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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.



Get lost, ya moll! Puberty Blues hits TV

Brenna Harding + Ashleigh Cummings, Puberty Blues

Brenna Harding + Ashleigh Cummings, Puberty Blues

I’m in a bedroom. I’m 10 years old (give or take). There’s a group of us girls. I’m the youngest. The others are family and friends. They’re handing around a book carefully, gingerly, as if it has germs. But they’re reading it hungrily. I’m at the end of the line, keen to see what’s inside. One of the girls (who I don’t know), says: She can’t have it, she’s too young. But I’m family (through the stepkid line). My wonderful 14-year-old rel says, Don’t worry, she’s alright. I get the nod of approval. I feel so honoured. I’m in the in-crowd. I’m handed the copy of Puberty Blues.

At the time it hits me like a tonne of bricks. The language. The brutality of the boys (and girls). The fights with fists. The relentless talk of and desire for sex (even when it seems painful and pointless). The need to conform at any cost. I am seduced and repelled by it. I want to escape this kind of world. I don’t want to go to high school. I escape in a sense (to a girls’ boarding school) for a few years. When I meet boys in their early teens, they may not be surfies but things haven’t moved on (we’re in the 80s now). They communicate with their tongues and their insults. I struggle to remain visible. I want to burst out. My brain’s in here, I want to cry. Can we talk? There’s one boy. I use the word impersonate. He looks at me, dumbstruck. He hops on his BMX and rides off. I decide to keep words to less than two syllables from then on. It’s a habit (dumbing down) that I’ve struggled to overcome ever since.

Years later, and I’m writing my first novel. It has a strong and lively character in the name of Layla. Hers is a voice I inhabit easily. She’s 14 years old. She struts across the page and, as she swans, I remember this earlier, unforgettable voice, from Puberty Blues, and how it has formed and shaped me. Layla goes to school in Western Sydney. She is obsessed with boys. She is desperate to please. She inhabits Facebook and watches video on her mobile, but she’s essentially the same as those girls, the ‘molls’ living on Sydney’s shire fringe.

Puberty Blues, the film

Puberty Blues, the film

I remember the first film version as being true to the book, but perhaps too much so, a flat narrative that failed to penetrate the landscape. The new version, now screening on TEN, is a series, offering time for some character development and in particular a deeper analysis of the parents and where they fit in. I don’t remember the parents in the book. Perhaps I tossed those pages aside at the time, eager just to get to the good bits. But like all great narratives, Puberty Blues charts more than the lives of the teenagers (and the series explores this beautifully). It inhabits a decade where everything seems possible, where society is undergoing rapid change, where immigration is starting to have an impact (on the ‘white’ cultural values in Cronulla) and where feminism is starting to mean changes for some women (see Susie Porter and Dan Wyllie let it all hang out as The Knights) while leaving others behind.

Glendyn Ivin directed one of the most evocative short films I’ve seen, Cracker Bag (which went on to win the top prize for shorts at Cannes), and his first feature, Last Ride, was a wonderful exploration of childhood in peril (see my RealTime review). He seems to have been the perfect choice as director to launch this ripe mix of teen angst and 70s culture. And unlike Channel 9’s Howzat, this isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, a chance to wear funny moustaches and parade around in harry high pants, but a serious take on where we’ve come from and where we’re at.


Nothing like a good spanky


Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method

Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method

In the opening scenes of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method we see Keira Knightley (as Sabina Spielrein) play mad. There’s no doubt about it. She’s hysterical. She bends forward at the waist, dry-retching as if she’s swallowed a wild chimpanzee. Her teeth chatter. She swims in a fishpond, cackling loudly, covered in mud, as the hospital’s male attendants prod and entice her. As the calm doctor Carl Jung applies his new method, the ‘talking cure’, she reveals very quickly that her father used to take all her clothes off (the first time when she was four) and beat her. And the revelation that fuels her sexual energies from then on? She used to like it.

(Note to self: never strip and humiliate children in case they develop serious belt fetish.)

From then on, the film ignores Spielrein (after a bit of hanky panky she is cured! she is cured!) and become a turgid account of the relationship between Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), reduced to a kind of one-upmanship of I’ll show you my dream if you show me yours. The dreams they dissect together are so obvious I’m surprised they don’t feature teeth falling out or going down steps into the basement or snakes writhing in water; you know, you’ve all had them. But these dreams are symbolic, see, with a capital S, because of the horrors that are to come (the holocaust): there’s a wave of water about to crash down.

Despite Spielrein’s brilliant intellect and challenge to the authority of Freud, she’s mainly pictured in corset (falling delicately off nipples) strapped and bent over the couch while Jung flagellates himself on all accounts. I’m not a prude. I quite like to watch. But I want to know why this turns her on. What is the connection between humiliation and sexual pleasure? What is the even deeper connection to her father? And why does Jung administering this punishment apparently offer her such freedom? Is it really her only way to connect to the world? Cronenberg ignores all of this. It’s so much easier just to film a bit of coy S+M in a mirror.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary

I’m trying to think of other films that employ a bit of S+M. The wonderful Secretary springs to mind, enlivened with a bit of humour and deadpan performances. Then there’s Salo (that I’ve always been meaning to watch, but the thought of it…), David Cronenberg’s own Crash (an unforgettable piece of filmmaking based on JG Ballard’s novel) and The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert’s usual knockout performance. (Serious fetishists have their own opinions, of course. See the serious discussion here.)

But look I’m no expert. The idea of masochistic sexual play makes me want to choke myself (now hang on a minute). Some may say any fiction writer in Australia is a masochist. But I think if it came to the crunch, I’d be much more interested in being a sadist. There’s a world of opportunity there.

For a more interesting look at a brilliant woman confronting mental illness, see Jane Campion’s classic biopic of Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table. Actress Kerry Fox goes inward and quiet; it’s a mesmerising performance to watch. I understand she’s not seen as an hysteric, and she doesn’t get off on S+M, but it’s an incredibly moving and powerful film, in its understated way.

Anyone into a bit of S+M? What are the most interesting examples of films and literature that explore it (you can post anonymously of course!)?

Or have you seen A Dangerous Method? What did you think of Spielrein’s character? The relationship between Freud and Jung?

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