Just saw the grim but enlightening film “Shame,” wherein Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a bland, disarmingly handsome thirtysomething obsessed with pornography and vicarious sex. The film lit up a few insights inspired by Buddhist and 4th Way practices; I saw Brandon’s sex addiction as an extreme form of attachment in the Buddhist sense, or what 4th Way practitioners might call identification…sex addiction in the 21st century, well fed by prolific sources of pornographic media, being an extreme form. Brandon’s stuck inside his obsession, attached to completely subjective and interior experience. The sex act, for him, is always a form of masturbation, even when he’s with someone else. He’s managed to hide it and remain “shameless”; the film shows a transformation as his obsession is revealed to and challenged by external forces. Most powerful of these is the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who invades the privacy that is fundamental to the persistence of his cycle of craving and release. She challenges him to connect with a reality outside his own. She’s damaged, and she desparately needs him as a constant in her life. She needs his compassion to feel complete, but compassion is foreign to him. He explicitly denies any responsibility for her.
He has no sense of humor.
Drawn to a relationship with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) that could be more intimate, not just masturbatory, he can’t take this potentially more authentic connection to any meaningful level – he snorts a line of coke and attempts sex, but for once, he can’t get it up. He rejects her and she leaves, but he quickly finds another girl and finds that he can “perform” in a context where there is no emotional connection or demand.
He makes this connection with Marianne after Sissy walks in while he’s masturbating, and triggering what might be his first instance of shame and a dawning sense of awareness. He plows through his flat digging out all his pornography and sex paraphernalia, and trashing it. Interesting that this is followed by a failed attempt to be real. This is followed by more rejection, self-destructive behavior, a desperate cry for help from Sissy, more wanton sex, and Sissy’s attempted suicide. As I said earlier, this is grim stuff.
Sissy’s suicide attempt shocks him in to reality – as John Shirley writes, in a piece about the Gurdjieff work, “it is only shocks that can lead a man out of the state in which he lives, that is, waken him.”
At the beginning of the film, there was a scene where he sees a beautiful girl on the subway, flirts with her, attempting seduction. We see that she’s wearing an wedding ring and an engagement ring. She flirts back, but quickly disappears, he’s unable to find her. At the end of the film, the last scene, he sees the same girl. Her makeup is less soft, and she’s not wearing her wedding ring. She flirts with him more overtly, but he doesn’t respond. The film ends here, and it seemed clear to me that we were seeing a person transformed, that he was choosing not to pursue his former obsession. Maybe we’ve seen at least a partial awakening?