Friday, December 16, 2011

Herr Wozzeck Muses: Lingering Ideas...

Shame brought up a very interesting question for me, I think. Most of these questions were actually fairly critical to how I thought about the film, and it brought me to realize one of the great things about that movie.

My question was this:

Why does Steve McQueen linger on some things for a much longer period of time than others?

It was something I noticed a lot when I was watching Shame, that McQueen would tend to linger a lot on certain pieces of certain scenes. The camerawork tended to live in slightly longer cuts, particularly in Fassbender's scenes where he interacts with other characters. I will admit it was a little jarring to see that the director lingers a lot on the same motif for several minutes, staying on that for a while before something interesting happens. There's a date scene that goes on for a while, there's a scene of intimacy that goes on for a while, and there's an entire scene that messes with our perception of time that goes on for a while close to the end.

But at the end of the day, I think this works to its advantage. For when we get subjected to so much within a certain amount of time, it really jumps at us when something happens. The date scene is necessarily long for a reason that becomes clear later on: it serves as a characterization bit that lets us peer into Brandon's mind when he tries to have sex with her later and ultimately can't bring himself to go all the way with it. A long scene of Carey Mulligan singing focuses almost exclusively on her face, with only a brief glimpse of Brandon's face that tells us everything we need to know about what he's feeling.

But ultimately, I think the fact that McQueen lingers on the same topic for so many minutes is best demonstrated by the last sex scene that occurs in the movie. Let me relate the camera work of the final sex scene of the movie so you can see what I mean...

So the final sex scene is a threesome with Fassbender and two women. What entails is a bunch of extremely close shots of the sex, with some shots getting almost pornographic in how graphic they are. It always cuts to flashes of flesh, bare flesh and nothing but as these three people engage in the act. However, the scene ends not with a wide shot of the act itself, but with a close-up of Michael Fassbender's face as he orgasms. From his facial expression, however, we get the all-too-clear sense that this is an orgasm that is wrought with pain and anger and a great amount of sadness. While Fassbender's acting does so much for the shot, it's the fact that we've seen so much sexualized flesh in the preceeding two or so minutes that really makes the shot work. This is partly because it's the first full shot of Fassbender's face in such a scene, partly also because we don't see the other parties in the shot, and partly because seeing that expression in what's supposed to be the height of ecstasy is rather jarring for the audience, and casts the entire two or so scenes beforehand in a completely different light. It sums up everything about the events leading up to that point in a way that no other edit of the film could have, and it's a critical shot for a character-defining moment.

And in all honesty, that singular shot that lasts for about six or so seconds was literally the point where, at least for me, Shame took a step up from being just a really good movie, and became a movie that I can say is unforgettably great. If we had seen such a shot earlier, I doubt the impact would have been as great as it ultimately was. But thanks to the fact that he lingered on other things before presenting the shot was what ultimately contributes most to how powerful it is.

And that is why lingering on something can be a virtue in film making.

This is Herr Wozzeck Muses. I'll see you guys next time.

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