Steve McQueen’s second feature film, Shame, is a masterpiece that provokes many emotions at once, none of which arrive gently. Whilst the story is driven by the protagonist’s sex addiction, like any aesthetically accomplished work, it is philosophically complex. And thus, the alleged central theme is only a small part of the picture.
Brandon: The Last Man
It tells a story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a highly successful business operative in the heart of Manhattan, NYC. He is working for a young company in the financial sector, and he is both respected and envied by his colleagues. Yet, none of the digs coming his way are consequential; he is prized and trusted by his boss, David (James Badge Dale), as his confidant, and their apparent closeness extends well beyond the confines of the office and the conference room. Brandon is, in short, a Golden Boy; handsome, fit, intelligent, and successful. He projects calm confidence in the company of both men and women, and the latter in particular find this quality irresistible. This creates a stark contrast to the shameless and desperate mannerism of his boss. While celebrating a major deal with his team in a trendy nightclub, David immediately spots an attractive woman and jumps from his seat before barely finishing the toast, and Brandon follows him as his wing man. As David unabashedly pursues a young professional woman, Elizabeth (Elizabeth Marucci), she quickly becomes attracted to Brandon’s understated self-assuredness, and infatuated by his intensity beneath the composed exterior. As this example represents, Brandon is a classic hero of the American imagination; on the surface, he is very much like Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the lead character of the hit TV show, Mad Men, which follows the story of a charismatic advertisement executive whose misadventures with various women pulls a play for the audience. Like Brandon, he is an enigma wrapped in an attractive appearance. Yet, the similarity between the two characters is only skin deep. Draper remains fully likable despite many shortcomings, such as inauthenticity, infidelity, hard-drinking, and heavy smoking. Such a charitable attitude toward him is due to the fact that Mad Men is a prime time TV show, and thus, it is only allowed to scratch the surface of the darkness lurking beneath the edifice that represents the ideal of our patriarchal society. In contrast, both McQueen and Fassbender approach the same subject uncompromisingly. As a result, despite its classical approach to cinematic art which incorporates centuries of dramatic conventions, Shame is one of the most important works on the modern human condition.
The depth of their commitment is clearly manifested at the very beginning of the film, and the opening scene reveals the true theme of this movie. In the cold morning light, there lies a man, awake, and empty. Like a corpse, Brandon remains motionless, blankly staring into nothingness. The first sensation that starts to fill his existence is that of dull yet overwhelming angst and dread. He is a perfect embodiment of Plato’s Zombie: a living corpse without a spark of humane consciousness. He is also a quintessential Nietzsche’s Last Man: an automaton who carries on by inertia, not by life-force that brings genuine joy of Being. This is a terrifying condition for anyone to suffer. The film literally takes the air out of the audience from the very first shot by its astute authenticity. It does not introduce any musical or visual effects in order to force McQueen’s perception on that matter; it is just us and Fassbender. Despite its apparent simplicity, we can see that the time and space before us are dark and static; suddenly the cold isolation grips us and we shudder with unconsolable existential angst that makes us question: Why must we exist at all? During the scene, one cannot help but wonder whether being adrift in space with no hope of contacting another soul might feel this way, or if this is far worse. We immediately understand that something terrible has happened, yet the story has barely begun. Despite such a stark beginning, Fassbender manages to captivate the audience, not turning them away from himself and the subsequent drama that unfolds. It is not a remarkable fact that he is an enigma; a certain opaqueness, an impenetrability, is a quintessential feature of agency. That being acknowledged, there are very few who can command our attention as he does. Intense yet restrained, expressive yet blocked-out, cooly distant yet raw and explosive, Fassbender’s Brandon is singular and fascinating in his manifestation of an all-too-human paradox. In the first few minutes of the movie, thus, we already understand why McQueen refused to consider anyone but this gifted German-Irish actor for the lead role. Together, it seems, they can go far deeper than anyone is willing in their exploration of human existence. Like cave-diving, it is an extremely testing pursuit, yet they are fortunate to have one another in their absolute trust, and so are we.
For the rest of the movie, we see just how broken Brandon is, sometimes subtly, yet, more often than not, quite explicitly (His failed attempt to form a normal relationship with Marianne, brilliantly played by Nicole Beharie, is one of the most hallowing sub plot in the history of cinema). McQueen’s direction follows the classical approach of drama without flashy editing; even a traditional technique such as flashback, he only allows a sophisticated yet restrained use. Early in the film, however, McQueen brings us one exceptional moment of Expressionism, in the spirit of Emil Nolde: in a morning subway commute, there is a brief instance when Brandon’s facial reflection transforms and exposes the vampiric nature of his existence. It is a truly terrifying, and illuminating, picture; it expresses a blind, driven, insatiable, and completely amoral desiring of warmth which he cannot offer or keep. As the rest of the movie attests, as soon as he touches, the life and the warmth for which he is so hungry die in his hand. All that’s left is a lifeless robotic motion born out of inertia we come to call ‘addiction’. This is the only moment McQueen departs from dramatic classicism, yet the effect is tremendous. In a short instance, the film demonstrates the very essence of the modern human condition which Brandon represents; there is nothing but the surface left for a Nietzschean automaton. Whilst this Expressionist moment might easily evoke the analogy with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, McQueen saw better and deeper than Stevenson; Mr. Hyde is in fact no truer than the respectable surface of his counterpart. Shame clearly demonstrates that both of Brandon’s persona are mere masks; just as his face of the Wall Street Golden Boy hides his compulsive dependency on carnal amnesia, his supposed ‘true face’ is solely there to conceal his utter emptiness that triggers the existential angst and dread from which he is condemned to run without success. Everything he does, and he avoids to do, has only one end: distracting himself from his hollow existence in order to anesthetise, if only temporarily, his acute nausea. For the rest of the film, McQueen demonstrates his restrained classicism to maximum effect. It is a remarkable synthesis of every aspect of work: the cast, the music, the camera, the script, the location, and the direction is in perfect harmony. I, for one, cannot imagine any other way to tell this story.
Sisi: The Lost Soul
Having acknowledged the existential hollowness Brandon suffers, there is a question we must ask ourselves: Why does this shadow of a Being still fascinate us at all? As already noted, Brandon grips us from the very moment the film begins, and never lessens his hold over our attention. Whilst it is easy to credit the extraordinary performance by Fassbender, one must elaborate on why Brandon, not Fassbender, manages to make himself felt as a genuine human being rather than a cliché. Instead of attributing everything to the talent and skill of the actor (although more than well-deserved in this case, yet doing so uncritically amounts to a certain laziness on the part of critics), for once we should ask ourselves: What must one find in the vast and stark abyss embodied by Brandon? What should one expect to find in this terrifyingly cold space? The answer is astonishingly simple: despite the depth and magnitude of his sickness, Brandon is not finished yet. There is still a living human soul breathing inside this ruin, and Fassbender conveys it without appealing to sentimentalism. As if to make a point, there is one person in this world who can bring down Brandon’s carefully erected edifice and provoke his humanity, however damaged, by embodying the old wounds that haunt him: his sister, Sisi (Carey Mulligan). By all appearances, Sisi is the exact opposite of Brandon: she is an emotionally vulnerable, outwardly ‘needy’ bohemian, and she neither shies away nor hides her need for genuine connection; she wears her heart on her sleeve, and she lives with what at first appears as reckless abandon, which soon turns out to be the result of her incurable sadness and drive toward self-destruction. She is someone whom Brandon despises and fears all at once, for, through her vulnerability and her incapacity to cope with life, she reminds him of that dark and terrifying place where they both came into being. The effect Sisi has on him is so tremendous that he not only refuses to answer her repeated phone calls; he, in her absence, stubbornly resists the fact that he has a sister. Whilst McQueen does not give us a story as to exactly what happened in their past, and thus easy excuses for us to paint tragic figures out of them for our own satisfaction and comfort, these characters are fully developed to the point that they vibrate in high tension which renders them completely static; whatever they do, their motions trace a Möbius’ Strip, an infinite loop in which they repeat themselves out of inertia. Their lives represent complete entropy, and thus there can be no character development which leads to a cathartic redemption about which we can feel good for ourselves. Whilst their methodologies are clearly different, this is a point where McQueen and Tarkovsky find themselves in agreement; they both find the unchangeable state of a character not merely static; rather, such a state represents a crystalised expression of a given character’s essence. McQueen’s siblings are the rare and perfect example of this approach. As Brandon struggles with his sexual addiction in vain, culminating in one night of non-discriminatory and random sexual binging, Sisi adds another cut to her wrist, an attempt which nearly kills her and results in Brandon’s emotional breakdown.
It is at this point we realise just how much they are alike. They may appear diametrically opposite in their life-styles and beliefs, yet, deep down, there is nothing to separate them from one another. Both are lost souls, crying in the dark, alone. In expressing this quality, both actors could not have done a better job. Mulligan proves that she is more than a match for Fassbender with her rendition of Sisi. She is a troubled soul, a disaster personified, and Mulligan shows it even before making a physical appearance in the film; her repeated, and unanswered, call to Brandon conveys the terrifying depth of her loneliness. She is painfully aware of how others, including her brother, see her: she is someone everyone avoids due to her neediness and emotional fragility. Once she appears in our view, we understand why Brandon is reluctant to answer her calls. You don’t have to lead a double life like Brandon to find her troublesome; she is a nightmare for anyone who desires an uncomplicated life. Mulligan cannot be praised enough for bringing life to this difficult character. Together with McQueen and Fassbender, Mulligan shows that the story needs not to feature characters who are likable and/or relatable. As neither of the main characters appear redeemable, we are forced to see their humanity with all its complications and problems that accompany it. Just as Fassbender’s Brandon is at once disgusting and fascinating, Mulligan’s Sisi, though repelling, solicits strong empathy at the same time. Like her brother, she is the kind of person whom we neither pardon nor condemn; we simply recognise a fellow human in its most chaotic imperfection. This is because Shame is not really about the specific dysfunctions these characters suffer; it is about the terror to exist as an isolated, insignificant entity in a vast and indifferent universe, and there is no one better than Mulligan’s Sisi to express the fear of living through such an existence. It is perhaps easy for some of us to dismiss her as ‘weak’ and a ‘victim’. Yet, before judging her carelessly and harshly, remember that this is exactly the way Brandon condemns her as he sends his sister into the depth of despair. Instead of judging her from a high-horse, consider what do we really mean by notions such as ‘weakness’ and ‘being a victim’. Question whether it is good to be able to thrive in a world which enforces an infinite repetition of senseless, and thus insatiable, desiring, rather than to suffer from genuine wants and needs. Ponder seriously whether living without genuine feelings, or an ability to express them, should be accepted as ‘normal’. Is it acceptable to see one another as mere means, not ends? Why should we accept nothing but the exchange of material favours from another human being? Is it wrong for us to yearn for warmth, acceptance, care, and love from another? Is such a desire pointless? Is it a crime to be petrified from such an indifference and unable to cope with it? And, ultimately, every one of us must ask ourselves: How did we come to this?
It is an existence born out of the uniquely human condition which Kafka described so aptly in his conversation with young Gustav Janouch (Conversations with Franz Kafka, 1951). In one conversation, Kafka supposedly said: “Yes, we are disturbers of order and of peace. That is our original sin. We set ourselves above nature. We are not content to die and to survive merely as members of a species. Each of us wishes to preserve and possess his life for as long as possible as an individual organism. This is a rejection, by which we forfeit life.” This rejection, or the separation from the world, gains a great significance as we established ourselves as the most dominant species on the face of Earth by the ‘advancement’ in science, technology, and philosophy, which in turn commonised the idea of humankind as the flawed replacement of God (David Bowie). If they are right, then it can be said that our world-view is based on a philosophical view called ‘Disillusioned Cartesianism’, that is, a broadly Cartesian world-view which, notably, excludes the existence of God. According to Descartes, only humankind and God have mental capacities, and thus, the rest of the world, including non-human sentient beings, are mere materials, or ‘Bodies’, which we are free to exploit. Since ‘Mind’ and ‘Body’ are two distinct entities according to this view, the French philosopher went so far as to dismiss cries of distress made by hurting animals as mechanical ‘noise’; according to him, we have no reason to feel sorry when we hurt them. When humankind lost the master, a higher-being to whom we must answer, there is nothing, at least philosophically, stopping us from exploiting everything in sight (whilst we might think humans are philosophically exempt from this exploitation, as the Ancient Greek notion of ‘human being’ which excludes all non-Greek speakers from this elevated class shows, the very definition of ‘human being’ is on very shaky ground). The entire world, including whomever we deem as non-human, or subhuman, is a mere object for us to exploit for our own ends, and, when this world-view is supported by the technological and engineering advances harnessed by Industrial Revolution, Industrial Materialism becomes the driving force of our Zeitgeist. Whilst it is not fair to hold Descartes and Cartesian philosophers responsible for the horrors we have enacted since, Cartesianism did lay the foundation of modern scientific materialism. And scientific materialism in turn is the ethos behind Industrial Materialism, which sees the world as mere means to satisfy one’s ‘desires’. As a rising star of the financial sector in the NYC, Brandon is determined to embrace the ethos of Industrial Materialism, and thus, his addiction to pornographic sex is almost inevitable. Pornographic sex reduces human beings as mere physical objects for sexual actions, and thus denies any possibility of intimacy between them. Whilst her brother is busy feeding an infinite loop of carnal actions, Sisi is at a complete loss in the world dominated by heartlessness. To be sure, one can argue that, as a musician, Sisi could have led her life differently. Still, one misses the point entirely by blaming her or dismissing her suffering. Shame should not fall on someone who fears and suffers the world dominated by mortal addictions. It only takes seeing Brandon’s pained expression during his three-some to grasp this point: adopting to live in such a world is no way to live. This scene lays bare that the robotic certainty of orgasm, like all certainty, is not pleasurable; it is killing him without mercy.
Gould: The Sacrifice
Having acknowledged the need to respect Sisi for who she is, it is time for us to examine just how difficult it is to survive modern alienation. To show the oft neglected depth and seriousness of the existential isolation we face today, it is useful to consider the life of another important contributor to this film: Glenn Gould. McQueen’s use of Gould’s recordings is not merely to set the mood of a scene. Given the effect of these pieces as a part of mise-en-scène, it is clear that they were specifically selected to complete the scenes for which they were called. And there is no doubt that McQueen did not consider anyone but Gould for this role. It was not Gould’s outstanding skill as a piano virtuoso that made him an ideal ‘cast’ for this movie; it was his character, the way he led his life, that made him an indispensable part of this outstanding cinema. As someone who elevated alienation into a form of aesthetic ideal of ‘solitude’, Gould’s life sheds light on the distinct nature and danger of modern alienation.
Being a musical genius in his own right, Gould led a life that cannot be more different from that of Sisi. Out of the dedication to his art, Gould not only sought isolation; he elevated it into a vocation. The manner in which Gould achieved this is rare yet not without precedence. Bruno Schulz, a Polish-Jewish author of exceptional quality (Street of Crocodiles, 1934, and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, 1937), did the same with his appreciation of ‘silence’, which is a euphemism for a certain mental ‘space’ or ‘mode’ which demanded isolation as a prerequisite condition. He wrote to his friend that experiencing this ‘silence’ is as important as creating an inspired work. Whilst experiencing this specific mental mode was the only way for Schulz to be creative, he also suffered a life-long struggle with his need for intimacy, and one can see in his work the devastating toll he sustained from his cherished mode of existence. For a French writer, Marcel Proust, transcending time and space through the rare remembrance of seemingly ordinary moments, and understanding the significance of such fleeting moments, restores his authenticity. He dedicated the last years of his life to understanding and describing such an experience by locking himself away in a sound-proof study. The result was the literary magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927). Gould’s quest for perfection in his solitude, however, must be appreciated not only as the continuation of his great predecessors’ efforts; he gave such a pursuit new meaning by setting it at the heart of his artistic life. As important as solitude was for Schulz and Proust, it never was an end in-itself. It was always a means to achieve an end for them. Having established himself as one of the most important interpreters of classical music, especially for the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, he abruptly quit perhaps the most lucrative part of his career, that is, live-performance, and became the first, and most likely the last, artist who works only in recording studios. Despite the chagrin of the audience and the hostility from his fellow musicians, Gould not only stayed true to his bow, but also replied to his critics and detractors of his decision by his philosophical reflection on isolation through Solitude Trilogy (1967-1977), an ‘autobiographical statement’ (Gould) on his ideal of ‘withdrawing from the world’. Whilst this work is not directly about his concept of solitude and its relation to his art, it impresses us with his genuine fascination, or existential need, for isolation through the collages of voices and stories from some of the most forbidding places, that is, Arctic and sub-Arctic lands in northern Canada. As there have been many who cut solitary figures in the history of art, Gould’s ‘withdrawing from the world’ is distinct in that there is no sense of comfort accompanying it. His ideal of isolation is represented by the unforgiving coldness and bareness of the Arctic. In this sense, Gould’s ‘solitude’ is far more strict than the notion of aesthetic life that Schopenhauer advocated. Like a cave diver, Gould is attracted to prohibitively harsh and restricting conditions as an aesthetic ideal, but also as a way of life. He not only gave up public appearance as a concert pianist; he locked himself in his Toronto apartment, and his daily human contact was limited to irregular phone calls to few of his friends during odd hours, oft consisting of his hours-long solitary monologues which sent his ‘counterpart’ to a slumber.
Since his eccentricities and neurosis have been well-documented, we tend to see him as an alien, albeit an extremely gifted one. Although his health problems, both physical and mental, are widely known, we tend to satisfy ourselves by merely seeing his glories and tragedies through a cliché: a creative genius accompanied by a serious cost to one’s sanity. Yet reading Gould’s life and work through this lens diminishes his true achievement by disregarding the serious human costs he suffered: We must not lose sight that eccentrics and geniuses are humans in their own right, and thus must be respected as such. When we merely romanticise an artist, we commit an error of neglecting their human struggles, and thus relating to one as a mere means, not an end. As there are many biographies on this unique human being, such as Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould by Kevin Bazanna (2004), which chronicles his quite human struggles including an affair and a heartbreaking separation, there remains no doubt whatsoever that Gould, however unusual was he, struggled with alienation like any of us do. Unlike Sisi, who makes one desperate attempt after another to escape it and suffers the resulting failure, Gould transformed it into a governing principle of his daily life as well as his art. Whilst he did record some collaborative pieces such as piano concertos, the main part of his repertoire is made up with solo piano pieces, most notably the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach is, relative to the composers of the Romantic period, oft considered dry due to the logical and structural nature of his work. His detractors describe his music as mechanical and repetitive, devoid of deep human emotions. When Gould appeared on the scene, he singlehandedly transformed our perception of Bach and his work; not only did he express the deeply affective nature of Bach’s music but also impressed the narrative that solitary devotion to art is the essence of both his and Bach’s life and work. There is no doubt that Gould’s approach of transforming alienation into solitude, that is, an artistic ideal from which pure creativity springs forth, paid massive dividends. His recordings of classical music was so uniquely expressive in that he became more than an interpreter of classical music. His recordings, especially of J.S. Bach’s, are not mere exegesis of timeless classics; they became Glenn Gould’s work. Never had a recording artist of classical music attained such status before, and this feat will never be repeated, for it was not merely his style or skill that mattered. It was his personality, its force as well as its quality, that elevated him to such a position. As Wittgenstein noted, genius is not ‘talent plus character’; it is a ‘character manifesting itself in the form of a special talent’ (35c, Culture and Value, 1977). This way of understanding genius explains why we regard Gould as a creative genius, not merely as a great virtuoso. Still, in this particular context, we need to question whether he was as content as he wished to be by living through his alienation as ‘solitude’. In order to answer this question, it is not helpful to delve into the long list of his physical and mental problems. This way of investigating his state only leads to a theoretical stalemate, for one can never be able to determine whether his alienation created these problems, or his problems forced him to live in isolation. Thus, the best way forward is to compare the state with which Gould lived to that of his spiritual mentor and partner, Johann Sebastian Bach. Despite that they appear as one in Gould’s world, their differences, both as artists as well as individuals, are significant, and they hold the key in determining not only the nature of Gould’s alienation as a personal phenomenon; understanding what they represent should reveal the nature and the origin of modern alienation suffered also by Sisi and Brandon.
Whilst there are many differences between these two great musical geniuses, one phenomenon truly stands out: Bach as a composer as opposed to Gould as his interpreter. Despite being hyper intelligent and multifaceted in his creative gift, there is one aspect of Gould’s creative pursuit that failed to flourish: expressing himself through composing music of his own. The reason this phenomenon matters is J.S. Bach’s status as Gould’s indispensable source of inspiration, both in his creative activities as well as his idea of ‘solitude’. The fact that Gould continuously sought Bach as his musical and spiritual source of inspiration tells us about the nature of his alienation, as well as its origin. In order to obtain a clear understanding of it, one must grasp the historical development that separates Bach and Gould. It is clear that Bach led a very different life from us. To begin with, there is the fact that many of his manuscripts were not even signed. It makes it plain that he did not appreciate the concept of artist in a modern sense of the word. He probably did not see himself differently from a craftsman who contributed ornamental work, such as paintings and stained glass, for commission. His work had a clear purpose, and a utility besides self-expression. In this regard, his attitude toward his work is a far cry from the modern notion of l’art pour l’art, the aesthetic ideal championed by the likes of Oscar Wilde, who famously declared artistic expression as the sole end of art. According to Wilde, art does not serve morality, religion, and politics; art has no master. Bach belonged to the time when religions, though deeply flawed, offered a relatively stable spiritual orientation in everyday life. Whilst it is not clear whether such a form of stability was entirely beneficial, it was in this Form of Life where Bach’s astonishingly prolific creativity flourished. In short, he did not regard himself as an artist, save a creative genius, in the way modern artists might do. Now, in the light of Kafka’s remark on the modern human existential condition, this difference between Bach and Gould is significant. As Bach belongs to the time of religions, Gould lived in the modern era wherein Industrial Materialism became dominant in every aspect of life, and thus threatened to annihilate the very notion of spiritual life. And thus, despite being one of its most sharp critics, Gould could not escape the predicament of modernity. Despite his best effort to restore some of the lost virtue found in an idealised version of Bach’s life and time, Gould was a modern human, a ‘sinner’, who lives and dies alone. Thus, it was impossible for him to create and live a make-believe of spiritual serenity which Bach’s life and music represented for him and his audience. Therefore, though no fault of his own, Gould’s alienation from his spiritual and aesthetic ideal restricted him to studying Bach’s music, rather than creating his own. Because he could only find inspiration from the distant Form of Life which he could not live, the best chance with which he might cope the crippling alienation was to aestheticise it. This aspect of his creative life demanded the near absolute surrender to the ideal of solitude, an ideal to which Bach himself did not submit. It is a well-known fact that Bach was a family man, and, as any creative profession requires a certain amount of solitary time and space for work, there is no indication that Bach paid a special heed for such a condition. In this sense, Gould was a man who fell to Earth; he was transported from the past, not from another planet. Either way, his sense of alienation was deep, and in the end, it was incurable despite his effort to transform it into its elevated form, that is, ‘solitude’.
In this sense, Gould’s alienation was identical to Wittgenstein’s ‘exile’ (Wittgenstein in Exile, James C. Klagge, 2011). Like the Austrian philosopher, Gould was spiritually out of place. Like Wittgenstein, he was one of the foremost critics of our modern condition, yet he was also one of its most representative figures. Yet, the difference between them, and the most challenging aspect of Gould’s existence, is the Canadian’s devotion to the idealised ethos of the time past, and the resulting restriction to his activities. As he cannot live the Form of Life best represented by Bach’s work, he had to make a point of living the alienation from that ideal state, as well as from his contemporaries. Thus, he effectively, perhaps unintentionally, prohibited himself from becoming a full-time composer to express his vision through his original compositions. The strictness with which Gould self-imposed his exile is certainly unprecedented; even Wittgenstein, who (quite wrongly) regarded himself as a second rate thinker, did not practice such an extreme measure; despite his self-assessment, he strove for originality in his thinking, and caused two (!) seismic shifts in philosophy. Even though Wittgenstein was born out of his time, he rejected the idea of merely interpreting others’ work. Whilst Gould elevated his study of Bach and other classics as an art-form through his extraordinary effort to transform his alienation into the ideal of ‘solitude’, he could not have turned a blind eye to his existential alienation and the resulting inability to express himself through his own music. And thus, in the end, Gould’s tale remains tragic. Gould did benefit greatly from his strategy of elevating alienation into a vocation, yet it also restricted his creative potential. As long as he was reaching toward the ideal which he could not live, he was always going to speak through another time. Glenn Gould left us an extraordinary gift as a recording artist, and his legacy continues to fascinate, and mystify, us. The precision with which he expressed himself is generous, authentic, and ultimately heart-breaking; one can hear a solitary human voice, literally, crying out its sorrow and ecstasy in a recording room. Whilst Gould produced deeply expressive notes and passages, he could never manage to do so without singing aloud. As he could not live with restricting circumstances, such as playing in public, and this particular trait has been widely seen as the mark of the chosen one, if one shifts one’s attention to his voice, and the dissonance it creates with the impeccable notes he is producing at the same time, one could feel the depth of his sadness. Ultimately, the solitude wherein he sought salvation did not help him transcend the sorrow of alienation. In this light, his beautiful music was at once the window to his soul, as well as the façade to hide it. In his most personal moments, the notes, the beautiful notes, fall like rain, and through it all, one can see a stark yet frail figure in the dark.
Bowie: The Acumen
Gould’s attempt to overcome the pain of crippling alienation by transforming it into a philosophical ideal of ‘solitude’ delivered massive dividends artistically. Unlike Brandon or Sisi, he did get more than most from his life on Earth; he not only produced legendary recordings, he created his own place in history by his unique philosophy and personality, thus securing his place amongst creative genius, not amongst virtuosos. Despite such wondrous achievements, at a purely personal level, his career success was a pyrrhic victory. His total devotion to his ideal of solitude and his art took devastating tolls on him, and, by all evidence, we can conclude that Gould’s attempt to overcome alienation did not succeed. He remained alienated from his ultimate ideal, the Form of Life which supposedly once existed, and his devotion to that ideal restricted him from expressing himself with his own compositions. And no matter how hard he tried to lose himself in the ecstasy of music, it was impossible to consistently and continuously sustain such a height. Eventually, one must return to face one’s existential condition. Gould’s solitude was a philosophical device to cope with this reality. Whilst he mystified the world with the theory and the praxis of this concept, and nearly succeeded in making a true believer out of himself, his music tells another story; deep down, he knew he could not overcome his loneliness, and he greatly suffered from it.
This is the point where three protagonists of this movie finally come together as an unlikely troika. Whilst their coping mechanisms cannot be more different from each other’s, there is one common phenomenon: they all tried to cope with the alienation in the indifferent world by losing themselves in ecstasy. Whether it is the moments of aesthetic genius (Gould), the high experienced by ‘starstruck’ lovers (Sisi), or the sordid carnal amnesia (Brandon), we see human beings trying to out-run their suffering. Facing the gaping void created by the modern human condition wherein the loss of spirituality as well as the triumph of crude materialism are prominently pronounced, they apply different ‘solutions’ in order to overcome the crippling alienations. Yet, none of their respective ‘solutions’ provide the desired result. Addiction (Brandon), desperation (Sisi), not even devotion (Gould) can make us oblivious of the abyss. Try as we may, our escaping attempts do not offer us Schopenhauerian peace; after a brief moment of ecstasy, returning Weltschmerz cannot be more acute.
As I suggested in my article on The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976), there is a better way to live with this condition: like David Bowie did, one can attempt to ease the angst caused by the modern alienation by accepting, and possibly embracing, one's status as a stranger. Bowie’s first step toward this goal was ridding himself of his addiction. By overcoming substance abuse, he was able to clear his head, and corrected his warped and paranoiac world-view. The next step was to relocate to Berlin, and correct his perspective both about himself as well as the world wherein he and his contemporaries came into being. He followed his natural intellectual drive and immersed himself in the history and culture of the city, which has uniquely represented the promise and betrayal of the Enlightenment project. Berlin helped him to spark new life into his creative endeavours, as well as to deepen his understanding of himself: his angst, its cause, and the proper historical context from which it originated. In the aforementioned interview from his ‘Heathen Tour’ in Paris, Bowie was able to articulate his life-long subject of alienation and isolation in a remarkably clear philosophical context. As one can hear from his creative output, which continued right up to his untimely death in 2016, Bowie was never rid of his alienation. Yet, in the same interview, it is striking that he was able to speak of it with a rather light-hearted manner. And, as his choice to return permanently to America, the land which once alienated him to the point of becoming a complete paranoiac, and his subsequent peace and stability in life attest, there are distinct benefits to remaining an outsider. Since one cannot expect to benefit from a kind of cultural (or spiritual, if you will) regression, which has gripped us as fundamentalism in both religion and politics, one must be ready to live with, and make peace with, metaphysical uncertainty: there is no messianic power that could redeem us miraculously, and if there are any who claim to represent it, they cannot be trusted. This means that one must reject all absolute judgments, whether it is religious, philosophical, political, or cultural. In order to stay clear of the culture of paranoia and the resulting mass hysteria, and maintain one’s rational agency, it helps to openly, and honestly, position oneself as an alien by accepting one’s existential alienation.
Whilst accepting existential alienation is not the same as ridding oneself of it, and such an acquiescence cannot entirely silence one’s sorrow, it does not mean that one cannot build a meaningful life full of joy. By properly contexualising one’s existential condition in a proper philosophical context, Bowie was able to tame his angst. Once he understood his condition objectively, his alienation ceased to be entirely personal. He was also courageous to acknowledge and accept his alienation despite the accompanying sorrow; he ceased to struggle with what he saw as the fundamental modern human condition. Instead, he recognised enough philosophical and spiritual benefits in it, and tried to incorporate them into the way he led his life. And, importantly, Bowie’s acceptance of alienation was not an ideal from the time past, an abstract concept which would have enforced him to withdraw from the world; rather, his acceptance made him appreciate his existence in the world, albeit as an alien. He even drew strength from it. At one point in the aforementioned interview, Bowie asks: Can we live every day as if it is the last? Can we live with our finitude? As Bowie clearly thought that living without the promise of messianic redemption is critically important, and thus a philosophical problem is settled, the questions he is asking us are of a practical nature. Befitting for a person who practiced Zen Buddhism in his youth, he correctly recognises that, since metaphysical questions cannot be answered with certainty, one’s focus must shift from what or why to how. It is not the meaning of life that must be found. The question is how to live a meaningful life. And all evidence points to that he certainly lived a full and meaningful life.
McQueen: The Poetic Conscience
Steve McQueen's Shame is a rare masterpiece of contemporary cinema with genuine philosophical depth and subtle artistic ingenuity. This is a director who is only on the hunt for serious cinemas which unflinchingly deal with heavy and important subjects such as slavery and sex addiction. The Briton is, however, only interested in expressing such a subject through simple, classical cinematography. He is not a cinematic poet in the line of Tarkovsky, or a dazzling medium in the style of Nicolas Winding Refn. Unlike Von Trier, McQueen, despite the chosen subjects, does not seek provocations. In Shame, his understated yet absorbing aesthetics achieve a great effect; his classical mise-en-scène seldom allows him to employ even the most common techniques such as flashbacks without thoughtful restraint and painstaking sophistication: his use of flashback is so well-implemented that, even in the beginning of the film, it does not leave an artificial impression; one almost forgets its use. It is as astute as a theatre piece, except that there is none of flashy theatricals to be found. Yet, remarkably, McQueen finds poetic beauty in every cut he allows to stay. It is an astounding synthesis of every element that creates a greater whole that is at once thought-provoking and emotionally engaging. It is rare to see a film with such a quality, and rarer still to find a director who manages to accomplish it with such an apparent ease. For McQueen, mise-en-scène must melt away in the background so that the audience is absolutely captivated by each moment on the screen. Whilst he painstakingly works in the background, his style is not as dry as a documentary. In fact, every moment of his film is alive with a subtle yet powerful poetic touch. McQueen is gifted with a great sensitivity that enable him to choose correct pieces for every aspect of his cinematic art. His choice of actors, places, colours, lights, and music are unfailingly accurate, and the way he lets these pieces come together is the best testimony of his genius. McQueen makes it look all too easy, yet never ordinary.
Shame is also a deep philosophical contemplation on the modern existential angst. Whilst the story is driven by Brandon’s sex addiction, a highly provocative subject which defined the reception of the film, with careful viewing, it becomes clear that sex addiction is merely a Leitmotiv, not the main subject of the movie. That being acknowledged, McQueen’s classicism makes it harder for the audience to realise this. If Shame took the form of a heady Sci-Fi, or a polemical film from the point of view of his estranged sister or ‘lovers’ with some clever lines and settings, the director would have positioned himself well for giving a lecture on modern alienation. Whilst a film of such characteristics might offer a good subject for seminars, as a work of art, it would fall far shorter than what McQueen achieved with Shame. First of all, cinematic art cannot be reduced to an essay. A great movie, like any inspired art, cannot be restricted to deliver one or a few theoretical points. Great art must be rich, complex, and inspired enough to be interpreted in a multitude of ways, and thus it retains certain degrees of opaqueness, just in the same way a human agent does. One must say that, from an ethical standpoint, everything one comes across in one’s brief life-time must be appreciated without being reduced to one or a few aspects in order to serve our preference or desire. In this light, one can understand the ills of phenomenon such as sex addiction as part of a modern symptom; we reduce everything to the perceived utility for ourselves and thereby degrade ourselves and the world in which we live as commodities. In such a ‘world’, nothing can be unique or lovable on its own right. Thus, aesthetic opaqueness and complexity should not to be decried. One extraordinary attribute of McQueen’s astute classicism is that it retains such a complexity and opaqueness despite its outward simplicity. Whilst the subtlety and sophistication of his method requires multiple viewing to fully appreciate every aspect of his art, the distinct virtue of his method is that it allows the audience to discover on their own. As viewers explore the story, his method remains in background, fully invisible. Whilst McQueen himself is probably content when the audience see Shame as a serious work that raises an important issue (sex addiction), if my article managed to convince readers to see more from this masterpiece, I shall be content. If one cares about cinema, one should thank one’s fortune of having McQueen as a contemporary. Every project he undertakes must be appreciated as a special event of our time.