Mistress America vs. Shame

We went to see Mistress America on Saturday and it was charming and annoying and I felt like we were 20 years too old to enjoy it. The plot is about a first-year college student in Manhattan who feels out of place and so calls up her stepsister to be, who introduces her to the city and is quirky and funny and damaged and egocentric and grandiose. The young girl writes a short story about her called Mistress America and it's not flattering and then there is this long scene at someone else's house that felt like a play--all dialogue in the living room for twenty minutes between secondary characters. After the movie ended, I tried to uncover a second meaning. How the character played by Greta Gerwig is really a metaphor for the city or for lost youth or for America as this hopeful yet misguided place where amazing and terrible things happen, but I couldn't sustain it. Mostly, I watched the movie never forgetting that I was watching a movie, because the dialogue and acting appeared purposefully stilted (i.e. lines delivered in this self-conscious monotone as if the actors were doing a cold read; characters stringing together quotable sentences that don't happen that often in real life). But that could have been the director's intention--to keep us always aware of the artifice of these superficial situations. Mostly, I just felt like I was watching a super polished grad student film filled with characters I didn't particularly like or care about.

But that experience was starkly different and much more enjoyable then the one I had on Sunday, when we rented Shame. Michael Fassbender was on the cover of this past weekend's NYT Style magazine and so I read an article about how he got his start in films directed by Steve McQueen (not the 1960's actor), including Shame, made in 2011. I remember hearing about this movie, and rumblings about the nudity (i.e. his penis), but I didn't see it when it came out because I usually prefer Woody Allen films were Freudian references are made to genitalia, but you never see them in action.

In case you missed it too, Shame is about a thirty-something New Yorker who suffers from sex addiction. This means that he's preoccupied with getting his fix at almost any moment--- in the middle of the day at work, by watching live sex acts while eating Chinese food after work, through prostitutes and bar hook-ups.  He rarely smiles, and he rarely seems to enjoy himself. Then his very needy, messed up little sister shows up, and there's a weird tension between them--like, at first, you're not even sure who she is, she just appears naked in his shower and then you see her with no bra in the kitchen. She could be a former lover. She's sloppy and boundary less, sexy and vulnerable and needy. He agrees to let her stay with him, but he's not happy about it, in part because she is interfering with his masturbation routine.

The movie has a couple of very drawn out scenes, such as the sister singing the entirety of "New York, New York" in slow, pained notes and another of him jogging though Manhattan and then this other scene where he's with two prostitutes and it looks as though he's descended into one of Dante's circles of hell. It's all about habit and not being able to escape this need for his next fix, so that's disturbing and you see that he will always be alone because when he does try to sleep with someone he likes, he can't get it up. I kept thinking, Get a therapist! Talk to someone! But alas, he didn't seem capable of asking for help, even though he was clearly suffering and hating every second of his behavior. Then, something horrible and dramatic happens and he may be changed by it; it may be bad enough to break through the self-abuse, but at the end of the movie, we go back to the beginning, with him sitting on the subway, checking out this same married woman he chased after at the start, and he stares at her and clenches his jaw and we're left to wonder... Can he resist? Will he follow her and begin again? If the movie is truly about addiction, the answer is yes. Yes, of course. You don't necessarily wake up one day and find yourself able to put an end to your worst behavior. Then again, maybe this touching moment in the hospital  with his sister is enough for him to stop. Maybe his clenched jaw is a sign of resistance and not one of agonized sameness.

Whatever the case, watching that movie totally obliterated any of the pleasure of Mistress America.