As usual I’ve got a lot of different considerations floating in my mind about that favorite art of mine; cinema. A recent film I saw, Shame, has brought some interesting thoughts about narrative construction to mind. In particular the role and nature of the protagonist/antagonist dynamic in creating drama. I’d like to start with some narrative arts 101, just go over the most basic things about protagonist/antagonist dynamics I can think of. Then I’ll look at Shame which, in its deft synthesis of tension throughout, creates an interesting case concerning these really simple characteristics of the narrative form. I’ll be sure to do some critic work concerning this movie too. The parts, I think, are fairly separated and distinct but I really wanted to tackle both to some degree. I also think that there is a pretty good relation between the general topic of narrative and structuring a narrative and the particular case in Shame. Nevertheless, I have tried to mark the sections sufficiently that all three thousand odd words need not be read all at once.
Back to freshman English. So we all have a sense of what narrative is. In some respects, little more than a progression from point A to point B in time, space, whatever, could be a narrative. Just not a very interesting one necessarily. So even our simplest narratives--the Odyssey, a journey from Troy to Ithaca, for instance--have the complicating characteristics of protagonists, such as Odysseus, antagonists, such as Poseidon to create the drama that makes such a point to point story interesting.
I was taught that the protagonist has a goal. A goal set the protagonist apart in some degree. Odysseus to return home; Luke to destroy the Death Star or perhaps, in a more a more careful reading, to become a Jedi (but I won’t weigh in on any Star Wars today). My point is that these are archetypal examples of protagonists in that they are characters with a goal. I was taught that features like heroism, or primacy in the narrative, or (and this I added later in my standard characteristics of a protagonist) the role of a conduit for the audience into the story, were secondary to a character’s role and definition as a protagonist. These qualities were secondary despite the fact that our archetypal protagonists are often heroes, introduced early in the story, and effective tools for an author to explain the intricacy in distant or fictional locations or stories.
The satisfaction one gains in experiencing the story of the protagonist usually comes from these secondary characteristics though. I’ll cull some examples later but I think it’s safe to say that different takes on the old paradigms are more interesting but the simple construction is most enduring. Having the character be a conduit for understanding the story makes the audience invested and empathetic with the character; the audience likes the protagonists because the protagonist has directly or indirectly taught the audience something about himself, or the world he lives in, or even been reflective of the audience in ways that engages the audience and generates sympathy, empathy, or affinity.
Heroism is only a little different. People like a hero because he usually stands for something, and defends what he stands for against seemingly universal injustices. We don’t question a hero’s opposition to injustice and the drama of a story is often an audience’s investment in the hero’s championship over it. I think that people also like to have the vicarious experience of being totally just or surmounting great opposition because these are deemed worthwhile qualities and actions especially because they are hard. From a historical perspective, archetypal heroes are more heroic the older the story is. Achilles, it might be argued, has very few human characteristics as his heroic characteristics are almost his only characteristics. Our more modern Bats-Man are usually seen as more human as they feel and fail in their just struggle. Either way, heroics make for good or cooler protagonists but not necessarily all protagonists.
Primacy in the story is also useful to a a narrative with a protagonist. In Shakespeare we see some good examples of prime protagonists. Hamlet begins with the soldiers at the gate seeing the ghost. As I recall, after some Elizabethan hubbub Soldier 1 says “damn, shit just got real.” Then Soldier 2 says “we should tell Hamlet, the eponymous protagonist, how real shit just got.” Then I recall a scene change followed by the swift introduction of Hamlet saying “damn, this shit so real.” The effect is that we see the stage set, but as soon as possible the protagonist inhabits that stage almost completely and indefinitely. This construction seems to move the action along pretty well even in a four hour long play.
However, primacy is not necessary for the protagonist either. My favorite example of primacy not being a defining characteristic of a protagonist is Fargo. Marge Gunderson is the protagonist, but she arrives very late in the movie, almost the last character introduced. How, then, is she identified as the protagonist? Well in addition to exhibiting all the other characteristics of a usual protagonist--heroism, a conduit--in some degree, she happens to have the goal of discovering and stopping the murderous goons and returning Minnesota to normalcy. While it might be said that the goons have goals to, therefore being some kind of protagonists themselves, I think that their propensity toward evasion from Marge gives them the role of antagonist (which I will discuss next) despite having goals and being introduced almost twice as early and having their true motivation become more clear in retrospect.
See I was also taught that the defining characteristic of an antagonist was that they were a character who’s primary goal is to stop or thwart the protagonist. I like this definition for a lot of reasons. Again there can be standard additions to this definition--ulterior motivations, marshall forces, and so on--but it really is the motivation of a character that makes him an antagonist. Standard conditions that apply to antagonists usually denote a villain rather than the pure antagonist. I think that this distinction between antagonist and villain would be clear by comparing the xenomorph from Alien with Darth Vader from Star Wars. One, the xenomorph, serves only as the hindrance to the protagonist. It becomes the goal of the protagonist in Alien to stop the xenomorph. Darth Vader is more complex as a character. Vader boasts his own origin story and powers that make him a more engaging character. But his function in Star Wars is fairly straight forward. And while they both have some powers that make them difficult or more compelling as antagonists--acid blood, red lightsabers--on a scale of pure antagonist to villain, we find these two characters at opposite ends of the spectrum.
So the narrative is often augmented by these characters or situations that take the form of protagonist and antagonist. These characters are further augmented to become heroes and villains with the addition of standard qualities.The narrative though is simply moving from one point to the next, the quality of the story develops along the lines the protagonist and antagonist take. That is to say, the drama or comedy in the story comes from the characters’ approach to the situation. And yes, protagonist/antagonist dynamics, it could be argued, are central to all narrative genres. Just look at a movie like Airplane! I’d like to point out that the classic narrative forms that most closely adhere to these paradigms are among the most seen if not most popular works of their type in history. The Odyssey, Hamlet, Star Wars, and Superman are for their standardly narrative forms--literature, theater, film, and comics respectively--among the most popular and most seen stories prove the point that the classic construction is useful, popular, and even powerful or nearly universal. The narrative and characters in these works are almost paradigmatic, but the augmentation of each paradigm in these stories makes them all incredibly different but no less engaging.
I’d like to conclude this introduction of narrative elements, how they work together, and the general effect changing them has, by making the point clear that adherence to the forms is not the only way to tell a story. I’ve already highlighted one of my favorite examples that does not conform so rigidly--Fargo-- and there are many others. A Clockwork Orang, Fight Club, and Pulp Fiction come to mind with differing levels of effectiveness. But what I think is fascinating is the amount by which these very simple elements can change. In the following pages, I’m going to talk about Shame as an example of an interesting construction of a narrative.
I think that this is an interesting case because the dramatic tension in Shame is so high, the literal cast of characters so limited, but the creation of the tension is very different from the more standard examples I’ve covered in this section. What’s more, it’s not exactly a matter of creative use of these basic characteristics in Shame that make it so interesting. Shame is not some new, maverick take on old forms. Neither is it particularly some great turning point in narrative form. What is amazing about Shame is how well it creates emotion and dramatic tension with such downplayed archetypes. Normally one is struck by the differentness of the narratives that break from the norm. I wasn’t immediately stuck in this case. Shame has powerful characters because of the very human characteristics each character is predicated on. It makes for a departure from the normal methods of story telling, but not a departure from expectations about the characters’ humanity. In fact, I find the characters’ more compelling as a result.
So Shame. If you’re aware of this movie you’re probably aware of its NC-17 rating and have a notion that its main theme is sex addiction. Admittedly, this movie boasts its fair share of graphic sex. Yet this concept of sex addiction as a central theme was less present. I’d rather use the word promiscuous when talking about Shame’s main character, Brandon. Yeah, he has a lot of relatively uncaring sex with a lot of partners, but I think the power of the character, and ultimately the power of the movie, is that Brandon wields his promiscuity like a weapon. With this in mind we can begin to see the fascinating ways in which Shame plays with our standard narrative’s characteristics.
I’m inclined to say that Brandon is the protagonist in Shame. Certainly, in so far as Shame is clearly about Brandon, about his life, he is the main character. Being the main character is, as I said, a standard quality of protagonists. Now it would be easy to say that a character such as Brandon is difficult to relate to. Brandon’s lonely, sex addled lifestyle is not something every viewer has experience with. It isn’t easy to relate to a hero either, but we make the effort because it seems worthwhile. Unlike Brandon, my day does not revolve around a daily satisfaction of sexual pleasure the way his seems to at times. But I think I’m cognizant of the male gaze and a cyclical experience of time which Shame constructs in its early scenes.
So to begin with, we see Brandon go through a cycle of days cut together with a single train ride. Right off the bat, the juxtaposition of many days’ events with one day’s makes a point about repetition and perceived stability in one’s lifestyle. When Steve McQueen, the director, makes Brandon’s apartment nearly sterile with a lot of flat whites and some blues, we get a painfully clear look at specific actions. Suffice it to say Michael Fassbender walks through his abode several times the same way and even his pale flesh tones stand out. This opening hits the viewer with some relatively accessable themes; Brandon’s normative qualities, he’s a man who gets up every morning, he rides the train and so forth. We also gain a sense, as I said, of the cyclical qualities of his life, a strong sense of rhythm is established. In these ways there is a certain degree of empathy for this character even though one’s average tastes my find Brandon’s lifestyle objectionable or unusual. Suffice it to say that Fassbender’s astounding performance and McQueen’s clean style get the viewer close to Brandon right from the start.
Therein is another very standard characteristic of a protagonist. Literally Brandon is the first thing we see in this movie. He’s laying there in bed, getting up and going about his day. And I can say without ruining anything that Brandon is the last thing we see in this movie too. In fact, he’s back on the train. That’s an important feature because it lends an argument to proving that this is Brandon’s story. Perhaps that doesn’t make him the protagonist, but it makes it more likely if we are following his arc between these two points. So I think that it is realizing Brandon’s primacy, since he lacks any heroism, that most convinces me that he is the protagonist here.
There is a conceivable story of redemption though, or perhaps of healing if that’s what you look for in a movie like this. The ending finds Brandon at a junction where he could either try to continue his promiscuous lifestyle or could choose to “get better” in the eyes of the judgmental viewer. And so there is an argument that could be made that Brandon’s goal, whether he knows it or not, is to overcome the obstacle such a promiscuous lifestyle can pose. It could also be a return to the status quo. Because he is there beginning to end we can look for some change on his part and determine the personal nature of that change i.e. does he effect it for himself. If healing is Brandon’s goal it is very tacitly stated and not dealt with particularly well on his part.
When we realize what’s really at stake in this movie, though, the whole concepts of protagonist/antagonist, dramatic tension get taken for a ride. On the assumption that Brandon is the protagonist, the tension and drama of the story should usually be his struggle against some adversary directly or adversity more indirectly. Protagonists combat or cope with the antagonist and thus generate drama and tension in the story. Shame doesn’t give the viewer the satisfaction of even a grey area. I suppose I should be thankful that this was an effective choice in the case of this movie as it leaves you questioning your own values.
The tension in Shame is so high because the viewer recognizes the potential Brandon has to do something unsavory or immoral. Though it’s not necessarily the case that an antagonist does something immoral, such a threat is most compelling. In fact it is possible for an antagonist to have nothing but good intentions or even to have no intentions as any Man versus Nature story would show us. In Shame, however, Brandon almost becomes his own antagonist; the only thing standing in the way of living out his promiscuous lifestyle are his own inhibitions in the presence of particular people.
The eventual introduction of his sister, aptly named Sissy, is a catalyst for Brandon’s inner strife along these lines. The moment we first see Sissy, the question if Brandon would rape her seems real and almost necessary given his track record. Well he doesn’t go that far, but the struggle he faces is not to let himself do something unsavory while she is living with him. Late in the movie Brandon articulates his sense that Sissy’s presence is a burden. It seems almost, although Brandon could easily screw anything that moves, that he is somehow a fairly benevolent philanderer, or at least one not all together separate from a viewer’s most liberal sensibilities, when left to his own devices. That is to say, his partners all seem pretty willing. But all too easily, it could get ugly. Therein is the tension. The words rape and incest flash in the viewer’s mind. And Shame never lets up.
So I think that this is a really interesting way of telling the story. See Brandon is not the object of much judgement or ridicule. I feel like if his sister was a nun there’d be a really obvious odd couple moment where their ideologies conflict. That the problems Brandon faces are almost entirely for himself make Shame the impressive film that it is in many respects. A viewer almost has to ask where Brandon’s few inhibitions come from in comparison to his easy promiscuity. Shame also dares the viewer to judge Brandon. How objectionable are Brandon’s actions? Why, if we conclude his actions are objectionable, do we deem them as such? Perhaps most challengingly, Shame tempts its viewers to consider if Brandon’s potential actions are really any worse than his actual actions.
It’s really amazing that Shame is able to do all this with one character. But while some critics have expressed a certain lack of development or direction in this movie’s characters, I think that the complexity and conflict within each character is incredibly realistic and compellingly brought forth. It’s the case with many characters in Shame, but Brandon is most dominating and most compelling. For example, I think that it’s wrong to say that Brandon’s life spirals out of control over the course of the movie or even as a result of Sissy’s arrival per se. More accurately the movie shows the contradictions of Brandon’s life choices brought to the surface in a terribly dramatic way with Sissy’s own problems being present.
Some of Brandon’s complexity is clearly evidenced by a dinner scene where he makes it clear that there is a strong philosophy in his life and not just an overdeveloped sex drive. Although we’re not led to believe that every time he gets in bed with someone he is acting on some bizarre set of principles, but it shows that there is no reason to say “you are addicted to sex” the way one would say “you are addicted to crack.” The scene was a compelling alternative to the cliché you are an addict scene.
Of course it is a credit to Fassbender that he can portray this character with all his contradictions and conflicting qualities so well. Because, I think, Shame really does bend the conventions of story telling by synthesizing the protagonist and antagonist in this one character, Fassbender clearly has to play a very subtle role in some more extreme scenes. I think, with four other movies coming out this year, he did a phenomenal job first by not getting tripped up in the inherent conflation of his role’s characteristics. But second, Fassbender made a really believable character with a pretty overwhelming attention to detail in his performance.
Honestly, though, we shouldn’t be so surprised. Coming out of the theater I realized my own conflicts and contradictions as a person. As consistent as I try to be on all points, very often I find myself chasing my tail, going back on myself, or just not making any sense. Realizing these characteristics of myself makes me feel strangely close to Brandon as a person. That’s not to say that I, or even most people, empathize with Brandon’s sexscapades, but I think that most people would empathize with Brandon’s human characteristics. Such characteristics were perfectly brought out by Fassbender in this interestingly synthesized narrative.
So I have already touched on this briefly, but I’d like to underscore and analyze some of the director’s choices in this movie that elevate Fassbender’s performance and also bring out the dynamics at work here. It comes down to two pretty bold choices on Steve McQueen’s part; austerity in production design and long takes. I say that these are bold choices because both leave less room for error on the part of the filmmaker. McQueen, as a photographer and art filmmaker, was probably up to the task though. Nevertheless, I don’t think that it would change the fact that these choices make filming difficult and could easily have made the meaning and purpose less clear. I think that McQueen really made both the economic style and the long takes work to his advantage.
So the minimalist characteristics are fairly straight forward. Whites dominate the set dressing here. This is a really powerful choice because it makes it impossible for the actors to hide at all. I think that there is a challenge to period pieces, for instance, where actors have to act correctly with the paraphernalia of the period. But minimalism is also a challenge. Everything is laid bare in Brandon’s apartment. Seeing his periodic walks, naked, around the partition to his whitewashed bedroom bring to the forefront every movement he makes. What’s more, the minimalism requires a keen eye to make the shots interesting. By showing shadows and creating two toned walls, McQueen evokes the most daring and abstract modernism.
McQueen is clearly a very visual director. He wants to make every shot look good. I think that that is almost impossible with long takes. Inevitably composition breaks down. The image looses it’s beauty. Such is the case with long takes. Not so in Shame. I was impressed by the carefully constructed and often subtle changes in the longest shots. The immediate effect was that each shot was beautiful and the changes were unobtrusive. Holding those two qualities in a long shot is the gold standard of nouvelle vague filmmaking and so few pull it off.
Now I’m not going to bog myself down in trying to find some meaning here. I don’t think Shame is really replete in visual motifs the way some other films are. Yet the visuals here do a lot to assist this movie. I find that minimalism requires the viewer to recognize the humanity of the characters over a gulf. In a visually similar movie to Shame, THX 1138, the plight of the characters is compelling despite the peculiar future they live in. This is because the viewer is drawn to character’s movements and expressions against a totally white background. Then again, who really lives in such a space? A performance is made most clear against a minimalist background a good performance leaves the human qualities highest in many cases.
Long takes are similar, they demand a lot from the actors and crew in that every action has to be perfect and a mistake means a lot of reshooting. I think the consistency and deliberate nature each shot in this movie has is pretty remarkable. The usual effect of long shots, I should note though, is a naturalistic effect. The movie can feel more like reality with long takes. In the case of Shame, it’s clearly the point. The audience probably needs a little bit of coaxing into this film, a naturalistic approach can give that route in. I think that it makes for more empathetic scenes in this case. I don’t think Shame tries to be flashy around its editing for instance. McQueen wants stunning shots fully played out. I should also say though that these visual characteristics make for some of the scenes that are considered shocking.
As far as reviewing this movie, I guess I’d better talk about the sex. The sex, pardon the upcoming pun, is intimately related to Fassbender’s performance and McQueen’s directing. Actors very often get some measure of acclaim for compelling sex scenes or scenes in the nude. Sometimes this acclaim is warranted, sometimes not. What surprises me about these sex scenes is how much information we’re getting about the character literally every time he does the dirty. Sex in movies is so often just sealing the deal. I think about Shakespeare in Love; there’s a bit of drama around them doing it, but the sex scenes really only show that the characters are really, really in love.
Not the case in Shame. There are several significant sex scenes in Shame, and I don’t have to unpack each one. But the writing around each scene, the differing situation and circumstances coupled with Fassbender’s incredibly pointed acting, clearly delineates each scene. Each sex scene progresses the character or brings to light some other facet of his complex nature. Little is wasted in this way. Although I guess I’d have to call the scenes graphic, they really are pretty vital.
I think the movie had every reason to be a piece of crap. Shame could easily have been another NC-17 movie that was just going to be uncompromising. The one your dad calls “that sex movie.” I think that it is a risk you run as a writer and director, especially in America, when you make sex an important part of your film. Fortunately this movie needed every bit of it’s NC-17 rating to bring the force to its intricately constructed story. The sex was not just something in the film, it was part of the film in a vital way; violence is to the best parts of Fight Club as sex is to all of Shame.
I think that Fassbender, McQueen, and Shame really distinguished themselves in the movies this year. Shame obviously has a variety of complexities to consider, but it uses them only to its advantage and each fold is necessary. McQueen really did deliver a meaningful and uncompromising vision. It’s artistic and thoughtful, stylish and powerful. But as a movie that makes one character so central and so humanly complex, it is important to have a really incredible performance to tie it together. I dare say that each actor played their part well and even the extras had total role commitment. But Michael Fassbender has really distinguished himself here and made Shame something really special.
That is all.