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)
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.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? DO YOU HAVE ANY EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS?
OR HAVE YOU SEEN EITHER OF THE FILMS? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS…