gets up, ready to begin his routine again. The camera stays atop the bed, the blinds open, sunlight hits the sheets, and the title card fades over the mattress.
For Brandon, this is the place where he feels his shame, above other things, especially once his initial sexual needs are met. McQueen now economically begins sequencing the opening narrative by characterizing and contrasting Brandon’s world at home with his world outside. He begins with an establishing shot at the 28th street subway platform where he waits and then soon boards his train. As he enters, a somber, somewhat unnerving orchestral score begins that raises and lowers in volume throughout the trip. He sits down, shown to us with a medium-long shot to display the other passengers sitting next to him. His bluish muted clothing fits right into the metallic and blue seats like the others, demonstrating his ordinariness in the public setting with monochrome mise en scene. He glances over and notices a red-headed woman wearing purple, and as he stares her down, shown from his point of view, an audio track of coitus sounds filters over the image. The scene cuts to Brandon finishing sex with an unidentified woman as he rolls over in bed in front of the camera. The fragmented switch spells his sexually fulfilling practice in an impersonal way, unidentified intercourse that offers a precursor to Brandon’s intentions on the subway and gives a glimpse of his domestic practices.
McQueen uses this transition to begin expanding on Brandon’s routine at home by going back in time to the very first shot. He places the camera still in front of a central beam in Brandon’s house that takes up the majority of the screen, and Brandon emerges on the right, naked, after opening the blinds. This medium shot remains stationary the entire time, capturing the edge of his bed and the answering machine on the right and left peripherals, respectively. Brandon walks around the beam, his penis essentially in the middle of the shot and his head cut out of the frame. He hits the machine and goes out of shot to wash his hands. It’s a woman’s voice, who we later know to be his emotionally unstable and suicidal sister, appropriately named Sissy. She says unenthusiastically, “Hey…it’s me…pick up…pick up…,” almost like this has become her own personal calling routine.
Here, we find a conflation of the mundane and the spectacular that mimics Brandon’s swapping sequences that McQueen implements, the everyday subway ride with the every night erotic pleasure. Sissy’s voicemails do the same, converging traumatic suicidal tendencies with the more banal, drawn-out daily phone messages. It becomes evident their lives are connected by more than just genetic material. Subtly, McQueen highlights these rudimentary facets of Brandon’s life with cinematography that illustrates his addiction. The still camera focuses in on Brandon’s movement around his apartment at an angle at which his penis appears to be the central thing pulling his body along, leading him where to go, making his decisions. It also emphasizes the back and forth nature of his morning, watching him hit the machine out of instinct rather than from his curiosity, and letting Sissy moan and cry out his name.
The parallel edits between his home life and subway experience both begin with these short, nuanced peeks, that each get longer as the scene progresses. These are not just snippets from a bachelor life but rather, they indicate his consuming addictive hold. The more he objectifies, the more he ignores his sister, the more we sink into his repetitive, damaging lifestyle. Back on the subway car, Brandon continues to gaze at the woman in purple and this time she looks back at him, both catching each other’s eyes, and she gives a small smile. McQueen allows this interaction to evolve a little more, capturing the woman from Brandon’s eye line to emphasize the “male gaze” and begins to offer a shot/reverse shot editing technique to focus on their unspoken expressions. There is explicit voyeurism happening here, harkening to cultural critic Laura Mulvey’s theory of “looks.” The camera, the audience, and Brandon all share the same perspective, and yet our view of Brandon isn’t from the objectified red-headed passenger. Clearly, we inhabit the mind of an addict, invoking a phallocentric lens, but one in which sexual conquest is not glorified and instead almost sympathized.
The noise of a doorbell rings over the subway and the scene cuts to Brandon’s apartment where he opens the door for a hooker to whom he gives a wad of bills. They proceed to walk around the corner and then the film cuts to Brandon, sitting up in his bed, viewed from the foot of his mattress. His escort stands by the bed, her whole body in frame until her neckline, and he tells her to take her lingerie off slowly with calm, domineering command, knowing exactly what he desires. The shot is uncut, just like Brandon’s never blinking gaze at her body, and the silence is broken by the familiar and seemingly non-diegetic ticking clock again. We never see her head because she is not a woman at this time; rather, she is an object to fulfill his impulse, a means to a sexually gratifying end, to which the incessant ticking tells us it may have a time limit.
A circular metaphor emerges as we begin to put the pieces of Brandon’s nightlife and early mornings together. After stripping naked, the same escort takes off her earring and Brandon pulls her by the arm. The scene is immediately jump cut to an extreme close up of her round earring now fallen on the carpet. For just a second you can see Brandon’s naked body walking through the reflection of the circular piece of jewelry, back to his solitary morning ritual. McQueen stays with the close-up shot and again places the camera at the front of the beam. The camera follows Brandon on his “track walk” from right to left, only capturing him from the belly down and largely focusing on his penis, in better resolution, in the center of the shot, pulling his body forward. He taps the machine and hears Sissy recite her familiar lines while he circles back to his bathroom this time. All captured in one shot, he proceeds to urinate while Sissy moans, “Braaaanndddooonnn” and whispers, “Where are you?” Her repetitive questions indicate her momentary needs but also foreshadow her depressive and fragile nature that Brandon must eventually carefully shelter.
The cut back to the subway scene is achieved in a graphic match, a shot that demonstrates the growing convergence of the two different Brandons. After urinating, he steps into the shower and subsequently begins masturbating behind the foggy glass shower door. It is at first a medium shot that encompasses Brandon’s reflection in the mirror, creating symmetrical images of his self-pleasuring. Then we get a close-up shot, seeing more of his defined facial expressions through the clouded door as he grunts with his eyes closed, looking almost in agony.
The graphic match then comes with a blurry close-up shot of Brandon’s face on the subway, continuing to stare at the woman as the incessant ticking noise rejoins the building orchestral audio again. Using more shot/reverse shot, the woman looks at him with a smirk and then more of a contemplative smile, as McQueen cuts back to Brandon’s interminable gaze. After the train makes a stop and then begins to move again, the woman, seen from Brandon’s point of view still, crosses her legs, and in a close-up of her thigh, gradually raises her two hands, subtly locked in a vulgar gesture indicating intercourse. The camera slowly tilts back up to her more seductive, yearning face and then reverses to Brandon, contently, and now almost snakishly smiling.
McQueen places heavy emphasis on their subtle expressions and influential glances, and after witnessing Brandon’s regimented practices, these similar faces take on new meaning with every progressing shot. The woman gets out of her seat and stands near the door, grasping the pole as the camera tilts down to a ring, which is visible on her finger. To one, sex is a frightening escape from reality; to the other, it’s nothing but reality. Almost as instantly, Brandon places his hand above hers and he stands behind her, unnervingly hovering there in a two-shot in which the camera strategically uses the pole to separate them on screen. She exits quickly as the doors open and Brandon pursues into the barrage of people. We share his perspective with a handheld camera, as he fights the current of cascading pedestrians up the stairs until she gets lost in the crowd. The camera circles around his confused face as he stands there scouting out the crowd to no avail. Perturbed, he turns around, goes back down the stairwell, ready to try again.
The end of this opening scene suggests the cyclical nature of Brandon’s addiction and the building confluence of his disorder into his private and public life. This final subway shot exemplifies how McQueen’s use of cross-editing with flashbacks changes the way we interpret Brandon’s interaction with the woman sitting across from him. The subtle looks they share appear harmless, but, when juxtaposed against Brandon’s explicit habitual home life of sex and masturbation, the tonal shift accompanied by the menacing score turns exceedingly darker. McQueen’s insertion of these two seemingly separate lives allows us to make the distinction between Brandon’s overt addiction and closeted instinct that slowly begin to meld. These short interactions and character studies pave the way for the rest of the film. Sissy’s phone calls describe Brandon’s needy, temperamental sister who eventually moves in on her own volition. Brandon’s own cyclical instincts foreshadow his failed attempt at a monogamous relationship later on, an indication of his unbreakable addiction.
Shame’s opening scene immerses the viewer into the life of a sex addict and hints at Brandon’s crumbling infrastructure of solitary, self-assured fulfillment. His presence is voracious and his gaze all the more unsettling in this beginning sequence in which he speaks but once– to his escort. His everyday duties are anchored by the subway encounter, which began the film and subsequently ends with it. In this final scene, he sees the same red-haired woman sitting across from him on the train. Now, what at first seemed a promiscuous flirtation ultimately is yet a tragic vice, another casualty under the specter of his insatiable addiction. McQueen changes our perspective by forcing us to reexamine our initial understanding of the first scene. This is not an isolated incident, but rather a circular path from which Brandon cannot escape, cannot break his routine without submerging back down and starting again.