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12 Movie Moments of 2012: Running (Shame)

As well as counting down the top twelve films, I’m also going to count down my top twelve movie related “moments” of 2012. The term “moment” is elastic, so expect some crazy nonsense here. And, as usual, I accept that my taste is completely absurd, so I fully expect you to disagree. With that in mind, this is #8

It is quite common to see New York presented in an unpleasant light. After all, Martin Scorsese’s films capture the metropolis at its very best and its very worst, and there are countless gangster films devoted to exploring the dark underbelly of a city that is easily one of the most recognisable in the world. I have never been to New York, and yet I feel like – through years of film-watching – I have come to know the city almost as if I have lived there.

As such, I was surprised when Shame managed to offer me a somewhat novel take on New York itself. The city is as much a character in the film as any of Steve McQueen’s supporting cast. (Indeed, Carey Mulligan even gets to perform an extended version of “New York, New York” in tribute to her co-star.) McQueen manages to craft a distinctly unpleasant and uncomfortable exploration of the city without resorting to any of the trite clichés that one associates with the horrors of urban living.

Indeed, one long single-take shot of Brandon running within the confines of the city offered a more powerful sense of urban anomie and isolation than I have ever seen before, presenting a cold blue city completely indifferent and unaware of the millions of people living within the city limits.

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Shame was one of the year’s best films, and not just because leading actor Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen seem to have absolute faith and trust in one another. It has attracted a fair bit of attention for being a fairly uncompromising portrayal of sex addiction, but I always figured there was something a bit more universal at the core of film. It’s a story about an addict managing his own addiction with relative ease inside one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.

New York itself seems complicit in Brandon’s problem. He hooks up anonymously at nightclubs, he flirts with random strangers on the packed subway. When his boss finds a ridiculous amount of pornography on his hard disk drive, it’s handy enough for Brandon to blame one of the temporary interns who shuffle through the PR company. In some dialogue that was perhaps written to explain Fassbender’s distinctly non-American accent, we’re also informed that our lead character has no roots in New York. He is just an immigrant who came over and has himself became an anonymous part of the fabric of the city.

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For “the city that never sleeps”, it seems to turn a blind eye to just about anything that goes on. When he needs to, Brandon can venture into dark basements and seedy clubs in the heart of the city, anonymous places that promise to keep his secrets and enable him to feed his addiction. In Durkheim’s Suicide, the sociologist used the term “anomie” to refer to the sense of “normlessness” found in city living, suggesting that this “derangement” led people to become more isolated from one another.

The wonderful Flight of the Conchords spoofed the concept in their superb Pet Shop Boys parody, Inner City Pressure. “The city is alive,” they sang, “the city is expanding. Living in the city can be demanding.” It appears that Shame would respectfully disagree. Undoubtedly the city is expanding (to the point where Brandon has to run to the edge of a pier into what seems like the middle of a grey and infinite ocean to escape it), the problem with the city is that it isn’t alive, as much as we might like to hope. It’s more of a machine than a living organism, something working more on anonymous cogs than on organic cells.

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Shame feels like something of a logical continuation of Durkheim’s theme, and McQueen suggests that city living is just as complicit in the corruption of the individual. It is New York that feeds Brandon’s addiction, and which is completely indifferent to anything that happens to our lead character. Despite living in a city of buildings with glass fronts, Brandon feels so isolated and anonymous that he feels free to browse porn on his work computer.

McQueen is shrewd in how he handles New York. He makes it seem a distinctly unpleasant place to live, but he doesn’t resort to the usual tricks. The city looks beautiful when shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. The blue glass and metal creates the impression of a towering accomplishment. There’s little of the washed-out brown, or the dumpsters, or the hints of urban decay that we frequently see when a director is trying to make a major city appear unattractive. Instead, New York seems practically sterile.

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And that sterility is the key to the horror of Shame. The version of New York in Shame isn’t a terrible place to live because it has a high crime rate, or because of drug problems or other social concerns. Instead, it’s numbing. It’s cold. It’s alien. It’s indifferent. And it seems to stretch on in every direction forever. There’s a sense that – were one to run fast enough and long enough – one could be lost in the gaps between the skyscrapers towering over the city blocks. That it might eat you, and nobody would ever notice that you were gone.

That long, single tracking shot of Brandon as he goes for a jog is a powerful moment. Walking in on his boss and his girlfriend, Brandon needs to clear his head. He needs to get out, to get away, but he can’t. He runs. He runs for a long time. We know that there’s no trickery involved because the camera is on him for every second. The city is just there. There’s a sense that no matter how far Brandon runs, he will never be able to get out of the city. It’s powerful stuff, and it’s all done in one take, scored by Harry Escott’s powerful soundtrack.

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It helps that the sequence also simply looks fantastic. McQueen has a wonderful eye. As I mentioned above, Shame is powerful because McQueen manages to make the city look beautiful, perhaps too beautiful. It’s a simple concept, but the single scene carries so much weight in the context of the film. McQueen’s direction is just superb, and it becomes one of the most powerful moments of the year in cinema, and something that somehow becomes so much more than just a guy running.

Check out our other movie moments of 2012:

12. We Built This City (Rock of Ages)

11. September (Intouchables)

10. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises, Premium Rush, Looper)

09. Throwing the toys together (The Avengers)

08. Running (Shame)

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