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Director Steve McQueen on sex, cinema, and ‘Shame’

'Shame' director Steve McQueen presents a portrait of sex addiction as art

Director Steve McQueen (right) with James Badge Dale and Carey Mulligan on the set of “Shame,’’ the highest profile NC-17 release to date. Director Steve McQueen (right) with James Badge Dale and Carey Mulligan on the set of “Shame,’’ the highest profile NC-17 release to date. (FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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Talking to Steve McQueen is like dealing with a teletype machine veering out of control. The earnest, bearish British artist-turned-filmmaker - no relation to the late Hollywood acting legend - is in Boston to promote his controversial new film, “Shame,’’ but it’s early in the morning and he’s having trouble finding his groove. McQueen is just in from Los Angeles, so maybe he’s reeling from a PR long march that lands him in a new hotel conference suite every day. Or maybe this much-praised visual artist - whose paintings and conceptual videos have been shown in museums around the world and who represented Britain at the 2009 Venice Biennale - is still learning to play by the Hollywood talk-circuit rules.

Either way, he’s game, if a tad over-caffeinated, and he has a lot to discuss. “Shame’’ has been dividing audiences at film festivals and industry screenings all fall, with some finding this intense tale of a Manhattan man buckling under his sex addiction admirably brave and others scorning it as pretentious smut. The film, which opens in the Boston area Friday, will almost certainly earn star Michael Fassbender (“Jane Eyre,’’ “X-Men: First Class’’) a best actor Oscar nomination, not to mention a supporting actress nomination for Carey Mulligan as the hero’s fragile sister. It’s the highest profile NC-17 release to date (see page N12), with rapturous word-of-mouth that may finally bring that MPAA rating out of the pop-culture ghetto. And there’s no denying that “Shame’’ is a scalding experience whose exquisite directorial control recalls the glory days of such 1970s classics as “Taxi Driver’’ and “Last Tango in Paris.’’ Ready or not, McQueen’s a born filmmaker, and a commercial one, too, even if he has no idea what that means.

“I don’t know what commercial film is,’’ he says almost helplessly. “I just have no idea. The fact of the matter is that we made a film that I wanted to make, and if people want to see it, I think that makes it commercial.’’ Spoken like a man who comes to the movies through the side door of the art world. Before McQueen directed his first feature film - 2008’s “Hunger,’’ starring Fassbender as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands - he had established a name as one of the more quixotic figures on the global art scene. His installations have included sculptures, paintings, and short conceptual films like “Deadpan,’’ which restages a stunt from a Buster Keaton film. Narrative film is, for him, an extension of the same creative impulses. “I don’t see artwork and film as being different at all,’’ McQueen insists. “I’m not split in half. It’s like doing a sculpture and then doing a painting afterwards. For me there’s no difference.’’

In fact, the sociopolitical context of McQueen’s art has steadily increased over his career. In 2006, he traveled to Iraq on a war museum commission and ultimately created “Queen and Country,’’ a museum installation of postage stamps commemorating unsung British soldiers killed in the conflict. “Hunger’’ was a pointed attempt to reclaim Bobby Sands from the dustbin of history. “I see myself as an artist trying to reflect what’s going on,’’ the filmmaker says, “otherwise what’s the point? Sometimes what we see isn’t something we want to look at, but in order to gauge where we are in this world, we have to have a look. This has been going on since, since the days of, I don’t know, Goya - Goya did the most vulgar images you could think of, but it was in order to engage us as humans.’’

There are moments in “Shame’’ to make one contemplate Goya, particularly a close-up of Fassbender’s tormented Brandon at the film’s literal and narrative climax. When an interviewer likens the movie to the gritty cinematic boundary-breakers of the early 1970s, McQueen disagrees - sort of. “That’s a bit of a wrong conception, just because it has to do with sex. Those films were about what was happening now,’’ he says. “That’s the similarity. Not one frame of ‘Shame’ looks like a movie from the ’70s, but the urgency is the same. It’s not a costume drama where you’re saying, yeah, OK, this person’s a good person and this person’s a bad person. This is one of those situations where you don’t know - that’s why there’s so much debate. That’s why some people hate it and some people absolutely adore it and some people come out of the cinema and it’s in their head for three or four days.’’

In a way, the audience for “Shame’’ retravels the dark voyage of discovery taken by McQueen and his writing partner, Abi Morgan, as they researched sex addiction for the script. “We got a bit lost,’’ he admits. “We were like two scruffy detectives, Miss Marple and Columbo, following the trail and not knowing where it would end up.’’ Much of the research - and a core element of Brandon’s daily rituals - had to do with online porn. “We’ve never been in a situation in the history of the world where pornography has been so prolific,’’ McQueen says. “You press two buttons on your iPhone and you’ve got the most explicit things you can think of. In our research, we talked to people who would be on the Internet for 72 hours in one go. Just relieving themselves in front of a computer. Again, it’s an addiction that takes you to some very dark places.’’

It’s not entirely clear how the film and McQueen feel about those dark places - or, more precisely, whether “Shame’’ views all sex as dysfunctional in one way or another. The filmmaker strongly objects to that charge, pointing to a scene in which Brandon tries to make love to an attractive co-worker (Nicole Beharie) but can’t cope with the demands of actual emotional intimacy. “To me that’s the most erotic point in the movie,’’ McQueen insists. “Because it’s a situation where he’s not just taking, he’s sharing. There’s a communication within the sexual act. That’s why it’s so tragic when it collapses.’’ Similarly, a scene late in the film seems designed to raise PC hackles, when Brandon, in desperate need of a fix, ventures into a gay nightclub and joins an all-male orgy in progress. In its vision of gay sex as a circle of hell, it could be a moment out of the vilified 1980 thriller “Cruising’’ but McQueen (who’s married with two children) isn’t having it. “That might be Brandon’s hell, but it’s their pleasure,’’ he says. “They’re having a fun time there, doing what they want to do and how they want to do it. That’s their thing, excellent, fantastic. No, he is going into their environment because he wants to get off. This is about sex.’’

What is clear is that “Shame’’ is a movie about control and its loss, and it’s explicitly about the private rituals, healthy and otherwise, that allow humans to negotiate the landscape between. Nor is McQueen letting himself off the hook. Asked about an earlier interview that quoted him as saying he was “a moral person,’’ the director responds, “Actually, I said, ‘I like to think of myself as a moral person, but I’m not necessarily moral.’ I mean, the concept is good, isn’t it? But even being moral is hard, in one way, shape, or another. One would have to censor oneself even in one’s thoughts - it’s impossible. The whole idea of self-will is nonsense. If I had self-will, I’d have a six-pack. We are not in control of ourselves all the time. Absolutely not.’’

Perhaps that’s why “Shame’’ is such a rigorously controlled cinematic experience, from the mathematical beauties of Glenn Gould’s version of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations’’ on the soundtrack to the soaring Manhattan skylines seen outside the apartment windows - windows that consciously reflect the characters’ images while simultaneously overlaying them on the anonymous urban grid. And perhaps that’s why McQueen insisted his cast watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris’’ - to see how far actors could go into the psychology of sex and come out alive. Not that actors Marlon Brando or Maria Schneider escaped that movie unsinged. Brando never took acting seriously again and Schneider subsequently went on record about how the experience left her feeling “raped.’’

Coincidentally, the “Shame’’ cast watched “Last Tango’’ on the February day this year that Schneider lay dying of cancer in Paris, a fact that deeply rattled the actors when the director told them the news the next day. “It had a huge affect,’’ McQueen confirms. “And I think it helped us in a way. In making us realize, What’s there to lose? Obviously it was tragic for Maria Schneider, and on top of that there’s the history of the film and what it did to her.

“I knew what we were doing was dangerous.’’

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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