A One-Two Punch from McQueen and Fassbender, Cinema’s New Dynamic Duo

In the early 1970s, a young Martin Scorsese teamed up with the burgeoning actor Robert De Niro for the first time for the film Mean Streets. The relationship between the two would eventually span three decades for a grand total of eight films. Their relationship was special and the two shared a commonality: a commitment to improvisation, a dedication to investigating the dark side of the male psyche, and some pretty serious troubles of their own. The films Scorsese/De Niro made were, in hindsight, a form of catharsis that fueled the two with intensity that’s stood the test of time. Scorsese would later forge an auspicious relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio, although the films would miss the brute-edged intensity of the Scorsese/De Niro collaboration.

And while Scorsese was prepping DiCaprio to carry the torch, a new partnership was in the works from two comparatively unheard names. Despite this, it is a partnership that will surely rival that of early Scorsese/De Niro. Steve McQueen, who, before the release of his debut feature film Hunger in 2008, hadn’t written nor director a single feature film; opting instead for the medium of short films that were only projected in short runs at minimalist art galleries. In spite of their brief runtime, McQueen’s short films would showcase a strong sense of unflinching attention to detail, foreboding and provocation that would carry over into his feature films. On the other end, Michael Fassbender, whose two previous acting gigs were small roles in 300 and Angel, always hoped for a lengthy collaboration with a single director.

With their limited combined body of work, the duo of McQueen/Fassbender is one, that on paper, makes plenty of sense. However, unlike Scorsese/De Niro, the two didn’t quite see eye-to-eye when they first met. Story goes that director McQueen wasn’t very fond of Fassbender; calling the actor cocky, naïve and defensive. Fassbender is a late bloomer in the film industry and the attitude McQueen speaks of is actually justified. When McQueen/Fassbender began working on Hunger in 2007, Fassbender was thirty years old, the recession was just around the corner, which meant as in any other industry, less jobs for less workers, and for someone to take a chance on an unknown actor, and to take the risk to play a lead in a film, there was less and less of that happening. Fortunately McQueen took a chance on Fassbender and the duo never had their Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski moment. Today you wouldn’t know there was ever a rift between the two as they helplessly jest and giggle like children in interviews. But their films are no laughing matter; with self-destructive characters, complicated matters and devastating outcomes.

The first film in the McQueen/Fassbender collaboration is the aforementioned Hunger, an uncompromising look into the last days of Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer, Bobby Sands, who while imprisoned at The Maze, led the 1981 hunger strike. While it may perhaps be frustrating for some audiences around the world who are unfamiliar with the Sands and the IRA to see that McQueen offers very little detail about their violent crimes that landed them in prison in the first place, he, like many great artists, focuses on one particular element of their artwork with precise execution. That element is of Sands and his incarceration. Some might even deem it a fault that Hunger doesn’t clarify the murderous actions that lead to many IRA men being incarcerated. And truthfully speaking, those who believe this are right. Because without this knowledge it could be possible to mistake the actions of the British government for pure evil when in fact it was all part of a much more complicated series of events that led us here. But McQueen doesn’t take his audience as being uninformed, nor does he or anyone involved in Hunger condone the IRA’s actions here either, merely a recording of their obvious determination.

Steve McQueen is an intelligent and capable director, one who knows how to rightfully defuse the situation at the exact moment, and effectively does so in Hunger with the issue of taking sides, denying much sentiment through the characters, Bobby Sands or otherwise. Much of the first half hour of the film is without dialogue. McQueen, instead, presents actions, actions that are starkly violent as they are stridently abstract. This is highlighted by a shot that shows a hallway of riot police mercilessly beating an IRA prisoner with a wall to the right-hand side of the screen separating the shot and revealing a rookie riot police officer uncontrollably sobbing over his surroundings. In lieu of further vilifying the police officers, or serving as a reason for the IRA inmates actions, the shot seemed to me like a powerful visual conjuring of this stream of tears that is political and social conflict.

On top of this there is a remarkable seventeen minute unbroken, static shot of Bobby Sands and Father Dominic Moran sitting and discussing Sands’ ideology. Earlier I discussed the possibility of many viewers being frustrated with the little to no explanation about Sands or the IRA, with McQueen preferring to focus entirely on Sands and his incarceration. This very scene is a poignant and significant one, that not only presents Sands’ intentions in The Maze but more importantly exposes the man’s fallacies. We see a man who is obsessed with notoriety and will do anything to get it, even if it means destroy his own body. The sequence is technically outstanding and dramatically highly effective, as we see two opposing viewpoints clash.

Again the sentiments expressed are ideological rather than political and don’t take sides so much as represent immovable objects and unstoppable forces. The dialogue between Sands and Father Moran certainly makes for Hunger’s most impressive passage and builds to a powerful crescendo. Here we learn that Sands is a highly principled man but despite this, it’s easy to feel that we have never really got to know the real Bobby Sands as we witness his excruciating deterioration. This makes for a film that succeeds in being unpleasant and realistic in its depiction. In the end, there is no winner in their epic discussion.

Finally we are escorted through Sands’ last days on earth, as his body deteriorates to the point of virtually nothing. Losing weight is definitely the go to method acting technique for actors nowadays but Fassbender’s metamorphosis is genuinely scary. There were many instances were I was watching Sands’ body break down and wondered if some technical trickery was being employed to show such an emaciated frame but I can find no details of this other than the obvious makeup use to create horrific bedsores. Handled with great care we simply see the man fade away, a lone feather dancing across one shot after another, toying with the very notion of weight. Much like Sands’ body, you’re shattered into pieces by the films end.

Following the success of Hunger, director Steve McQueen approached Michael Fassbender about staring in a film about sexual addiction. Even before a screenplay was conceived, Fassbender was already on board, enlisting trust in McQueen’s direction. What Fassbender might not have known is that he was McQueen’s first and only choice for the lead role. The connection between McQueen and Fassbender is strong and it feels so in Shame, their second film together. Shame, is, in a way similar to Hunger in that it interjects self-destructive characters who deal with an unrelinquished obsession between inescapable milieus. Shame, however, strips itself of any political implications, and gets down to the bare bones of human reckless abandon.

Shame is a fascinating film exploring the depths of addiction, and what I think is more important: the psychology of loneliness, and of feeling detached from not only society but from one’s own existence. I don’t know how McQueen could have followed up Hunger but Shame is a really haunting, even more haunting than its predecessor, subtle work. Where Hunger was a film about directing, Shame is more about acting. But, of course, Fassbender wouldn’t be able to shine if it weren’t for McQueen helping him spread his wings. The long, fluid takes are excellent, allowing for Fassbender to feel comfortable in his own skin. The space within the frame does just as much as the dialogue to explore relationships and emotions. And while Shame may have more sex than any film I’ve ever seen, it’s also one of the least erotic things I’ve ever witnessed. That’s a huge achievement, and even if McQueen’s slow, deliberate style is not your thing, it’s worth seeing just for that.

The most compelling thing about Shame, than anything else, is that like Hunger, Brandon lives in a prison of sorts. In contrast to Hunger, where Bobby Sands is in a literal prison, Brandon is living a free man, in New York City. Figuratively, his prison is where his freedom resides, New York City. It’s a self-contained prison, so to speak. His life is spent in sterile, grey, minimalist rooms; his apartment, hotels, offices. His existence is framed, narrowed, sliced and fragmented by the angular urban architecture, by all the glass, steel, concrete of the city. Brandon’s surroundings perfectly reflect the fragmented state of his soul; they emphasis a terrifying internal emptiness which is occasionally flooded by powerful and overwhelming waves of shame.

With the story and acting clearly at the forefront of Shame, it’s not easy to see that NYC is really at the center of the film. In one scene, Brandon’s sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) performs a slow jazz rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, a song about determination and success in the Big City, which makes Brandon visibly emotional. “I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep/ to find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap,” sings Sissy and Brandon in a closeup finds he has shed a teardrop. It is revealed moments later that the siblings are originally from New Jersey, who we assume left for the Big City to peruse a better life. McQueen, who spent some time in NYC in the early 90’s, is no stranger to isolation, captures what being foreign to an unfamiliar world must feel like for many. But the NYC aspect of Shame was not initially in McQueen’s vision for the film. Originally, Shame was to be filmed in London, but according to McQueen nobody there was open to talk about sexual addiction so they sought out help from psychiatrists in NYC.

Those who did see that New York City is at the center of the film have mistakenly asserted that Shame tries too hard to be a “New York” film. It’s undoubtedly NYC, but still I found the city practically nameless, and I have a feeling that McQueen felt the same way going into it as previously stated he had no intention of ever shooting it in NYC. For starters: he casts two European actors as his leads and, through them, explores nameless often nightmarish bars, street corners and hotels that look nothing like the city I was born and raised in. The vision of NYC in Shame reminded me of how Stanley Kubrick shot Eyes Wide Shut. Yes, he has Mulligan whimper through “New York, New York”, but again, I don’t think it’s a direct reference to NYC’s desperate, sex-addicted population, as much as it was directed towards some repressed feelings in the characters of Brandon and Sissy. Shame was unquestionably shot with tunnel-vision sincerity by McQueen, but there’s much more too it.

Like any good director who has a sincere bond with their actors, Steve McQueen has his boy Fassbender’s back. McQueen was visibly upset at the Academy when it was revealed Michael Fassbender had been snubbed for his role as Brandon in Shame. “In America they’re too scared of sex, that’s why he wasn’t nominated,” McQueen said in an interview with the Press Association. “If you look at the best actor list you’re saying, ‘Michael Fassbender is not on that list?’” McQueen continued. “It’s kind of crazy. But that’s how it is, it’s an American award, let them have it.”

That year films like War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Help all garnered Academy Award nominations. Twelve total to Shame’s baffling zero. I don’t think it’s sex that America is afraid of, it’s good films. McQueen has also gone on to call Fassbender Marlon Brando. It’s funny how the McQueen/Fassbender relationship has blossomed over such a short period of time, when just a few years ago the dynamic duo almost never came to be. McQueen is a raw talent and Fassbender, as his muse, is a gift, and as a man, is an authentic soul. McQueen/Fassbender is a powerful combination that I’m looking forward to their future work together. Long live FassQueen!

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