wild colonial girl

A freelancer moves to Castlemaine

Addictive films: Silver Linings Playbook + Shame

Michael Fassbender, Shame

Michael Fassbender, Shame

I always thought ‘sex addict’ was a term made up by Hollywood’s testosterone-fuelled stars like Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen to explain away lascivious nights out on the town, to excuse raucous behaviour. But Steve McQueen’s intriguing and powerful film, Shame, has made me rethink it in terms of addiction. The film hinges on Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a New York executive, who lives to pick up.

There’s hardly a moment in his day when he’s not thinking about sex: he prowls around his co-workers; he watches porn on his computer when he gets home; he masturbates frantically in the office toilets.

But there’s nothing appealing about his world. Conversations with women. Friendship. These matter little. All he wants is to get the next hit. A shag up against the window before the woman leaves his apartment. The faster the better.

But when it comes to a woman he might actually like? He can’t do it. A memorable scene has Brandon going out on a date. While she questions him on relationships, he is unable to answer, but remains honest; it’s not what he’s looking for. Making the mistake we all make, the woman takes it as a challenge; she can change him. But later, when the clothes are peeled off, he is for the first time unable to respond sexually. Any hint at intimacy and he is terrified.

Steve McQueen’s films are not easy to watch. Hunger (which also stars Fassbender and won the Caméra d’Or award for first-time filmmakers at Cannes) is a visceral exploration of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike. As he starves, you almost feel your own body wasting away as you watch it. Shame too focuses on the body and how it can destroy you, your sense of self, your ability to reach out to others.

And then there’s the concept of shame itself. I’ve often wondered about shame. Some people feel it acutely; others never experience it at all. When does it begin? Where does it come from?

Chronic shame usually originates in childhood, and uncovering the experiences that led to shame can help relieve shame, as can engaging in new experiences that foster a sense of goodness and worth. Shame is sometimes rooted in experiences of a sexual nature, whether consensual or not, that were, in the child’s perception or understanding, not accepted or acceptable to adults; that is, children who engage in sexual activities, or who are abused sexually, may develop a sense of shame about their role in these acts, if adults do not take steps to reassure them of their essential goodness and innocence, and especially if adults shame them on purpose. Some level of shame usually reveals itself in anyone engaged in therapy. Becoming aware of our shame is the first step towards working through it. (GoodTherapy.org)

Bradley Cooper + Robert de Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

Bradley Cooper + Robert de Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

While Shame is a complex and revealing look at addiction and mental illness, Silver Linings Playbook is more a Hollywood-does-crazy with a bit of Strictly Ballroom and Dirty Dancing thrown in — so the cineplex audiences can stand up and cheer at the end, and not worry about bipolar too much. I got caught up in the hype of seeing our Jackie Weaver playing it opposite Robert de Niro (and though she has about five lines to say, on repeat, she holds her own, and is nominated for an Oscar). I’ve always been somewhat doubtful that Bradley Cooper can act. I admit it, cock-jock US actors don’t do a thing for me, even though I enjoyed The Hangover. I like my men slightly strange, or awkward, or darkly brooding or, well, foreign. Cue Johnny Depp or Javier Bardem or that guy who’s the kind-of boyfriend opposite Lena Dunham in Girls.

Anyway, I retract my opinion of Cooper. He manages to be intense and vulnerable at the same time, in a character (Pat) who’s also addicted — not to shame this time — but to intimacy. After some time in a mental institution, he’s fixated on getting his wife back and addicted to the notion that her love will sustain him (even though he nearly beat her lover to death). 

I thought the scene in the film where Pat hears a song (‘Ma Cherie Amour’) — his wedding song; the song playing when he almost kills his rival — and goes nuts in a psychiatrist’s office was played for laughs (the crowd I was in responded that way, perhaps because of the elevator-music appeal of the song) and was interested to hear more about triggers.

A trigger can be thought of as anything that brings back thoughts, feelings, and memories that have to do with addiction (like a computer reminding a sex addict of porn). In addiction research, these are often simply called cues … triggers not only bring about responses that make you think about the drug. In fact, over and over in learning and addiction research, it’s been shown that triggers actually bring back drug seeking, and drug wanting, behavior. As soon as a cue (or trigger) is presented, both animals and humans who have been exposed to drugs for an extended period of time, will go right back to the activity that used to bring them drugs even after months of being without it. In fact, their levels of drug seeking will bounce back as if no time has passed.  (Psychology Today)

So there you go. Perhaps the movie wasn’t being far fetched. Of course it’s hard to break down a mental illness into two hours of viewing pleasure. The peaks and lows, the repetitive behaviour, the joy and shame: they have to be condensed. Or turned into a hoe-down with funny dance positions.

I’m wondering now if I have any triggers. They are not so obvious. But there are songs where I always cry in the same spot no matter what I’m doing or thinking. Leonard Cohen’s Anthem is one. And now I’m thinking of that song, I’m thinking of its connections, what it triggers in me, of my aunt who loved that song, who died of breast cancer a few years ago in her early 50s, she was an aunt, a godmother and a best friend, who died the day after I went to see Leonard Cohen sing at the vineyards, who was so sick she couldn’t use her ticket, so I heard that song and lay down under the stars that night, and thought of her, and the next day as I moved through her death, his words floated with me, and they became her anthem in a way, and my way of coming to understand what losing someone so precious might mean, words that helped show me how I might begin to resurface:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.




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14 thoughts on “Addictive films: Silver Linings Playbook + Shame

  1. Music always triggers a very complicated multiplicity of emotions in/for me. Music is how I dealt with all of the death that happened in my childhood and adolescence. It elicits emotions that can destroy me on a daily basis, but I think it’s a good thing to be unnerved, and at the same time, liberated from your past.

    • Yes, our psychological responses to music are so fascinating. It can be our undoing but I love your idea of seeing it as liberating. Do you find it helps to build you up too?

      • Absolutely. I use music to get myself moving *a lot*. But like Nikki writes, the emotions that music elicits can be crippling. There’s one particular song that I couldn’t listen to for many years, but now I can. Yes, it still makes me sad, but it doesn’t make me feel sick to the point of throwing up. Thank goodness that’s over 🙂

  2. i have seen both movies, and agree that ‘shame’ was a good movie but it was too ‘uncomfortable’ for me at the time to watch, for various reasons. I might have to watch it again.
    I liked ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ A LOT ! Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Laurence both convinced in a story way less mainstream than their former work (or what I knew of them then, namely hangover and hunger games. meh) . Yes, there were laughs and dancings. But, just like ‘Schindler’s List’ got criticism from the side of historians, survivors etc, it still remains an important step by Hollywood to bring some sort of knowledge to the masses via entertainment.
    My husband is bipolar and he felt the same. It is great to have these famous actors (incl. deNiro who was totally ace as the OCD father) on board to raise awareness to a condition MANY people deal with all over the world.
    (also Bradley Cooper is a little bit smexy.)
    I have PTSD and a good list of emotional triggers. they don’t really make me DO things as such (like violently lashing out or whatever) but they will easily bring me into the situation of NOT being able to do what I had planned. This can be writing, watching a movie, sleeping or applying for a job. Some of the triggers are physical (sight things) others are mere words, expressions or thoughts. I am intentionally not mentioning any, so I won’t go into blockage right after this. …

    • Thanks, Nikki. Really interested to hear your view on Silver Linings – and your husband’s. I guess if it rings true for someone with bipolar, that’s the best thing a film like that can hope for. I agree re de Niro – I actually found that character the most fascinating in the film! Those triggers sounds debilitating, in terms of stopping you from doing things. I hope you got through writing that comment!

      • yeah, cheers it’s fine. i am more in control of it now. i think it’s important for people to know that there are also very silent sufferers of mental illness and debilitating conditions, but it’s great that Hollywood has touched bi-polar disorders with affectionate delusion and violence with this movie in a way that allows even not affected people to connect with the (charming) character.
        DeNiro had an endearing touch but obviously, we know that genetic do play a role for many mental dispositions, so his OCD and gambling behaviour, while fun elements of the movie were actually further clues on the son’s condition and, possibly, the incapacity of the parents to react to it, before the act of violence in the context of his wife cheating etc..
        My husband has the wonderful ability to enjoy movies from all kinds of genres and we watch very ‘wrong’ comedies as much as ‘movies with a message’ together. We both agreed this was an important, still entertaining movie and hope it gets further attention via the Oscars. =)
        really enjoying this blog btw, just sayin’ x

      • I actually found De Niro’s character more disturbing that Pat. You could certainly see the links clearly, and gambling has the power to destroy not only the addict but the entire family (I guess all addictions do that to some degree). I’ll be watching the Oscars if I get a nanna nap.

  3. My best friend has bipolar and she was very excited by Silver Linings Playbook, largely, I think – by the way it showed how crazy we ALL are. It was an interesting juxtaposition – the father’s OCD and also all the sport-mania. Such an accepted form of collective insanity. My best friend hates the way bipolar is often used as a plot device in film and television in an incredibly inaccurate way, but she thought this depiction very true-to-life.

    I haven’t seen Shame, though it sounds thought-provoking. One other thing I thought was interesting in Silver Linings Playbook was the way the film dealt with Tiffany’s sexual past. In a sense, she was also suffering a kind of post-traumatic sex addiction, and I thought it unusual to see a film engage with female sexuality in this way. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

    As to music and triggers, holy moly, I know. My dad died 17 years ago and up until about 3 years ago I couldn’t hear ANY John Lennon songs without falling totally apart. My mind seemed to have fused the two things (dad’s death and JL) irrevocably together. This really sucked cause they play – ‘So this is Christmas’ around the clock in supermarkets in December. But in the past few years I seem to have developed a kind of tolerance to it, though everything about the sound of his voice still reverberates through me like a tidal wave. It’s so f#%king strong.

    • Brilliant comment, thanks Jessie. I am getting increasingly happy that it appears people with bipolar are thrilled with the movie, so I’m clearly looking at it too much with a critic’s aesthetic … Yes, I didn’t go into Tiffany’s character but you’re right! She shares parallels with the character in Shame. I thought it was an interesting and honest portrayal – until she started bloody dancing (and I LOVE dancing). That John Lennon trigger sounds incredibly strong for you. And I can imagine how his voice would crop up everywhere…

      • Hmmm … yes the dancing. The thing is, even though it was predictable that they would get that 5 etc, what I liked about the dancing part was that it wasn’t your typical ‘underdog’-triumphs-Hollywood thing. I was internally rolling my eyes waiting for them to practise so hard they became super-great, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t about that at all. The dancing was important because it provided structure and discipline and commitment and human contact, and the result of the comp only became relevant once the dad made the bet. They weren’t trying to win, they were just trying to make it through. I thought that part of the story was really unusual in a culture that is kind of saturated by a winner-loser ethic.

        And in terms of mental illness, it IS all about getting back on the horse and participating – often initially with limited capacities – which is really challenging.

        The part of the film I thought was a tad unbelievable was that the Pat character would give up his obsession with his wife so easily. I know he’d started taking his meds etc, but in my experience recovering from a psychotic episode is a two steps forward one step back process. I just didn’t really buy it happening in a lightning flash like that. AND I also thought the father character would have had a lot of trouble going outside if he was so OCD and bizarre inside the house. I just figured he’d really struggle in a setting like the dance-comp. You know? They were improbabilities for me which made the ending a little lame. BUT … it was a romantic comedy!!

      • You know, I hadn’t thought of the dancing in that way. I was thinking of it more in terms of the producers watching the film and at some point saying ‘let’s take the easy way out’ but I think you may be right. I always hate the part in Hollywood movies towards the end when the characters have to do some performance and the crowd slowly gets to their feet to applaud (although it can be done right too!). Yeah, I agree re Pat switching off so quickly. I’ll be watching the Oscars with renewed vigour now!

  4. I still have an addictive trigger that is nearly 30 years old. When we were doing the Mad Scientist Show at the Kirribilli Pub Theatre in 1984, my cue to close front of house in preparation for the start of the show was the Divinyls song ‘Science Fiction’. At that point in the evening I would also have my first glass of house white wine. It doesn’t matter what time of day, or where I am, if I hear that song I get a bit excited and nervous and want a glass of cheap white wine – scary!

  5. annabelsmith on said:

    I’m very interested to read the comments on this article, especially in relation to Silver Linings. I didn’t watch the movie because I was pretty incensed by the book’s depiction of mental illness – I thought it was very condescending and inaccurate. But it sounds like they did better with the adaptation.

    I had post-natal depression and have definite triggers which I have learnt to recognise with the help of LOTS of therapy. Anytime my son (now 6) becomes impossible to handle (not so often as he gets older, thankfully), I have a psychological return to the feelings of powerlessness I had as a new mother and it can be very overwhelming.

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