Am rapidly becoming the Cornerhouse junkie that i was when i used to watch several films a week, day and night, often between scientific experiments as i studied for a PhD. I’d go from counting dead cells under a microscope illuminated by fluorescent light to watching reels of photographs spring to life on the big screen.
A couple of weeks ago I was at the Cornerhouse to go see Tinge Krishnan’s feature, Junkhearts and this week, I saw the preview of Steve McQueen’s Shame (packed screens on both occasions btw). For short filmmakers like me, Tinge’s BAFTA winning short, Shadowscan is kinda iconic and its fantastic that she’s now made a feature. Amazingly, the film is on youtube to be enjoyed.
Junkhearts is written by Simon Frank and is inspired by a story he came across in his work with homeless charities. Its a story about Frank, an ex-soldier played by Eddie Marsan who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and lives an isolated life, drinking to forget his past in a small London flat. His world changes when he takes in homeless teen, Lynette and then her boyfriend, Danny, turns up and turns Frank’s place into a base from which he deals in guns, drugs and desperation. I don’t want to give away too much of the story but you can imagine, Frank’s challenge is to pull himself together to save Lynette from the descent into drug addicted hell. Not easy for an alcoholic, who is himself, drawn into boyfriend Danny’s dark circle of influence.
What i really enjoyed about Junkhearts is the contrast between the simple insular world inhabited by the main characters (the film is set around a few walkable locations – a shop, canal walkway, Frank’s place and a park) and the expansive sound design that connects us to Frank’s visual memory of the past and how he experiences the trauma of that in the present. This is what really brings the script to life and is Tinge’s strength as director, and for my part, allows me to forgive one too many plot-based coincidents in the story.
It was interesting how Shame, another very visceral film also uses the idea of bringing the past back into the present on screen to convey to the audience an experience, a sense of the story. To achieve this, Mcqueen uses time and duration to build a narrative, to gradually reveal the world, as it exists in three dimensions through the everyday routine of main character, Brandon. Brandon is a sex addict but a professionally successful New York yuppie whose life and habit is interrupted when his sister turns up on his doorstep and stays over in his apartment. But McQueen also uses the body and facial expressions to evoke a sense of the past in the present, in a way that is almost too difficult to explain except that its perfectly encapsulated in one scene where Brandon watches his sister sing at a local night spot – the song, a rendition of New York, New York is haunting and evokes something – we don’t know what – but Brandon is moved to tears.
This is a completely new way to think about story for me and I am totally excited by it because it comes from within and sets the challenge of knowing your characters enough in order to excavate the truth on the body, much like a sculpture.
With Shame Steve McQueen has essentially made a film which, in traditional story terms, only gets to a mid point (point of maximum crisis) in which the main character needs to decide to make a change in his life. We are left to consider if Brandon and his sister can find a way to live in the same city – whether their insular world can expand to absorb both of their strange addictions (Brandon’s sex addiction and his sister Sissy’s addiction to self-harm). But its there that we are left…
And, I wonder for these filmmakers that are experimenting with time and creating durational pieces whether television might be a platform to consider, taking broadcast TV into a whole different realm, reminiscent of what David Lynch did with Twin Peaks. I can imagine a 6 part series of Shame on Channel 4 – its certainly something that TV needs – subverting the format through artistic innovation of the platform. I wonder whether this new partnership, The Space, between the BBC and Arts Council England might allow for such innovations.
Alas, not yet for Steve Mcqueen’s anyway, whose next project is cinematic: Twelve Years a Slave which will star Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbinder.
After the Shame screening, we were again lucky enough to have a Q&A with Steve Mcqueen and he gave insights into his filmmaking approaches – including using time to reveal the story but also to use the body and the movement of the actors in space to reveal their past within the present. There was this revelation for me that the body and its habits holds a record of our past that is revealed in our actions and that our words can act to counter that. Its in this difference between what our movements/ actions say about us and what our mouths say that creates a tension, a drama. Steve McQueen has this down to a fine art.
Although the focus of Shame is sex addiction and how difficult it is to break out of this habit – it reveals something very human that we can relate to – the role of the rituals of civilisation in hiding what we try so desperately to escape, a life as creatures, driven by fear, loathing, desperation, addiction. In similar but disparate veins, Shame and Junkhearts reveal a human truth that you won’t see in many Hollywood movies.
It will be interesting, to see if anyone can build on this notion of revealing our life as creatures and the role of race, politics and class as a mechanism of civilisation that masks the truth by creating an illusionary hierarchy. Civilisation is in itself a habit, an addiction of humanity that needs to be broken if we are to overcome the challenges facing our species…
The next movie I am looking forward to is Carol Morley‘s ‘dreams of a life‘, a re-imagined journey into the life of Joyce and brings her story to life by blurring fact and fiction. Here’s the trailer which says it better than i can…
I’ve been enjoying the social media campaign associated with the film which gives an insight into the life of the film, its exhibition and audience as well as contributors such as Alice Temple who wrote a song that features in the film.