Sex, Violence and Ecstasy: Shame and Drive
by Blair McClendon
Formalism is not dead. It is residing in the work of some of our most important contemporary filmmakers. Years like 2011, packed with an array of great work, make it difficult for the critic, theorist or cinephile to pontificate with any degree of certainty about the direction of the art. To avoid this situation, we make reference to the declining price of equipment and increased access to technical knowledge, both of which have assuredly led to the inclusion of a wider range of voices. Nevertheless, looking back at other ‘great years’ in cinema, it becomes clear that the art has almost always been difficult to pin down. 1959 saw the release of, among other films: Anatomy of a Murder, The 400 Blows, General della Rovere, Hiroshima mon amour, Look Back in Anger, Rio Bravo, Pickpocket, Shadows, Paper Flowers and North by Northwest. To project the shape of film to come from this array would be almost impossible. The critic’s job must, then, be first and foremost descriptive and analytic, rather than prophetic. In this context, it is perhaps impossible to say that a Formalist New Wave will come to dominate cinematic expression, but it is possible to say that the continued success of artists like Steve McQueen and Nicolas Winding Refn indicate that the figure of the formalist auteur is alive and well.
Due to all of its associations with disengaged abstraction or an unfounded tyranny of taste aiming at some sort of “pure” art, formalism can be a dirty word. McQueen and Refn practice neither of those brands. The formal practices of these two filmmakers are of a deeply cinematic and humanistic nature. We can say cinematic in their fealty to the strengths and history of the medium, and humanistic in their vision of modern man as incredibly vulnerable as well as potentially transcendent. The films they released last year, Shame and Drive respectively, are excellent examples of their similar and differing concerns, and the manner in which two rigorous senses of form have been introduced to the medium.
Towards the end of Shame, Brandon Sullivan, played by Michael Fassbender, looks directly into the camera. His jaw is slack, his eyes are wet and his skin absorbs the pale orange light of a prostitute’s room. He hovers somewhere between the height of sexual pleasure and the depths of despair. The camera does not look away. Fassbender does not look away. If someone is to interrupt this exchange, it will be the spectator and he or she alone will be guilty of a retreat. The moment comes in the midst of Brandon’s descent into the night. A successful, confident corporate man, who also happens to be addicted to sex, has witnessed his life come apart at the seams. His much less successful sister has moved in with him and her desire for a real sense of familial intimacy with him has become suffocating. He flees his expensive apartment for New York’s unrestrained pleasures.
The viewer, then, knows that Brandon is a broken man. Still, McQueen does not allow him space to disintegrate. As his previous effort, Hunger, demonstrated, the director is a master of corporeal cinema. His willingness to utilize the camera to probe, cut, and reassemble the body in this scene affirms his understanding of the tools available to him as a filmmaker. A threesome is so reduced to the movement of discrete units of the body that it becomes difficult at times to conceive of these images as capable of constituting the whole of the sexual act. McQueen’s camera has described the body so beautifully that our attention has been demanded throughout the sequence. Then, Fassbender’s face appears before us on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Despair is neither allowed to slink off quietly into the night, nor is it turned into a spectacle. Mounted in a tightly framed and well-placed close-up, hope’s absence is a simple fact, albeit a beautifully illustrated one. This is no longer Hollywood sex; this is orgasm as existential crisis.
Refn has a similar interest in combining the methods proper to cinema in order to display moments of human transcendence. Refn, however, is much more interested in what is taking place between people, which is to say what one body does to another body — and most often what it does is commit an act of violence. Drive details the story of a young man, played by Ryan Gosling, who falls for a woman named Irene and consequently gets dragged into a sordid world of money and brutality. It is difficult to fully describe what kind of film Refn made; suffice to say it is some mixture of a film noir and a fairy tale set in a bright, neon infused Los Angeles.
To sum up the whole film in a single scene, one would have to turn to the elevator sequence. The Driver, Gosling’s character, is escorting a shaken Irene out of their apartment building. A man who is just a little too well dressed for this part of town is waiting for them in the elevator. The Driver, noticing a gun in the man’s pocket, turns towards Irene and pulls her back to the far corner of the elevator. The studio lights dim, casting a classic noir web of shadows across their faces. The two spend the next 44 seconds engaged in a slow motion kiss. When their lips part the lights rise, revealing their faces for a moment, before a shadow falls back across Gosling’s. He explodes and proceeds to eviscerate the would-be assassin. Gosling crushes the man’s skull beneath the heel of his boot, which repeatedly comes crashing down toward the camera. Finally, the door mercifully opens and Irene, more frightened than ever, steps out. The Driver, staring up and out of the frame, bathed in the pale orange glow of the elevator car, appears on the verge of tears, hoping for a pardon or at least understanding.
The editing of the sequence, the motions of the camera, and the malleability of Refn’s mise-en-scène are largely responsible for Drive’s elevation from strict genre fare. It is not enough to say that in the midst of violence his camera does not flinch. As the Saw series has demonstrated, a visual delight in carnage will continue to find a market. In this sequence alone, the filmmaker instead highlights the act of filmmaking itself while simultaneously interrogating the moment of transcendence afforded by violence as a method of salvation. When the camera moves in towards The Driver and Irene, its gestures are slow and fluid enough to call attention to themselves. The changing light, for which there is no reasonable diegetic explanation, emphasizes this moment of medium-specific self-reflection. In the real world, the overhead lights do not shift in order to cast flattering shadows across the faces of beautiful people as they kiss one another. In the pro-filmic world, where the cinema can do whatever the camera can see, just such an event occurs. The film asserts its own existence at the precise moment that of its characters is endangered. Then, the supremacy of the filmmaker established, violence explodes.
It is afterwards that Refn returns to the human question. The Driver’s ferocity is not without its consequences and they are written across his face. He, having descended into the depths of savagery, looks to regain his place as valiant lover. Irene does not respond in kind. As with Brandon’s gaze, it is the image of the forlorn Driver that matters. The spectator is confronted once more by the innocence of the fallen at the moment of their self-recognition.
These films do not content themselves with recognition as these moments are inexorably linked to a human form of transcendence. Brandon’s debauchery and Gosling’s brutality are elevated from voyeuristic spectacle, beyond self-recognition and into the realm of a humanistic ecstasy precisely because the characters operate at once as icons and comprehensible beings. They revolve around desire and its ramifications under both externally and internally composed conditions, but McQueen and Refn’s formalism ennobles them. Brandon does not teeter on the edge of the void alone; he does so while peering directly at those who have come to see him do just that. Later, when he finally does collapse, a sudden downpour accompanies the sorrow that pours forth on a mostly empty dock. There are undoubtedly a great number of New Yorkers driven to just such a point who experience it in solitude. In Shame, the display of these crises creates the ecstatic, an emotional depth so profound as to seem inaccessible except by showing it. Drive pursues the same effect. The Driver, mortally injured, clutches his wound. Rays of sunlight, instead of shadows, obscure his face as he puts his car into gear and drives off into his apotheosis.
The ecstasy of Refn and McQueen is not joyful. It is more akin to the traditionally religious sense of a direct experience of the otherworldly. It is, perhaps, beautiful, but terrifying nonetheless. The worlds that they create, however, are godless. This does not mean they are a rejection of the divine, but rather that it is not a fact of existence. Consequently, this ecstasy can only be approached through a direct confrontation with the material of human existence. The cinema’s willingness to assert, and insert, itself at just these moments is all the more important because they are not displayed in accordance with a celestial beauty, but in conjunction with a formalism linked to the aesthetic sensibility of particular individuals. The terror of human ecstasy thus becomes the terror of self-knowledge. McQueen and Refn simply enlarge the self, and their form is so rigorous that one leaves the theater with a direct, lived experienced. It is not vicariously that of the characters, but that of the spectator whose attention has been demanded by every frame. This, again, is a cinematic and humanistic formalism, one that begins to move towards a synthesis of form and content such that one cannot exist without the other. For it is at the moment when the cameras show that sex and violence have been stripped of their traditional meanings that the horror of being is revealed.