Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Song Of Shame

Steve McQueen's new film Shame is a deeply serious, adult urban noir - which, incidentally, brings the director's collaboration with his now-familiar principal Michael Fassbender into the territory of the Scorsese/de Niro partnership (but that's another blog).

The film is notable for three particular extracts of music. The first, and easiest to deal with is Harry Escott's original theme, swollen, grave string music that works perfectly with the long-take scrutiny of Steve McQueen's camera.

The other two extracts (one of these is comprised by about three extracts by a single composer/performer) are notable for their singing. First is the prodigious use of the music of J.S. Bach, with the opening aria of the Goldberg Variations played diegetically (Fassbender's Brandon puts on a vinyl record) as well as the E Minor prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1) to accompany a much admired, single take tracking shot of Brandon running through the streets of New York.
All the Bach is performed by the celebrated Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.
Elsewhere we hear Brandon's sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) singing Kander & Ebb's New York New York. It's a peculiarly subversive arrangement of the song (by Escott himself?) that takes the razzamatazz and optimism out of the song, replacing it with a blues sense of the opposite - wistfulness, regret, opportunity lost. It's also performed by Mulligan herself in an almost continuous close-up single take. Here's the opening:


For me this is a very peculiar sequence. Though the credtis claim Mulligan is performing the song herself it's difficult to tell such is the lack of physcial engagment with the act of singing let along any sort of expression. It may be argued that this is very much the point - that this glazed, etiolated rendition of a technicolour standard is the aesthetic that is being sought. Certainly that seems to be the position of the Guardian's film critic Peter Bradshaw:
Her version of New York, New York is daringly slow and ruminative, a wan, sometimes slightly dissonant interpretation that is completely non-Glee. (Brandon himself has Glenn Gould's controversial "slow" recording of the Goldberg Variations on his turntable: a rather Hannibal Lecterish touch.)
Clearly whether her 'interpretation' is indeed sufficiently engaged to be called an interpretation, it not only has a bleached quality but also has the power to reach Brandon, in the same manner as the poised, naive opening to Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Possibly. Yet alarm bells rang as I read this, as Glenn Gould's performance of this piece - indeed, many of his Bach keyboard performances - are not notably slow, certainly not in comparison to other recordings. The music is slow but not his interpretation. Indeed, Gould was known for rather dispassionate renditions, classical-to-the-point-of-mathematical performances. If his performance bears comparison with that of Mulligan it's in the detachment.

What is noticeable and notoriously so (if not 'controversial') is that Glenn Gould sings along to his own recorded performance.

The stunning tracking shot is a case in point: McQueen has the immediate urban sound design dimmed so as to suspend Brandon's jog in a space of his own consciousness, along with Bach. Gould's humming is clearly audible. More to the point with its proximate tuning and intermittent expressiveness, sounds almost exactly like the groans of sexual ecstasy. It's as if the rumination - to use Bradshaw's term - that goes on in such sequestered moments such as this contains the very sound of the act that pursues Brandon through his sexual addiction.

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