Joanna Schroeder talks about Academy Award nominations gone awry and the complications of male “goodness” in films.
Some of us live and breathe for movies. A good movie, like a good book, will change me. I will dream about it for weeks, if not years. Sometimes the ones that stick with me aren’t even the overall “best” films, but have something to them that catches in my ribs and stabs at me every so often.
The Beach (released in 2000), which was a good-enough movie, had a scene in it that changed me in just such a way. Remember when Leonardo DiCaprio had to go out into the woods to quietly murder his fellow “tribemember” because his screams of agony (due to an infected shark bite) were upsetting the other members of their tribe?
That scene royally fucked with my head. The guy was suffering because they didn’t want to risk having their Utopia destroyed by getting help. One reason it’s so disturbing is because it raises the question of what we will ignore, the silent agonies we all look past in our daily lives for the good of the “whole”; whether that whole is a situation where abuse is happening and nobody speaks up, or a corporation where unethical labor is being utilized to increase profits, or even just looking the other way while someone in your office is scapegoated for a systematic problem.
The Beach was, at its core, something we could all relate to. We’ve all seen our own Utopia, even if just for a fleeting moment, and have wondered what we would do to protect that perfect space.
For movie junkies like me, Academy Award nominations are like the first wrapped present under the Christmas tree: so much promise of what’s to come. And just like Christmas, there are always disappointments. Some so heinous you think they just absolutely must be mistakes. In 2011, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut by how thoroughly Blue Valentine was passed over, all except Michelle Williams.
Blue Valentine was a film that changed people. For me it was the excruciating consensual/non-consensual rape/not rape scene in the creepy sex hotel. If you saw the film, you probably related to either Williams or Gosling (or both), and probably not in a way you’d wish to relive. It was horrifying to see the pain in Gosling’s face as he was rejected over and over by the woman he loved so dearly. And the tears that spilled down Williams’ face, the way she swatted him away once she gave in to his desperate pleas for sex… I don’t know when I’ve been more gutted watching a film.
It was a story about lost love, about how good intentions can still result in a fucked-up life, about the sacrifices men make for love, for women, for family. The movie as a whole is challenging and resonant because it keys into the fact that often there is no “good guy” or “bad guy” in real-world conflicts. And we want our movie men to be either heroes or villains: Batman or the Joker, Dr. Richard Kimball or The One-Armed Man, Luke or Vader. We don’t want to wonder about the “goodness” of our male heroes.
But it’s the grey areas that make a good movie great, that make the film resonate within us. The grey areas make a movie feel real. In Blue Valentine, there are the very real questions of what constitutes sexual consent within a marriage and the agony that is caused when a person is repeatedly sexually rejected. We don’t want to see that. We want to joke about blue balls, about wives holding out on sex to get what they want. But the jokes only take us further from the truth: Sex, love, commitment, and marriage are hard and complicated and imperfect. And just because a love ends doesn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful to start with, or even at its core.
I think Blue Valentine may have hit too close to home for most people. Maybe the Academy members turned it off halfway through, or maybe they finished it but wanted to just forget it. Or maybe they’re all in perfect marriages and have no idea what it’s like to be rejected, to feel stuck, to feel shame over desire or the lack of desire? Do those marriages even exist?
Something similar happened this year with the film Shame, starring Michael Fassbender. Tuesday’s Oscar nominations very noticeably lacked even a single mention of the groundbreaking film. Another punch in the gut to me. I was fortunate to be invited to an early screening for press and publicists in Los Angeles. I knew nothing of the film, except that my dear friend Fisher said, “It’s going to be hard to watch, but you must see it. It is so you…It’s about sex addiction.”
“Oh great, thanks a lot, Fisher,” I said. We both laughed, but let me make it clear: I am not, nor have I ever been a sex addict. But I do write about sex and gender and I am deeply troubled over what appears to be increasing rates of sex addiction and “love addiction” in our society.
Fisher and I went to the screening with five or six guys, all of us chatting nervously. We found seats, tried to joke around, but knew that this was going to be heavy. The host of the screening made a little speech about how there is hope at the end of the film. We held out our own hope that he was right.
From the moment the film started, the row of us were dead-silent and utterly still. Fassbender walks across the screen, disembodied by the camera: just a torso with a long, flaccid penis making its way from the bedroom to the bathroom and taking a long pee: the ritual of a man’s morning.
But this is no average man. This is a man barely surviving the excruciating ravages of sex addiction. He is gorgeous, has a perfect body, a big cock, a great job, great clothes, friends, and an amazing apartment. It looks so good from the outside. But every moment of his day is spent either resisting porn or giving into porn, women, fantasy and fucking.
This movie could’ve been a disaster. It could’ve been an erotic thriller like “Sliver”, and it would’ve failed. It could’ve been gratuitous and shown multiple fake-titted porn stars with heaving bosoms. But this movie isn’t sexy. There is a lot of sex, a lot of bodies, a lot of skin, but none of it is erotic. The moment you feel an erotic tingle from one of the images, the director pulls you back just enough to see the whole picture, to see the absolute lack of connection any of the characters have with one another or even themselves. Then you feel ashamed of that first little thrill.
And visually, it’s stunning. The director, Steve McQueen (a most ill-fitting name, if you ask me), was a visual artist before directing his first film, Hunger, which also starred Fassbender. Each set-up is masterfully framed. I don’t even want to imagine the logistical nightmare of filming Fassbender in one extremely long shot, running through the dark streets of New York City. But McQueen knew he couldn’t flinch, couldn’t look away from Fassbender fleeing his apartment for a midnight jog while his drop-in sister (Carey Mulligan) has soul-sucking sex with his married boss in his own home.
Fassbender and Mulligan play messy, flawed, beautiful people. They both use and abuse sex, but in different ways: to find love, to find acceptance, to escape pain, to hide from fear, and ultimately to pretend everything is okay just for a few moments. We witness the return to the insatiable need, each time more intense, until Fassbender hits a crescendo moment where ecstasy turns into undeniable agony. It is gorgeously shot, unflinching and unrepentant.
So why is this story universal? Yes, there are a lot of sex addicts and “love addicts” out there, but more importantly, there is something of this brother-sister duo in most of us. I’m not a sex addict, I’m not a love addict, but I have used sex in my past to feel affirmed of my goodness, my worth, and of my desirability. For hooking men, for feeling powerful, for validation. It’s painful to recognize these things in ourselves, but it is important. Healing from those things gave me a deep sense of peace and the sense that my “self” is now grounded on solid rock. But my brain still dances the line between what’s self-serving and what is genuine. All of our brains do, I believe.
You don’t have to be an addict to appreciate the ways in which we all avoid our fear and our pain. Fassbender exemplifies the extreme end of the spectrum, playing out the way addicts can forget about everyone and anything else, and completely lose sight of empathy in order to escape the pain of needing a fix. He shows us, profoundly, what it feels like to want to be punished for the things we can’t help but do. And yeah, it’s painful to see ourselves in him. What have we done to escape pain, responsibility, or hurt? Who have we hurt?
Was it all just too much for the Academy? Would the movie have been more universally-accepted had there been a traditional redemption narrative to the ending? (I’m about to give away a little bit of the ending here.) What if McQueen had offered an ending where Mulligan and Fassbender show up at some sort of 12-step meeting? Would that make us feel better? Shown them ten years down the line, both married and happy and faithful? Would that have won Shame an Oscar nomination?
At the end of the screening, one of the guys in our group turned to me and said, “I thought there was supposed to be hope at the end!”
I thought for a moment about the little bit of light inside of me, despite the darkness of the film.
“I think the hope is that he’s survived another day,” I said. Because every day we survive is another day to be better, to do better, to treat others better.
And I’m sad the Academy missed that.