BFI LFF 2011: Shame / Rampart

As mentioned before, buying tickets for the 2011 BFI London Film Festival was a miserable clusterfuck; the pilot light on the single gas-powered server the institute uses must have gone out, resulting in an almost total shutdown. We refreshed the BFI website more often in five hours than Tom Ford refreshes himself in the average decade. That’s a lot of F5-ing. We actually managed to buy tickets to Rampart and A Dangerous Method without even realising it. When we found out that our requests had broken through we felt like we were characters in a William Gibson Cyberpunk novel, sneaking through digital ICE in order to hack into an AI.

And yet, even though we got tickets for 13 films, there was a sense of unavoidable failure, as Shame, the follow-up to Steve McQueen’s remarkable debut Hunger, was sold out even before the members priority booking opened. This was one of two movies both me and Daisyhellcakes were determined to see (the other was A Dangerous Method) that wouldn’t be released in the UK until next year. Yes, even though we had already seen Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class and Jane Eyre this year, we selfishly demanded more of him, preferably naked and tortured by the consequences of his own irresistibility. That’s how deeply Fassbender Fandom penetrates our souls.

But worry not, we got the tickets, no thanks to the website which crashed again on the day that extra tickets were released; once more a big thank you to the incredibly helpful staff at the BFI Southbank who dealt with my hyperventilation with great understanding. Even better, Shame was worth the humiliations of my pathetic, petulant sturm-und-drang complaints, and became an early highlight of the festival. Quick synopsis; Brandon (Fassbender, obvs) is a sex addict on a downward spiral which accelerates as he is visited by his sister Sissy (the luminous Carey Mulligan) with whom he shares a dark past. Brandon has sex. A lot of it. He’s mean to his sister. He has more sex. And on and on and on…

It’s hard to convey the visceral impact of McQueen’s formally bold and beautiful depiction of Brandon’s descent into self-negating eroticism, certainly without spoiling what happens, but it is easy to recommend, and for one very good reason; Fassbender is breathtakingly good in what has to be the best performance of the year. On a technical level the man is on peak form, once more reunited with his muse McQueen; we’re talking DeNiro/Scorsese levels of cinematic harmony here. You can feel an electrifying alchemy being created as you watch.

However, the brilliance of Fassbender’s performance goes beyond mere talent. It’s the fearlessness of his work, the ability to allow the audience to peek into a tortured soul as naked as his body. McQueen makes a bold statement very early on by showing Fassbender fully nude for long shots, with the camera defiantly set at groin height. As Fassbender passed back and forth in front of the lens from one room of his spartan New York apartment to another, the audience started to petrify into its seats with horror, made even more uncomfortable by the knowledge that the owner of the penis ticking past our faces like a large metronome was in the building.

It sounds lascivious, but it’s not. It’s startling, but it’s also alienating. We stop seeing this as a sexual organ, something to be leered at. It’s an organ for fucking and pissing; by the end of the opening montage of Brandon’s life, any erotic charge is eliminated. This is a grind of a life as miserable as any other. At this point he looks like a functioning addict, but all it takes is for the sudden introduction of his exasperating and impulsive sister to throw him into a tailspin from which he may or may not recover, which requires Fassbender to bare his soul and his body in ways that are startling and darkly beautiful.

It also allows McQueen to add some of his now trademark long-shots, all as exciting to experience as the setpiece conversation between Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in Hunger. The first is the already notorious scene with Mulligan singing New York, New York in some high-end bar while a testy Fassbender and an excitable James Badge Dale (also very good) watch from their table in front of a gloriously lit Manhattan backdrop. Sean Bobbitt captures a radiance that seems to pour from Mulligan’s delicate face as she sings the most excruciatingly drawn-out version of the song; it’s as if McQueen has captured the tension of the movie’s ever-present promise of eventual collapse in an excruciating microcosm. There’s one significant cut away from Mulligan, which I won’t spoil, other than to say it’s devastating.

There follows a tracking shot of Brandon running along a New York street to get away from his apartment, which has now been colonised by the people he has tried to hide away from. It’s a relatively simple shot made more complicated by being filmed in the busiest city on earth, but it’s riveting nonetheless, and represents the absolute opposite of this shot from Mauvais Sang by Leos Carax. After that we see a dinner date between Brandon and co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) that is either his attempt at normality, or an example of his seduction attempts. Prior to this women seem to just throw themselves at Brandon, but Marianne is warier. It’s a riveting scene, partially because of the ambiguity of Brandon’s motives, but also due to the choreography of everyone in the restaurant. It’s Hunger‘s conversation scene, but with a meddling waiter and a lot of sexual tension.

These aren’t McQueen’s finest hour, though. That comes in the final act, turning what might have been some disappointing redemptive notes from writer Abi Morgan into a bravura sequence of degradation and misery, so beautifully shot and disturbing that the viewer is hypnotised, much as I was during the final minutes of Darren Aronofsky’s majestic Black Swan (or, more aptly, Requiem For A Dream). The final graphic sex scene in the movie is a wash of image and sound — thanks to an ominous score by Harry Escott — but it’s terrifyingly unerotic and haunting, as Brandon tries to lose himself in orgasmic oblivion. Instead he looks like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown; dead eyes, agony, desperation all painted on his face. That Fassbender, you guys. Seriously.

Morgan’s script is, for the most part, ambiguous and pared down, clever and funny and only at the end a little rote. That’s the difficulty with character studies like this. As with any straight version of a genre type, there’s very little room for manoevre, and post-screening my initial feelings were that I was less engaged with it than I had hoped simply because the arc of a character study tends to be a straight line with the possibility of an uptick or downtick at the end. Biopics have the same problem; we’re ostensibly being told the story of a person’s life, either as an overambitious whole or a mere slice that illuminates their whole being. In the wrong hands this can lead to clumsy attempts to dramatise an inner life, usually through awkward exposition (the worst problem with biopics).

And yet even though Shame isn’t a bad character study, my misgivings about the sub-genre spoiled my experience. The momentary clunkiness of a couple of scenes at the end of Shame (not counting the final shot, which I won’t spoil) conspired to sully my opinion. How could I really like Shame, an example of that miserable sub-genre that I’ve never really had time for (confession: I’ve never truly loved Taxi Driver, despite its many good points)? Luckily for McQueen’s movie, a couple of days later we saw Oren Moverman and James Ellroy’s Rampart, a character study that has numerous parallels and similarities with Shame except that while that is a truly superb and exciting piece of cinema, Rampart is a cluttered failure, a waste of your time.

Okay, there is one very good reason to watch Rampart. Woody Harrelson is on fire as Dave Brown, a corrupt cop with the LAPD at the time of the Rampart scandal, who is videotaped beating an African-American. This slip — if you can call it that; the man is obviously on the edge of some kind of breakdown — sends him down a long path to oblivion. Harrelson’s bewildered and paranoid reaction to the slow unraveling of his life is mesmerising, and powers the movie through what would otherwise be crippling longueurs, but it doesn’t change the fact that while Shame avoids being nothing more than a simplistic morality tale through the use of ambiguity and the skill of McQueen and his cast, Rampart is little more than an empty box being carried around desolate LA scenery by a very talented and underrated performer.

Much of the problem with Rampart is that the story has been told before, with enormous detail and complexity, in The Shield. SoC likes The Shield. A lot. If you’re going to play in The Shield‘s back yard, you’re going to have to bring something new to the table, and Rampart has nothing. Dave Brown is a morally compromised jerk, but if you’ve experienced the fluctuating fortunes of Vic Mackey — one of the great characters of the modern age, whose fall from grace is positively Shakespearean in scope and power — then being a dick to the mothers of your children and getting a bit grumpy with Ice Cube pales in comparison.

That familiarity is made more noticeable due to the connections with Ellroy’s other work. Police corruption has been a constant theme in his books, and approaching it from this angle — as a real example of wrongdoing that was exposed to the light — is perfectly valid. However, confusingly, Dave Brown’s personality is very similar to that of Ellroy’s Lloyd Hopkins, immortalised by James Woods in the nifty James B. Harris thriller Cop. Both are men who bend or break the law, profess to venerate women, have messy home-lives, and have been notoriously involved in the suspicious deaths of rapist-murderers. That one point made me think that Rampart was intended to be some kind of follow-up to the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy, that we were seeing the ignominious end of his career.

That’s apparently not the case. To be honest, Rampart is so ramshackle and loosely plotted that it often doesn’t feel as if Ellroy had much input, though this could well be the assumption that makes an ass out of me and mption. The flabby plotting isn’t helped by the seemingly improvisational dialogue in many scenes. Without Ellroy’s precision, we’re left with rambling actorliness, especially between Harrelson and Ben Foster, here playing a wheelchair-bound lowlife. They only appear in two scenes together but it feels like you’re getting approximately 50 hours of intense staring, babbled words, tics, gestures and conversational dead-ends, all filmed by a camera crew positioned across the road for extra verite.

Moverman should have been more ruthless in the editing room, or more focused when preparing to shoot. As an actor’s showcase Rampart does the job, but it’s indulgent to think this passes muster as a movie. It was doomed, being screened so soon after Shame, which is a gleaming, precision-tooled Faberge egg compared to Rampart‘s clumsily assembled clay ashtray. Every directorial decision made by Steve McQueen either makes sense in the moment or comes to take on greater meaning afterward. Some might argue that such care makes for a bloodless movie, but rather that than the rambling incoherence and ugly hand-held look of Rampart.

This popular aesthetic of our age, the gritty faux-documentary mode of filming (that, oddly enough, seemed to be a new and edgy thing back when The Shield began) has really begun to seem played out. When Philip Pullman wrote this article criticising the overuse of present-tense narrative voices and hand-held cameras, I thought he was being a bit of a whiner, but now I’m beginning to think he had a point. The worst recent offender is Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. At least I think it was Tom Hardy; the camera never focused on him long enough for me to tell. As for Edgerton, I still don’t know what he looks like. For all I know he genuinely looks like Metal Beak the Nazi Owl.

Rampart is not nearly as bad as Warrior, which situates the camera either one hundred feet from the actors, with numerous obstructive objects between them, or places the camera so close that you can’t understand what anyone is doing. This modish grittiness only serves to render the movie unwatchable; I long for the day when it becomes unfashionable. Sadly Rampart‘s power is diminished by this approach, not to mention memories of both Bad Lieutenants, which were directed in such a way as to allow for improvisation or unpredictability while still exerting control over the tone and the narrative. Moverman’s film is a poor cousin to those fine movies; a shame, as Harrelson here operates almost on a par with Harvey Keitel and Nicolas Cage. Of all the actors, he seems to have the best bead on what the movie needs from him.

I’m not crazy. On-set experiments with dialogue and camerawork can deliver moments of great power and emotion, I’ll happily admit that. Just picking the best example off the top of my head, Friday Night Lights was built on this format, and for the most part it was truly magical. Nevertheless, except for the odd moment of frisson, Rampart doesn’t hold together, and certainly doesn’t hold the attention. And yet I’m almost grateful to it for crystallising something that has been brewing in my mind for a while now. Shame belongs in the same category of movie experiences that includes Black Swan, Inception, 13 Assassins, Inglorious Basterds, and to a lesser extent 2011’s Drive, We Need To Talk About Kevin and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; movies that are finely wrought and made with proper care and fastidious design.

Those were some of the most rewarding and pleasurable movies I’ve experienced in recent years. These are the things that excite me. Rampart‘s failing, and Shame‘s considerable success, has made this clear. Going forward with this knowledge may make me harder to please, but the happiness I’ll feel when I witness something as beautifully made as McQueen’s memorable portrait of psychic confusion and loneliness will be all the greater.

One thought on “BFI LFF 2011: Shame / Rampart

  1. The film Rampart itself is not for everyone but Harrelson’s performance is given a great challenge, and he more than rises to the occasion with this near-perfect act. Great review. Check out mine when you can.

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