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Angel eyes that old devil sent: Michael Fassbender and SHAME

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Angel eyes that old devil sent: Michael Fassbender and SHAME Empty Angel eyes that old devil sent: Michael Fassbender and SHAME

Post by Admin on Wed Nov 30, 2011 6:20 pm

Angel eyes that old devil sent: Michael Fassbender and SHAME
Features by Dan Callahan | November 29, 2011 | 1 Comment

It didn’t happen all at once. Michael Fassbender snuck up on me. In Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), the story of Irish freedom fighter Bobby Sands, Fassbender was essential to the narrative, but the film is shot in such a way that it keeps you at a distance from him. That’s a movie where the emphasis is not on his face but on his tormented body being dragged and tossed around by prison officials in the same curiously voluptuous fashion that marked Brad Davis’s semi-porny imprisonment in Midnight Express (1978). In 2009, Fassbender played a jaunty film critic in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and again, he wasn’t allowed to dominate that movie, though he did show flashes of wit. It was only when I saw Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, made that same year, that I was suddenly thunderstruck by this actor, and it happened in his very first scene.

Teenaged Mia (Katie Jarvis) is dancing in her kitchen to a rap video on a small TV. Her moves are shy, even a little scared. She would like to be sexy. When Mia turns around, she realizes that she’s being watched by Fassbender’s Connor, her mother’s new boyfriend. “Don’t mind me, girl,” Connor says. “Carry on. I was enjoying it.” He’s shirtless, and his face wears an extremely attractive lightly bemused look. Connor has noticed Mia in a private moment, and so he knows all about her all at once, and Fassbender’s expressive eyes show lots of things to her all at once. There’s sexual desire, but it’s defused by his tender amusement, as if to say, “Just who are you, miss? You’re sort of special or weird, aren’t you?”

Connor strolls away from the door out of the shot and asks Mia if she’d like some breakfast, and Arnold cuts to Connor at the kitchen cabinet looking over at the girl. His blue jeans are as far down his hips as possible, and there’s no roundabout way to say this: Fassbender has probably the most beautifully small, tapered, elongated male waistline since Montgomery Clift broke Olivia de Havilland’s heart in his tailored suits in The Heiress (1949). “I’m a friend of your mother’s,” Connor explains, in a low, light Irish accent. “You dance like a black,” he says, in the same careful, low tone. Arnold cuts to Mia looking confused. “It’s a compliment,” Connor tells her, and Arnold frames Fassbender so that the light from the kitchen window falls into the two dimples in the small of his back.
Michael Fassbender in "Fish Tank"

He makes coffee, and Arnold shows us shots of Mia starting to let herself notice how Connor is putting his body on display for her, even giving us a shot from her point of view that mimics her looking him up and down. Connor knows what he’s doing. He’s giving her a look, and so is Fassbender for us, in the smart, near-comic way that say, Jessica Lange let us look at her body in King Kong (1976). In the various shots, Fassbender’s blue jeans seem to move up and down his hips as if he were doing some kind of kitchen sink burlesque act. The camera loves him. Connor leaves, finally, and Mia watches him walk up the stairs. It only lasts a minute or two, this scene, but Fassbender walks into that kitchen an actor and he walks out of it a star.

Fish Tank is a problematic movie because it sets up Fassbender’s Connor as deeply appealing and compassionate and then tries to shoehorn him into an uncaring, near-villainous role by the end. Arnold shot the film chronologically and she only showed parts of the script to her actors as they went along; this was a bad idea, particularly for Fassbender. He’s under a disadvantage because he’s played the character one way throughout and then he has to try to reveal sinister motives and feelings that he hasn’t been able to prepare us for. Still, his performance in that movie was enough for me to search out as much of his other work as I could, and I found mainly fragments; an Agatha Christie villain here, a sadomasochistic action hero there. Fassbender himself credits his first break to François Ozon, who gave him a prominent role as an artist in Angel (2007), but that’s a disaster where he has to play most of his scenes opposite Romola Garai, and she’s busy giving the most thoroughly miscalculated female comic performance since Kim Cattrall in Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Fassbender played leading man to a baby cub in A Bear Named Winnie (2004), and he had a minute or so dancing in the TV movie Wedding Belles (2007) that rivaled The Kitchen Scene in Fish Tank for sheer “the camera loves every move I make!” showing off. But this year, Fassbender has played in four movies, and it was clear in all four of them that he was in charge, the lead, and an actor I would gladly see in anything. He also seems to me an actor who might succeed in anything he likes. Yes, he can cash a bigger paycheck and headline an action commodity like X-Men: First Class. But I see no reason why he can’t also occasionally come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and play some Beckett.

Fassbender is Irish and German, an odd combination. To be stereotypical, the Irish side is for the romantic leads, for Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, brooding in front of the fire and eying Mia Wasikowska’s Jane with his limpid, curious blue eyes. Fassbender has a thin mouth, a large forehead and a strong jaw-line, and he might be non-descript or maybe even cruel-looking if it weren’t for those rare eyes of his, which follow fellow actors around unwaveringly and take to the camera like heat-seeking missiles. I was going to say that he has an open face, but that’s not quite true; it’s more to the point to say that he keeps his face “open” until he’s ready to showcase what he’s feeling and thinking. Fassbender is an economical performer; there’s no actorly fuss in his work, no mannerisms as yet. He knows that he just needs to show up to hold the screen with his eyes and the movements of his graceful, neatly made body.

The methodical German side of him is more in evidence in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, where he plays straight man to Viggo Mortensen’s Freud and ferociously spanks Keira Knightley’s power bottom analysand. That commitment to sexual deviation finds full expression in Shame, which feels like the first real Fassbender vehicle in that it hinges entirely on him and his minute facial reactions and (especially) on the constant workout of his body walking and running through space. It’s a small, diagrammatic movie that tries to be The Lost Weekend (1945) of sexual addiction, and it begins with a shot of Fassbender staring up at the ceiling, his body covered by blue sheets. McQueen holds the shot just long enough for us to wonder what Fassbender’s Brandon is thinking, but really, the matching combination of the actor’s ice cold blue eyes and the ice cold blue sheets is more than sufficient on a purely visual level to hold our attention. Craft and thought have been put into Shame, and it’s handsomely shot in widescreen by Sean Bobbitt, but the film would be nothing without Fassbender, who gives himself entirely over to the idea of sex without intimacy as a joyless compulsion.

He’s been naked in movies before, and he’s naked in Shame, but so is Carey Mulligan, who plays his needy sister Sissy, and, most touchingly, Nicole Beharie as Marianne, an office co-worker who Brandon tries to seriously date. The nudity is not salacious, and it’s in the service of a theme that isn’t supposed to be sexy, but McQueen’s Shame is like Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) in that it will probably be enjoyed more for its surface pleasures than for any easily disregarded critique of those pleasures. Still, when Brandon decides to throw away all of his porn paraphernalia, it really is somewhat horrifying just how much of it there is and just how hidden away it is. Porn is everywhere in his life, so that when he gets in bed with Marianne and she makes the mistake of stopping for a moment to stroke and frame his face with her hands, Brandon can’t perform. To be turned on, he can’t feel that the other person sees him specifically, and he’s definitely afraid of seeing someone else in a sexually specific way.

But we can hardly blame Brandon too much. David (James Badge Dale), his boss, is a married man who aggressively pursues other women at bars with Brandon but fails because he’s so charmlessly pushy and hapless (a point is made of David thinking that John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” is just weird “elevator music,” whereas Brandon has a collection of vinyl records and plays the Glenn Gould/Bach Goldberg Variations when he’s alone, not the cheerful first 1955 recording, of course, but Gould’s hobbled, hurt 1981 second version). And so when David almost instantly succeeds in hooking up with Sissy, it’s exquisitely painful for the dandyish Brandon because it somehow confirms his own self-loathing that his sister would sleep with this jerky, lowbrow guy.

But this is complicated by my favorite moment in Fassbender’s performance. He’s watching David flirt with Sissy. Those icy eyes turn to his boss and focus for a moment, and it’s clear that Brandon sort of likes David, or feels some furtive affection for him, but then his eyes cloud over with barely controlled anger. Fassbender is a major new film actor mainly because of how expressive his face is; he can just hold it stock-still and keep his eyes open and every feeling and thought he has is reflected back to us. And his rage comes from a genuinely dangerous place. There are lots of actors who yell at scene partners and try hard to work up anger but it doesn’t really land. When Fassbender yells at Mulligan in Shame, he’s so forceful that you would think she would stay yelled at, but the sad thing about Sissy is that she’s unreachable.

Shame only hints at the trauma that made Brandon and Sissy what they are, and we could use just a little more information about them. This is a movie that could be a little longer; the characters are so strongly written and played that it would be enlightening to see how they would act in more situations, in bars or at home, with other people. It’s a film that needs another character or two for them to bounce off of, and the movie flirts with silliness when Brandon goes on a sex bender toward the end. Outside a favored club, a bouncer tells him, “No, not you tonight,” and so he slips into a gay sex club to get some relief. He’s totally dissociated from his body and from specific desire, so it makes sense that he could get off from a sex act with a man, but I had to laugh when Brandon submitted to being kissed by a bearded guy before getting the blow job he came for (the shame!). In the context of a gay sex club, you aren’t likely to have to kiss somebody to get some head. But maybe that kiss should just be filed under The Awful Irony of It All.

Shame is a grim movie, and it’s persuasive most of the time in its carefully molded way, but the natural reaction, I think, is to laugh a bit at its conservative despair and just enjoy the show of Fassbender walking around naked in “sex again!” circles, swinging across the screen in a way that might have good-natured Ewan McGregor slapping his forehead and crying, “I’ve been bested!” Whether or not you believe in sex addiction, Fassbender makes a case for it while also making a case for himself as an actor with such natural charisma and authority that he might make anything persuasive.

Dan Callahan has contributed pieces on film and theater to Alt Screen, Time Out New York, The L Magazine, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, and many other publications. His first book, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, will be published Feb. 1, 2012. He is an Associate Editor at Siman Media Works.

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