“Shame”

I recently watched the film “Shame,” directed by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful person in his 30’s living in New York who suffers from a sexual addiction. It is a truly amazing film, and it’s really unfortunate that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award last year. Unfortunately, the existence of the film and the reaction to it say almost as much as the film itself does.

Shame Movie Poster

Shame Movie Poster (1)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

It’s difficult to classify specifically what Brandon’s addiction is, and the film wisely doesn’t try and explain it for us. Instead, the film simply observes his behavior and his interactions with others. It simultaneously tries to make a statement about addiction in general, but also sets out to tell a very personal story as well. We see Brandon engaging in as many sexual encounters as possible. He takes several breaks during work to masturbate in a bathroom stall. He always arrives late to work, even though he leaves his apartment early. He takes long lunches and takes off during the afternoon to have sex with prostitutes. He starts looking at porn and masturbating as soon as he gets home, and doesn’t stop until he goes to bed. His life is consumed by sex.

Brandon’s sister Sissy is a singer trying to make it in New York, but hasn’t had a lot of luck. Early in the film, she stops by Brandon’s apartment and asks to stay with him because she doesn’t have anywhere else to stay. Brandon, desperate to conceal his addiction, is very reluctant to say yes but he eventually relents. They don’t get along and constantly fight, but she stays and he doesn’t throw her out. We learn that Sissy cuts herself and it is implied that she has attempted to commit suicide in the past. Both of their pasts are shrouded in mystery, but we get the impression that they went through a shared trauma together.

Brandon

Brandon (2)

Brandon sometimes goes out in the evening with his boss, David, to various bars and lounges. David is the type that hits on anything that moves, and usually fails spectacularly. Brandon never hits on anyone, which ironically makes him more attractive to others than David does. Brandon never puts any effort into picking up women at all; if they happen to want to have sex, then all the better, but otherwise he couldn’t care less. I suspect that Brandon doesn’t try because he is so used to porn/prostitutes who don’t say no that pursuing women at a bar just isn’t worth the effort. One night, David and Brandon go to hear Sissy sing, leading to one of the best scenes in the entire film.

Brandon eventually asks a co-worker, Marianne, out one evening which leads to a very awkward dinner. Brandon obviously doesn’t know how to act around real people. At one point, he goes to a hotel with Marianne where they try to have sex, but Brandon isn’t able to maintain an erection. It’s a rather unusual situation for someone with a sex addiction, but at the same time it kinda makes sense. Brandon is not used to having to care about the sexuality of a partner, and indeed is not used to having any connection at all with his partner. It’s possible that Brandon feels that having sex with Marianne is letting her into his secret life, making him apprehensive. Or perhaps it’s that sex with Marianne is a little to “real” for him. Or maybe it’s just simply too much effort. Sex with prostitutes is an act of fantasy that is completely focused on Brandon, so this situation just doesn’t fit with his usual experiences.

The comparisons with drug abuse are obvious, but there are a few key differences. Drug abuse has, in a way, become “accepted.” Not in the sense that it’s OK to be addicted to drugs, but in the sense that it’s OK to admit if you have a problem. Society has accepted that drug abuse is just a part of modern society, albeit an undesirable one. Sex addiction, however, has no such acceptance. Admitting that one is a sex addict is likely to result in much shaming and revulsion for all but the most experienced therapists. It must be an incredibly lonely experience compared to other addictions. We see this in the reaction of Brandon when his sister catches him masturbating one evening. This, in and of itself, isn’t that big of a deal; most guys, myself included, have been caught masturbating at least once in their lives. Normally it’s just an embarrassing situation that you get over quickly, but not so with Brandon: he utterly flips out. He is aware that sex addiction is universally reviled, and is freaked out that his may be exposed. While most addicts display similar behavior, the severity of the reaction for Brandon seems much greater.

Sissy

Sissy (2)

The climactic moment in the movie has Brandon spiraling out of control wherein he goes on a sex “bender.” He goes to clubs, meets up with prostitutes, and even frequents a gay bar where he hooks up with some men, something he hadn’t shown an inclination for before. It seems obvious that Brandon just needs more and more, and is willing to try anything to satisfy his cravings. Like any addiction, his fixes become less and less fixating over time, requiring him to do more and more to satisfy him. During this time, Sissy attempts to commit suicide. When Brandon finally gets home, he finds her in a pool of blood on his bathroom floor. She survives, barely, and Brandon is utterly shaken. He resolves himself to rid himself of his addiction, and we get the sense that he may finally find some resolution. But, as in reality, this is not bound to last. While riding on the subway, Brandon exchanges glances with a beautiful woman and we immediately know that he has slipped back into his old habits. Although not exactly an uplifting ending, it is sadly realistic. People who overcome their addictions are, unfortunately, in the minority.

One frustrating aspect of this film is it’s rating. This film was rated NC-17, and that is absolutely absurd. It’s not surprising in the least, but it’s still absurd. In any absolute measure of the sense, there wasn’t anything in this film that Eyes Wide Shut, Original Sin, or Basic Instinct didn’t also have. So what makes this movie different? Two things: it contained full male nudity, and it contained gay sex. This is something that just pisses me off to no end: full female nudity is perfectly OK (hell, PG-13 rated Titanic had full female nudity), but full male nudity is verboten. It’s a perfect example of the inherit sexism present in the mainstream media. They feel that women are supposed to be sex objects, and men aren’t. Same thing with sex. Heterosexual sex can be very explicit, as long as it’s not hardcore, to be R rated as Original Sin showed. But if it’s gay sex? Forget it. That this film was rated NC-17 shows off perfectly well the biases in mainstream movie industry today, and shows just how far we have to go before we really achieve equality. At least we have people like Steve McQueen who are willing to make films the way they need to be made, regardless of the impact it will have on their bottom line.

(1) “Shame Movie Posters #3.” IMP Awards. 18th November, 2011. Available: http://www.impawards.com/2011/shame_ver3.html
(2) “Shame.” Fox Searchlight. Available: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/shame/

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Art is for everyone, you just have to know where to look.

I really do believe that art is for everyone, but many people don’t get into it because they are intimidated. I can understand the (false) perception that you have to have this encyclopedic understanding of art history in order to appreciate art, and that if you don’t just absolutely love every piece cited as a masterpiece, then it’s your fault and you just don’t “get it.” It’s unfortunate that this perception is so prevalent because it is patently untrue.

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1)

Art is, almost by definition, subjective. It is emotional. When experiencing art, we are going on a journey, one in which we bring all of our past experiences and values in to our understanding and appreciation of a work. Given the huge diversity of experiences, it seems obvious (to me at least) why everyone experiences art differently, and thus appreciates different art.

I do think that there is an objective answer to the technical qualities of a work. Some pieces are just simply painted/written/composed better than others. I don’t think that anyone would claim that Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto’s are less technically accomplished than The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or that the Monet’s On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt is less technically accomplished than Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup.

For me personally, though, I prefer Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band over the concertos because I just don’t respond emotionally to Baroque era pieces. Similarly I like the Warhol piece over the Monet piece because the impressionistic period, well, kinda bores me. Most impressionists painted subjects who were well off, usually in a state of leisure. I don’t get the sense that impressionists were trying to really say anything with there pieces, but rather were trying to push the boundaries of technique. This approach just doesn’t invoke the same response in me that the idea-focused works of Picasso or Dali do.

Campbell's Soup Cans

Campbell's Soup Cans (2)

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of Monet or Bach; they were both pivotal to the growth of their respective meanings, and were very talented artists. They just aren’t my cup of tea is all, which is fine. I recognize that many people don’t share the same tastes that I have. Shostakovich is one of my favorite composers, but critical opinions of him are mixed. For example, French composer Pierre Boulez was critical of  Shostakovich, dismissing it as “the second, or even third pressing of Mahler.” (3) That doesn’t really matter to me though, because when I listen to his work, I love it. I also recognize that Boulez doesn’t like Shostakovich the same way that I don’t like Monet. Everyone is different, and that makes it interesting.

So what about someone who isn’t in to art and doesn’t know where to start? My advice is to try and sample as much as possible. Go to a varied and all-encompasing museum (such as the de Young museum in San Francisco), instead of a more focused museum (like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Museums like the de Young make it easy to see a lot of different types of artwork. The same thing for music, film, and literature: just experience as much as possible. There is so much variety in the art world that there is most likely something for everyone. Finding out what one likes is the hard part. Once you know what you like the rest is easy, and rewarding.

(1) “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt.” The Art Institute of Chicago. Available: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/Impressionism/Monet
(2) “Andy Warhol.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol
(3) “Dimitri Shostakovich.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitri_Shostakovich#Criticism

P.S. My banner for this site is a cropped version of a photo I took of a piece at the de Young museum in San Francisco.

Halloween Movie Madness

Every year for Halloween, we do a horror movie marathon. This year we went in a slightly different route and have watched mostly psychological horror movies so far, i.e. movies that are scary for the ideas that they present, not necessarily because they are straight up scary. We started out with Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist”, and have also watched Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s baby.” We did also throw in “The Descent” and “Little Shop of Horrors” to get some variety. Coming up we still have “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Devil’s Backbone.” and “The Orphanage.”

The Birds Movie Poster

The Birds Movie Poster (1)

The Birds is, of course, one of Hitchcock’s classic films. I would say that it is hands down his most intense film, and the one most deserving of the term “horror-film.” Sure there are other horror films that are a lot scarier, such as “The Descent,” but the tone and mood of “The Bird’s” is still one of the most despairing in film. The last third of the movie is especially important in that it’s influence is very clearly seen in many films such as George A. Romero’s seminal “Night of the Living Dead.” It is filled with such dread and uncertainty. The reason for the bird’s attacks are never explained, and there isn’t even a real resolution to the film. Hitchcock shows with this film that he really is one of the greatest directors of all time. Consider the final shot of the characters driving away, surrounded by birds. Hitchcock didn’t use the standard shot showing the characters in the car, with a view of the birds behind them, but rather showed the car driving away from the viewpoint of the porch, framed on all sides by birds. In essence, we are still trapped with the birds at the conclusion of the film, with the only people we knew driving away. This single shot so effectively reinforces the feeling of loneliness and utter despair institutes “The Birds” as one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements.

Rosemary's Baby Movie Poster

Rosemary's Baby Movie Poster (2)

“Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are first two movies in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” so called because Polanski made three consecutive movies (“The Tenant” being the third) that featured a protagonist that is trapped by their apartment surroundings. While an apartment is specifically used in these three movies, I suspect that “apartment” is meant to refer to urban life in general. I first saw “Rosemary’s baby” a few years ago, but had not seen “Repulsion” until this viewing, and I was amazed how much it changed my perception of “Rosemary’s Baby.” “Repulsion” is a character study on the effects that women’s oppression can have, and Polanski uses a variety of techniques to really convey the paranoia and trauma that the character experiences. Polanski uses many of these same techniques in “Rosemary’s Baby,” but in a much more subtle manner. This similarity in technique is not just a way for Polanski to reuse effects, or for Polanski to slack off. Rather, he uses these effects very selectively as a way to reinforce the misogyny of Rosemary’s husband and other males in the film. It made the film that much more impactful. These movies are very powerful studies on the consequences of a male-dominated society.

Antichrist Movie Poster

Antichrist Movie Poster (3)

Now we come to Von Trier’s “Antichrist.” How to describe this film? I think it is absolutely brilliant, and one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. This was my second time to see it, and I still have as many questions as I do answers. It’s not disturbing because of gore or any of the typical “disturbing” horror moments, although it does have a few somewhat gory moments. What makes it truly disturbing is its ideas, of which there are many. As an example: the film makes the statement that in the natural order, man’s violent tendencies are more powerful than woman’s sexual tendencies, as illustrated by the husband murdering his wife at the end of the film. It discusses the relationship between violence and sex, female oppression, psychological torture under the guise of “helping,” and many others. If you go into this film looking for your run of the mill jumps and scares, be prepared to be disappointed. However, if you actually think about this film and really listen to what it has to say, it is unforgettable.

To me, the best horror movies are the ones that make you think. They are about more than just the events that happen to the main characters depicted during the running time. They say something (dark and sinister) about the human condition. They make us realize that there are real horrors in the world, things that we should indeed be scared of.

(1) “The Birds (film).” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birds_(film)
(2) “Rosemary’s Baby (film).” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosemary’s_Baby_(film)
(3) “Antichrist (film).” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antichrist_(film)

The 2011 San Francisco Atheist Film Festival, Part 3

"The Ledge" Movie Poster

"The Ledge" Movie Poster (2)

Things have calmed down at work, and I finally have some free time again (yay!). Belatedly picking up where I left off with part 1 and part 2 of my series of posts on the 2011 Atheist Film Festival, I now want to take about the premier showing of the festival “The Ledge” (1). This film, directed by Matthew Chapman who was on-hand for a Q&A, is being billed as a thriller that features an atheist main character. Some are even calling it the atheist movement’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

Before we get into a discussion on the film, a warning is in order: *MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*. If you haven’t seen it yet and are at least somewhat interested in it, go see it first and then come back and read this post. You can watch it streaming online from iTunes.

The film opens with Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) walking out onto the ledge of a tall building with the intent of jumping off. The police are called in and Hollis (Terrance Howard) tries to negotiate with Gavin. Gavin is an atheist who’s daughter was killed in a car accident 2 years prior. The movie consists of a series of flashbacks, with Gavin telling Hollis about how his wife left him after their daughter’s death, and that he now works as a manager at a hotel. It was at the hotel that he met Shana (Liv Tyler), who stops by one day looking for a job. Gavin immediately fell for Shana, but Shana is married to Joe (Patrick Wilson), a hardcore fundamentalist Christian.

Their relationship grows and Shana eventually ends up falling for Gavin and they have an affair. Joe finds out, looses it, and through a series of events Gavin ends up on the ledge, blah blah, blah….to be honest this part of the plot isn’t very interesting. Rather, it serves as the framework in which to do more interesting things.

I found the relationship between Gavin and Shana quite interesting. It grows slowly, starting out with just glances and little looks. It’s actually believable. Shana’s views on religion also change slowly throughout the film, or at least it’s implied that they do. She doesn’t abandon her religion all together, but she seems to be thinking “yeah, Gavin has a point.”

More interesting than Gavin and Shana’s relationship was the interplay between Gavin and Hollis. Joe is the stereotypical crazy fundamentalist, and so is rather one dimensional as a result. Hollis, however, is much more nuanced and complex. He is also a Christian, but I suspect he is really just a cultural Christian. I also suspect that he had never even considered the possibility of non-belief until he met Gavin, and is clearly affected by everything that happens. Hollis’ worldview is challenged, and he changes and grows as a result. I agree with Greta Christina (3) that Hollis is the foundation for this movie.

Of all the scenes in the movie, the final scene with Hollis and his family is hands down my favorite. Hollis sits down at the dinner table, his wife asks him to say a prayer before dinner, but he responds by stating “not tonight.” This, in my opinion, is the defining moment of the movie, more so than the climactic moment on the ledge. Everything leads to this point. The interesting question, of course, is what does this moment mean? Is he not praying out of respect for Gavin? Is he having a crisis of faith? It’s an open ended question to be sure, but I have a theory. I think it’s the beginning of a crisis of faith (hopefully leading to the complete abandonment of religion), but it’s not even a conscious thought yet…just the kernel of an idea in the back of his subconscious. I think all that he consciously knew was that he was sick of all of the hurt and misery that religion caused that day, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

It’s a good film, and an important film, but not a great one in my opinion. The third act was contrived and mechanical, the back story of the characters were borderline incredulous, and Joe was too one-dimensional. I’m not saying there aren’t people like Joe in the real world (there are), but it just didn’t make for as interesting of a film. He lacked the nuance of, say, Frank Fitts from “American Beauty” or Dan White in “Milk,” and is a much less interesting character for it. Is this our “Brokeback Mountain?” I don’t think so, but it’s an important step in the right direction. As Greta wrote in her article:

“The Ledge” isn’t atheism’s “Brokeback Mountain.” “Brokeback Mountain” was the result of decades of activism and consciousness- raising — about LGBT people in general, and about media depictions of LGBT people in particular. “The Ledge” isn’t that. It isn’t the culmination of a decades-long cinematic conversation about atheism.

It’s the beginning of it.

And that might be even more important.

I think we can all agree with that.

(1) Chapman, Matthew. “The Ledge.” Available: http://ledgemovie.com/
(2) “The Ledge.” IMDB.com. Available: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1535970/
(3) Christina, Greta. “”The Ledge”: Does Atheism Have Its “Brokeback Mountain”?” Greta Christina’s Blog. 6th July, 2011. Available: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2011/07/06/the-ledge/

The 2011 San Francisco Atheist Film Festival, Part 2

Continuing from part 1 of my series of posts on the 2011 Atheist Film Festival, I am going to discuss a documentary shown in the afternoon titled “The Nature of Existence” (1). In the documentary, director Roger Nygard, who also directed Trekkies, asks people all around the world a variety of “big picture” questions such as “what is god?”

Roger Nygard

Roger Nygard (2)

In the documentary, Nygard asks a widely varied group of people their opinions, including Richard Dawkings, evangelist Brother Jed, Indian holy man Ravi Shankar, Nygard’s next door neighbor in the 7th grade (who is wickedly smart), Buddhists, Native Americans, Taoist monks, new agers, and so on. What really struck me was that he approached each interview with the mindset of just wanting to listen. If it weren’t for the Q&A with Nygard after the screening, I wouldn’t even know what his own beliefs were (he’s an atheist). It’s amazingly non-confrontational, and I suspect that few religious people would find it offensive, regardless of which religion they belonged to. Considering that this entire movie was about people discussing what their religious beliefs were, that’s pretty amazing.

It was almost like a world religions class in documentary form. Even though I have previously taken an actual class on world religions, I still learned quite a bit from this documentary. Even though it asked big questions, it was more personal in nature. During the Q&A, Nygard referred to his interviewees as “friends,” even Brother Jed. Nygard’s basic premise was that, although people may disagree with each other on issues of religion, in the end we are all still people and have more in common than not.

This approach created an environment where the interviewees were free to discuss what they wanted. The results were quite interesting. One the one hand, we got a view of what the individuals thought was important about their religions, as opposed to the general consensus about their religions. On the other, they never talked about the negative aspects of their religion (obviously).

This gets into the bigger issue of how to best approach the atheist rights movement. Should we be nice, or should we be confrontational? I think that both approaches are important, and that documentaries like this are necessary. They help to build bridges between people of various religions, and by extension to atheists as well, allowing us to gain greater acceptance among the population at large. That said, this approach does tend to lend credence to the views of the interviewees even though it isn’t warranted, even if that isn’t Nygard’s intention.

Whatever the ultimate effect this documentary will have on the public’s view of atheists, this is an interesting one, and one I recommend seeing. Check out the trailer below. (1)

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/18178226]

(1) Nygard, Roger. “The Nature of Existence.” Available: http://thenatureofexistence.com/
(2) “Roger Nygard.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Nygard

The 2011 San Francisco Atheist Film Festival, Part 1

I attended the 2011 San Francisco Atheist Film Festival (1) over the weekend, and I am going to write about the entire thing in a series of posts here. The festival was held at the Roxie theater, San Francisco’s oldest operating theater (2).

SF Atheist Film Festival Badge

SF Atheist Film Festival Badge

First up (for me) was a set of short films titled “2011: Year of the Rapture.” These films all had a runtime length of between 5 and 15 minutes, but that’s where the similarities end. Some were animated, some were live action. Some were funny, some were serious. Some were indie avant-garde, some were from mainstream television.

There were three shorts that formed a series where a sports journalist was interviewed about his deep religious belief. I found it quite interesting to hear him talk about a variety of subjects. The most interesting was how he tried to weasel his way out of the question “Why do athletes pray for success and thank god when they win, given that one side is going to lose?” He basically didn’t answer the question, but it was quite amusing seeing the mental gymnastics he had to jump through to reconcile this concept.

Another short video, shown below, was a comedic spoof of a pest control solution, titled “Creedocide” (3). This short had the entire audience, including myself, just rolling in laughter. It reminds me of the Futurama episode “Godfellas” and the South Park episode “Simpson’s Already Did It.”

The final short I want to talk about is titled “Ezekiel” (4), and was probably my favorite short film of the group. It’s only 9 minutes, so I highly recommend watching it before reading on.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/26221663]

The obvious message of the short is that people often use religion as an excuse to do horrible acts. What I found interesting wasn’t so much this overarching theme, but the journey that Ezekiel goes through. He is obviously quite religious, and thus rather deluded, but he just wants to be a good person and help others. On his journey throughout San Francisco, he encounters many strange and wonderful things, of which he is curious to explore. I especially like the scene of his discovery in the forest. Here he has found something wonderful and seems keen to explore it, but is interrupted by his mentor and ultimately forgets about it. He eventually learns what the entire trip was about, and yet he doesn’t leave the house. Why not, I wonder? Perhaps he felt an obligation to his mentor, perhaps he simply felt lost in his moment of disillusionment and didn’t know what else to do. Finally, why did he jump in the pool? Was it because he was so disillusioned and his world was crashing in that he didn’t know what else to do? Was it a feint to get the other two to stop fighting? I’m not really sure. I could also be approaching this wrong. Perhaps it’s not his motivations that are important, but what it symbolizes in the greater context of the story…perhaps a washing away of his old beliefs? I think that it’s the ambiguity that I really like about this short film. What are your thoughts?

(1) “Atheist Film Festival.” Atheist Film Festival. Available: http://sfatheistfilmfestival.org/
(2) “Roxie Theater.” Roxie Theater. Available: http://www.roxie.com/
(3) “Creedocide.” Daily Motion. Avialable: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8fkrq_creedocide_fun Note: I’m not really sure who originally created the short, so I can’t properly credit him/her.
(4) Izenberg, Josh. “Ezekiel.” The San Francisco Egotist. Available: http://www.thesfegotist.com/news/local/2011/july/20/ezekiel-part-san-francisco-48-hour-film-project