Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Shame and Martha Macy May Marlene - Gems of 2012

I wrote the following article for the digital magazine Chameleon, which is available on Amazon to download
here  It's rather long, too long, and for that I do apologise.

The past couple of years - particularly for British cinema, which has arguably been going through a renaissance - has produced some seriously substantial film making from established and debut auteurs alike. Personal highlights of recent times have been Richard Ayodade's quirky, beautifully photographed and irresistibly likable debut film 'Submarine'  in 2011. Lynne Ramsay's 'We Need To Talk about Kevin' was another. The Scottish director deservedly returned to the spotlight after eight years, with her exceptionally dark adaptation of Lionel Shilvers novel. As with her previous works, 2002's Morvern Callar and her debut 1999's 'Ratcatcher', 'We need to Talk about Kevin was an eerily disturbing and beautifully formed triumph.' What a travesty for the cinema world it was when Ramsays role in adapting Alice Sebold's novel 'The Lovely Bones' was dropped by Film4 in favour of Hollywood director Peter Jackson in 2009. The result was frankly embarrassing; a saccharine and sentimental atrocity.
It could be said that the most striking of contemporary British film talent has been Turner Prize winning artist Steve McQueen. His directional debut Hunger was an explicit and brutal account of the hunger strikes in Ulster's Maze prison that ended in the death of Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender. The two were reunited in 'Shame.' With the beautiful photography of Sean Bobbitt, Abi Morgan as co-writer ('The Iron Lady', 'The Hour') and a sleek soundtrack by Harry Escott, Shame is a sublime work of art and my highlight of 2012. McQueens artistic background is evident in his eye for composition and fierce visual images. Another memorable feature film was Sean Durkin's impressive debut 'Martha Macy May Marlene' ,an unsettling American psychological drama released in the same year.
My itching curiosity to see Shame led me onto a train from Manchester to Leeds after work in November 2011. I was intrigued as to how a film would depict something as controversial as sex addiction  I had a pass for the International film festival, it was a Friday night and Shame was the closing gala screening, prior to UK release. The coffee shops had shut, but I was early for the screening and had to spend an awkward hour sat in the Slug and Lettuce in a corner with my novel, surrounded by rowdy drinkers and eagerly awaiting 8pm when the film would begin. The train home was delayed and covered in the vomit and drool of a very drunk man. I arrived home at 1am.
It was all worth it. I dawdled out of the screening in a daze, with intense admiration for everyone involved in the film and everything about it. One year on from its release, the suburb  fierce performances have remained under my skin. It has even rivaled Withnail and I as a contender for my favourite film of all time, a significant moment, (still undecided on this one.Those unemployed, quotable heroes have a place in my heart forever).
Shame focuses on Brandon, a handsome and affluent executive living in New York. His particular field is never specified, and is irrelevant. What is important is the fact his office is shiny and immaculate, complete with city views. It is much like his expensive, minimalist apartment, to complete the image of ultimate success. It is just an image, though. The reality is a melancholic, isolated existence driven by his relentless sex drive. He masturbates in toilet cubicles at work several times a day, watches porn whilst causally eating noodles at dinner, and has regular encounters with prostitutes. When Brandon's younger sister Sissy arrives unwanted, out of the blue, her presence threatens to destroy his private space and expose his addiction. Despite her efforts to connect with him, he remains cold and guarded.
Martha Macy May Marlene is a disquieting indie film about a young woman named Martha, and her experiences in a commune she has fled from. The film opens with her running through a forest and hiding behind some growth whilst figures walk past, hunting for her. Shortly after this she is on a payphone, hysterical and only with a vague idea of her whereabouts. Her older sister (Sarah Paulson) comes to collect her, and brings her back to the luxury lake house she shares with her wealthy British husband (Hugh Dancy).
As Martha takes refuge, she suffers from paranoia and disturbing flashbacks of what we later discover has been a two year stay at the farm. She is haunted by her memories, and  struggles to distinguish between what is dream and what is reality. The sinister tone builds gradually. Early flashbacks show a smiling and content Martha, arriving at what ostensibly is a friendly, bohemian commune. As the flashbacks continue, it becomes clear there is something not right. This is a cult run by a creepy man named Patrick (John Hawkes), who renames his followers himself - Martha becomes 'Marcy May'- and dominates them completely. One eery scene shows him perched on a step, simply over looking group sex between his devotees, distanced yet revelling in his power.
Shame and Martha Macy May Marlene have a great deal in common. They are both rich with ambiguity, feature damaged sibling relationships, and characters with dysfunctional approaches to sexuality. In both films, details of the characters' past is hinted at but never explained. In Shame, Sissy tells Brandon over voice mail "we are not bad people, we just come from a bad place". We never find out more, other than the "place" is Ireland. In the latter film, Lucy apologies to Martha for not "being there" enough when growing up, as it becomes apparent their parents were dead or absent. Martha refuses to converse. This means neither film is reduced to melodrama or sentimentality. Both films use dialogue sparingly  but what is said is cleverly revealing. Camera shots can reveal just as much. Close up shots of Sissy and Brandon as she sings her slow rendition of New York, New York in a high class piano bar reveals the sadness behind her bouncy exterior, and the emotion behind Brandon's icy demeanor. As the camera lingers on him, he is clearly moved by her talent as an aspiring singer, and a tear falls down his cheek.
The audience is somewhat distanced during both films. In Shame, many scenes feel utterly voyeuristic. Brandon shares an passionate encounter with his Marianne (Nicole Beharie) , a co worker he has enjoyed a date with and the only character he shares any connection with.The acting is so convincing it feels almost wrong to bear witness to it, but the clear emotion they share is moving.The scene becomes a sad insight into the contrast between sex to fulfill an addiction and sex with real feeling. One explicit group sex encounter he has is deliberately just that bit too long, and it is a relief when we are set free of his expression of emotional pain rather than physical pleasure, and onto the next location. The scenes are relentlessly honest and completely unforgiving. It is a refreshing representation of sex in film.   
Martha Macy May Marlene also conceals as much as it reveals. As it juxtaposes time and space, the present in a spacious lake house in Connecticut, and the past in a cramped farmhouse, We never stay too long in either. We hear and see just enough to  understand the brutality of the cult and the severe effect it has on Martha's mind. The most startling and disclosing scene is when Martha, unable to sleep one night, wanders into Lucy and Ted's bedroom when they are making love, and curls up on the corner of the bed. Lucy has to tell her that 'it's private!' as she is worryingly unaware what the issue is. The film is also equally mysterious. Drama blends with thriller when Martha calls the farmhouse, before hanging up. The phone rings back. Martha experiences paranoid delusions, but does she have a reason to? Are her 'family' able to track her down? The ambiguous ending only continues the mystery.
The relationships between the siblings in both films are complex and equally ambiguous. Martha has disappeared for two years, and intentionally becomes impossible  to contact. She simply tells Lucy that she had a 'boyfriend' who she had split from. They are awkward in each others company. Upon hearing that Ted and Lucy are trying for a baby, Martha erupts into hysterical laughter. Later, during an argument Martha tells Lucy that she going to be a 'terrible mother', a comment we can only guess at the reason for. The relationship between Sissy and Brandon remains intriguing. There are incestuous undertones that only remain a whisper of a possibility, that as a viewer it is impossible to determine.
There are frequent moments when the space they share becomes too close for comfort. When Sissy arrives unwarranted, Brandon barges in on her in the shower with a baseball bat, mistaking her for a burglar. Sissy stands naked, giggling at the situation comfortably, whilst Brandon remains cold. Similarly, later in the film Sissy walks in on Brandon masturbating. Her reaction is to shut the door and laugh, whilst Brandon is simply furious. Sissy yearns for hugs that Brandon will not yield too. In one scene she climbs into his bed and says 'it's cold'. Infuriated, he swears at her to get out. Sissy speaks for the audience when she later says: "I make you angry all the time, and I don't know why".
Sissy and Martha are disconnected outsiders that show their skepticism of the lifestyles that they disturb. Ted and Lucy are proud of their accomplished happiness and wealth. Martha's questions bursts their bubble. 'Why is the place so big?', she asks. Another time she bluntly demands: "Is it true that married people don't fuck?". Likewise, an argument between Sissy and Brandon has him defending himself with the fact he has his own apartment. Sissy's sarcastic response: "You have your own apartment, whoopie fucking shit. And a job, that's amazing, I'm in awe of you" is similar to Martha telling priggish Ted that there are "other ways" to live than to have a career and take pride in possessions.
Neither film resorts to the most obvious turn of events. Brandon's connection with Marianne does not miraculously change him and solve his issues. He may bin his porn stash after their date, but McQueen acknowledges the deep rooted psychological causes of addiction; it cannot be instantly fixed. Ted and Lucy are flawed characters rather than cut out ideals of a bourgeoisie couple. Martha's troubled mind only seems to worsen. 
Durkin and McQueen leave the fates of their characters to be a wonder long after the credits have rolled.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, long time no speak, I really like your blog, James's illustration is awesome. I saw Shame last year and I was blown away, definitely the best film of 2012.

    Do you come down to Leeds to watch films a lot or was it more of a one-off? I live pretty close so if you ever want to watch a film sometime drop me a text.

    It's Dave Benson BTW