Shame and the God that Watches

1.

Starting off with a nod back to SCA-Ji philosophy, the dialogue on art in Sakura no Uta makes a reference to a God that remains in a pristine transcendental realm of Beauty & a human god born from human flaws that, despite being small, seeks to carry the equally small candle of human life in a cradle. Ultimately, Sakura no Uta seems to rest on a view of life in favour of the latter. Daily life is upheld over Beauty. What SCA-Ji failed to mention openly – but what still exists, regardless of whether he intended to carry it through or not – is the third God that flickers through the seams.

The very act of posing the question – Beauty or Life – and showing this dialectic together in a dance throughout the whole of Sakura no Uta – is what causes the third God to be manifest. It is not the ending that affirms one side of the message which makes it into a high act of communication. It is the struggle to reach there that forces contemplation – even if such contemplation leads the viewer towards an opposing response. Thus – Sakura no Uta opened the way for me. It served as a crucible to consolidate the strands that I’d been gathering over the years in this or that area, and boiled it all in a mad heat – and placed the question firmly in sight.

For some of you out there, Sakura no Uta may be the end to the dialectic. That is – taking that humanistic side by the end of it. The second god, or maybe the first God for some. Other might have found it preachy and chose to buy into neither. But, as I said, it opened the way – and left questions that seemed to be inadequately answered at the time. As the path stretched further, many other questions and partial answers would be given – such as Dan’s view of it, or Woody Allen’s, or those posed in the form of poetry – sending flickers through the shadow but still far away from comprehension. Yet – it was not the fault of these works – for they were complete in themselves, and I was lacking in the sight to see them.

What ended the search was Shame.

With Shame, I found a name for the third God that exists in between the seams. Neither being a self-sufficient Beauty separate from human subjectivity – relying on human perception & interpretation to be viewed – but also not being a work that syncs with subjectivity and cradles it – because the act of cradling can create too much vistas of mythology in the mind. Reality is neither the world separate nor the world internalized – but the conjunction of the two that is consistent over multiple viewings. Similar to the way that a tree you have known as a child gives off different inklings of memory to the mind.

The name of this God – the God that Watches.

Certainly, I had watched Shame before. I had watched it years ago and I found it, for lack of a better word – meh. I thought that it was too alienated – too artsy – too obvious – too openly scandalous – too narrow.

In terms of works of art dealing with alienated subjects – Oyasumi Punpun seemed to have a great scope of life (the anecdotes, expanse of characters, beauty of the art, complexity of the cartoonish contrast) & Evangelion seemed to be rawer in its approach. These two works spelt everything out clearly – shouted it – and let the mind wander into avenues of catharsis where empathy bubbled out and memories flooded through. Yet, the problem of the all too human god that cradles you – congratulates you – is that it also suckles you within that realm. You never see. Seeing is more important because it structures memory – it directs.

This is why I feel that having a bland reception of Shame was more important in teaching me the answer. I don’t think this was the first time where I’ve grown to like a work that I hated in the past – but Shame was different. Watching Shame now showed me the extent to which my eyes were shut back then. Watching it now – I felt as though the film was watching me instead, as it had really been doing back then. Recognizing the gulf of perception between then and now is where the third God shines through – because the God joins you in watching yourself, your rawness, in that place where everything seems clearer.

2.

What pointed me back to Shame was this review by Dan Schneider where he writes:

The 101 minute long film is one of the greatest examinations of human loneliness ever put onscreen, and the character of Brandon has kith with other great cinematic creations, in this vein, such as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle (from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), Woody Allen’s Sandy Bates (from Stardust Memories), and Marcello Mastroianni’s Marcello Rubini (from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita)- who, like Brandon, works ostensibly in the publicity and advertising fields. Brandon is not psychotic like Travis, and he lacks the opportunities for personal growth that Sandy and Marcello have, but, like Mastroianni’s character, he comes to the film’s end with a chance to change and grow, and the film leaves us without his choice. In La Dolce Vita, Marcello chooses, and chooses wrongly. Now, most readings of this film will claim that this film is about sex addiction, or addiction, in general, but this is wrong. Brandon Sullivan is lonely as hell- one need only see how this is reflected in the utter sterility of his apartment, which seems like a room on the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sex addiction is merely the symptom of this loneliness, not the cause, not the problem, just as loneliness is Travis’s problem. With Travis, he attempts to solve it through violence. Brandon chooses faceless unerotic sex, not unlike that portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s final great film, Eyes Wide Shut. But make no mistake about it, the shame that the film’s title refers to is NOT because of sexual addiction, but because of loneliness. After all, Fassbender’s Brandon is wealthy, attractive, young, with a good career, so there has to be shame he feels for feeling so lonely all the time, nonstop. His sexual addiction would be cheered by his pals and co-workers, but an admission of loneliness, from one as outwardly admirable as he? That this key point is overlooked in so many reviews of the film is not surprising, if however indicative of the level of cinematic discourse these days.”

I made that mistake back then. When I first watched it I only focused on the sleazy elements – thinking that this was just a portrait of a pervert. But, the ways in which Brandon copes with loneliness, the little tics that he develops amidst the loads and loads of smut – are the spots where anybody who has been through the experience, whether space astronaut or university professor – can feel a connection to. What I went through this time around was one of the most harrowing stab-in-the-gut experiences that I have ever lived through. Every single frame and moment of the film seemed to penetrate deeper than the collected experience of Eva & Punpun. And all that was due to the immense subtlety of McQueen – only apparent to me now.

The way that Brandon tries to purge himself by destroying all his porn only to fall back even further when he realizes that the habit has etched itself on his body – that shit is something that I’ve seen in friends, and something that I’ve seen in any kind of addiction beyond mere pr0n. Hell, I was (and still am) a horrible procrastinator – so I tried to purge all entertainment and delete all games and place ten levels of web locks on my internet in the past – only to have the itch burn through and cause me to fall back into it ten times worse. But that’s just a level one psychological thing that anyone who has studied about procrastination would know about – I think Lesswrong calls it the ‘guilt death spiral’.

The difference is that Steven McQueen changes this psychological trait into a deeply existential fuck-my-shit type thing. The purge doesn’t help Brandon because his bad shit is of cosmic proportions. He has a malaise in the soul that requires a full-bodied connection or change of heart to solve. McQueen throws in a few possible solutions. He provides Brandon with the avenue of family – his sister – that also has loads of issues with regards to loneliness and clinginess – but is related to him by blood and can be a mirror to his hurt. He throws in a scene where Brandon looks at his boss talking to his daughter on a computer – and Brandon seems to have some kind of hungry look in him – wanting that kind of deeper connection. He also throws in the possibility of a proper romantic connection with a co-worker. These are possible answers, and humans have probably escaped from their own tracks of loneliness by taking these paths before – but the question is left hanging in the open here. Leaving it hanging is more important – because it forces the viewer to consider the alternatives to the situation – but none of these are solutions for Brandon.

Having a route where Brandon would open himself up to any of these solutions is the difference between god 2 and God 3. Some of these paths might be emotionally satisfying to a viewer – but they undercut the completeness of examining this state of loneliness to the very end.

McQueen begins the film with a tight and relentless analysis of Brandon’s alienation/loneliness. The soundtrack is soaring and somber while Michael Fassbender lumbers around in his personal rich guy hell like a zombie. His sister’s voice that floats in from the answering machine, pleading to get through, seems like a reflection of his internal state. When he looks at a woman on the train that catches his fancy – he has this look that is less predatory – than pleadingly in need of human warmth. The camera & scenery always seems to accentuate the distance between him and others, while the sounds and dialogue of his jock co-workers show how dazed he is most of the time. Probably because he’s stuck too much in the all too human thoughts of guilt or lust or whatever other dark shit the brain can recklessly create. Once again – the power comes from the universality of this. I bet some Kigurumi Otaku that dresses up in his cosplay doll suit to submerge himself in his fantasy also feels the same thing that this rich ass Michael Fassbender hot totally polar opposite jock guy feels when he jacks off in the shower or floats throughout life without having any meaningful connection.

All this comes into a peak when naked Carey Mulligan, playing as Sissy, comes over. An interesting thing to note is the fundamental differences between how they deal with loneliness. Brandon keeps in all inwards, and he shuts up like a Venus flytrap while making googly eyes at the nearest source of human warmth. Sissy exudes clinginess and is kind of like a worn-out Manic Pixie Dream Girl on heroin. Asuka & Misato from Eva simply do not reach her level of characterization. Sissy is clingy and Brandon is trying not to be because he’s shamed by his not being a cool rich dude who can keep his cool, and the way she interacts with Brandon does that Hedgehog Dilemma’s shit ten times more cuttingly without even making reference to Schopenhauer. Yet – of course, they are mirrors of one another.

When Sissy sings her rendition of New York New York – my mind blew apart because when you put the song in the mouth of such a character, and from what you know of her personality – it becomes more less like a song about how cool New York is, and more like an existential ditty about how rootless and empty Sissy is – and how all of her ideals are being devoured in the pit of her internal hellfire.

All these cutting depiction of Brandon’s Loneliness & Sissy’s beautiful New York New York stuff comes at the start of the movie – and after this is where you begin to feel God 3 working his magic. Because, ultimately McQueen does not want you to merely feel empathy. He left all that at the start – but he wants you to understand and reflect on this condition that can be available to all humans. He wants you to see. So, the divergences begin as Brandon gets more and more dialogue. You start to realize that he’s kind of an asshole, and he’s also awkward as hell, and every step he takes is digging him deeper and deeper into himself. Despite being the epitome of machismo, he has the emotional stability of a poster on 4chan’s /r9k/. You start to wonder – why is Handsome Playboy Michael Fassbender going through this internal purgatory that you’d think would only be experienced by the Nihon Hikikomori Kyoudai?

McQueen gives a variety of answers, and the very fact of these possibilities widens and deepens the scope of the communication. The most likely cause points to his masculinity that forces him to hide his flaws under an exterior of jock bravura. But that might just be my salty analysis from spending too much time in the Army. Another possibility might be a bad family life/past, and this is hinted at by Sissy in a phone conversation. This would imply that Brandon’s condition is simply a result of luck – and he just has to deal with it. There are some hints of Brandon being a kind of prejudiced dude as well – he might be aiming at his black co-worker to get the exoticism of a cool interracial sexy time (the fantasy that obscures the true longing for human touch). That’s a bit of speculation – but the very act of thinking about that led me to the interesting insight that the most fundamental thing about bigotry & prejudice is that it undercuts core human needs for mythologies. If Brandon is merely chasing his exotic interracial fantasy – he is killing off the possibility of a real human connection – and ultimately the negative fruits of those consequences are borne by him. It is in the fact that several interpretations or causes can be speculated that makes Shame a complex statement.

Close to the end of the film, time is falling apart for Brandon, and the film cuts across multiple varied scenes to show how fragmented his mind is. He tries to pick up a girl and acts like a complete sleazebag to her boyfriend. He gets denied entry to all the cool bars. He wanders into a gay bar and receives a blowjob. That last one is less of showing how much of a pervert he is – but rather showing how his painful internal malaise has reached the point where he has to pull away from his ideals of machismo and fuck with dudes (the anti-thesis of his straightness). And I’ve been on the internetz long enough to know that descending into trap hentai is a thing, and that there are convention stories where people go homo because finding some guy with the same interests – if you happen to be an alienated dude stuck in a subculture with no contact points of the opposite gender – is probably more comforting than anything else to the point where you’re willing to take the leap and battle pork swords over it. I thus urge the internally suffering denizens of imageboards everywhere to watch Shame and see – for once – the very nature of that internal malaise in full view.

3.

Because that’s what it’s all about. No matter whether you’ve only had experiences of it before, or you’ve gone full over the bend like Michael Fassbender by the end of this film – Steve McQueen is watching, and he can see the condition fully, clearly, and has made it into art. The God in the screen is watching you – and sometimes watching, perceiving, is more important than feeling – because the act of feeling places something on a pedestal away from the clearest space in your head. Whereas, when you are seeing, or being seen – everything seems to fall into a perspective – neither larger nor smaller than it should be. It is both human and transcendental – human in the experience, but transcendental in the meditation ‘above’ the experience. This is the best that the act of communication can reach – to a point where you seem to communicate essentials from diversities – and can speak to everyone no matter how far away they are. Brandon is the friendless 4chan Otaku, and the alienated yuppie, and the kid in class at the corner, the old woman in an old folk’s home, and the janitor too ugly and worn out to connect. But, he is also his own peculiarities in himself.

To rate something ‘objectively’ is not to rate something on a generic standard – but to rate the extent that something becomes an ‘object’ – consistent across perception, despite the diversities. To unite all threads and lives in the single redness of an apple, or to be the tree that memory reflects upon as you go from the jubilance of a child to the soliloquies of old age. Everything is only reaching towards that status – but certain things are closer to others – and can be seen with greater clarity. Though, only to the extent that we ourselves are aware of the movements around us. To quote Weininger:

No one can understand himself, for to do that he would have to get outside himself; the subject of the knowing and willing activity would have to become its own object. To grasp the universe, it would be necessary to get a standpoint outside the universe, and the possibility of such a standpoint is incompatible with the idea of a universe. He who could understand himself could understand the world…The ideal of an artistic genius is to live in all men, to lose himself in all men, to reveal himself in multitudes; and so also the aim of the philosopher is to discover all others in himself, to fuse them into a unit which is his own unit.”

And the God that watches is watching – always. He does not carry you (eyes facing the nape of the neck, hand grasping fervently at the waist), but he shows you everything and more. Be willing to open your eyes.

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