The eternal curve
Steve McQueen is sitting on the grounds of Venice's Excelsior Hotel, discussing the death of cinema.
'We're losing audiences,' says the British artist-cum-filmmaker. 'If we want to make films that young people will go and see, if we want cinema to be like rock'n'roll, and we're making costume dramas, then what's the point?'
Growing up as a black kid in West London, Merchant-Ivory films were never high on his list of must-see movies. 'Kids aren't going to watch a period drama, are they?'
True, although it's hard to know exactly how many 'kids' went to see his 2008 debut, Hunger - a highly disturbing look at Bobby Sands, the inmate at the Maze Prison who made the ultimate sacrifice for his cause, the Irish Republican Army. Or how many will catch his new film, Shame, a searing study of a sex addict in New York. Although the namesake of a Hollywood anti-hero, McQueen doesn't make bubblegum cinema for multiplex crowds. His films are adult, not adolescent.
Written by Abi Morgan (who recently penned The Iron Lady about former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher), Shame is driven by the titanic performance of its star, Michael Fassbender, who played Sands in Hunger.
The Irish-German actor has deservedly won a clutch of awards for his soul-baring work as Brandon, a Manhattan high-flier barely able to keep a lid on his libido as he ploughs through internet porn, prostitutes and one-night stands. While Fassbender brilliantly essays his character's meltdown as he staggers from one meaningless sexual encounter to the next, the film, to its credit, never ridicules his affliction.
'I was similar to everyone else,' admits McQueen, 42. 'You do snigger at the idea of a sex addict. It's like the guy who drinks too much - 'Oh, he's a funny drunk. Remember him at the last Christmas party? Ha-ha!' But when the drink starts taking over, when the drink is a necessity for him or her to survive, then, of course, it becomes a problem similar to sex addiction.
'One of the quotes we got from the psychoanalyst was that sex addiction has as much to do with wanting sex as alcoholism has to do with being thirsty.'
Aside from speaking to psychoanalysts, McQueen and Morgan also spoke to dozens of sex addicts in the course of their research. 'These people go on 'sexcapades',' says McQueen. 'They spend all day on the internet, masturbating, or going to prostitutes, taking the most extraordinary risks sexually. And what happens after that, after they come out of this 'sexcapade'? They have this huge wave of shame. And every single one said this. And what they do, of course, to cover this is to do it again.'
While McQueen claims he's been going to New York since 1977 - 'since the blackout and Elvis dying' - it wasn't merely familiarity with the city that made him set Shame there. Following the claustrophobia of Hunger's prison setting, he wanted to go to the opposite extreme - 'a place of excess and access, of choice and freedom'. Factor in the character of Brandon, 'who is not thinking about other people, just himself', and you have a potent set-up.
As McQueen sees it, New York is the perfect environment to feed the cravings of a sex addict. 'For Brandon, it's a mecca. He orders take-out food, take-in prostitutes ... you don't have to communicate with anyone. That's the loneliness of New York. For a lot of people, it can be very lonely and isolating.' And it's all encapsulated in the soulful rendition of New York, New York, delivered by Brandon's lounge singer sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), midway through the film.
'It's a blues number,' McQueen says. 'The line, 'These vagabond shoes are melting away' - this guy is a homeless person. They haven't made it. [Frank] Sinatra and [Liza] Minnelli sing it in a very gutsy, sassy way. But it's not a celebratory song. It's a very sad song. This person has a dream but they're not there yet.
'So what it does for me, when Sissy is singing it, it talks about Brandon and her past, that song. It talks about the environment that they're living in right now. It does a multitude of things in one song.'
McQueen's own feelings about the American city are clearly tied to his thoughts about cinema. After taking fine art at Goldsmiths College in London, he went there in 1993 to study film at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. 'I hated it,' he remembers. 'I only could afford to go because I got a scholarship and my uncle lived in Brooklyn. But after three months, I left. I came back to England and did my own thing. I was more interested in art.'
Much of his early work as a conceptual artist, however, incorporated film. Four years after 1993's Bear, an ambiguous encounter between two naked men (one of them McQueen), he made a second silent black-and-white short, Deadpan. It recalled a classic Buster Keaton set-up, as a house collapsed around him but left him unscathed. It was for this - along with Prey, which focused on a tape recorder playing a tap dance - that won him the prestigious Turner Prize in 1999.
Still, McQueen refuses to be seen as a director, denying that he felt any anxiety to follow up the success of Hunger, which won him the Camera d'Or prize awarded to debut directors in Cannes. 'I didn't feel any pressure. For me, [Shame] is my first film. Every film will be my first film. I don't know what I'm doing. I always wanted to be a little bit na?ve. I'm an amateur. I always want to be an amateur. I always will be. I'm not interested in being a filmmaker.'
When I ask if he has no wish to forge a career as a director, he looks at me from behind his spectacles as if I'm an escaped lunatic. 'Career - I don't know what that is,' he says. 'If somebody asks me to do another movie, I'll do one. But what I mean by amateur is to just have a freedom, to not be constrained by certain ways or techniques of doing things.'
Of course, he has another project, again with Fassbender, titled Twelve Years a Slave, about a man in the mid-1800s who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep south of the US. This collaboration with Plan B, Brad Pitt's production company, is set to co-star Pitt. While Shame was overlooked at the Oscars - McQueen suggested the risque subject matter was too hot for Americans to handle - its director has clearly caught the eye of Hollywood.
Shame's most lasting contribution might just be that its US distributor released the film uncut as NC-17, a rating once reserved for the most extreme films. That McQueen's film has made almost US$4 million in the US makes a mockery of the received wisdom that an NC-17 certificate is a commercial kiss of death.
'A lot of people would say: 'You can't make this movie. You shouldn't make this movie.' So I'm happy that people are responding to it in the way they are,' he says. 'I'm just feeling pleasure, as there is an audience out there that want to look at serious movies.'
Shame opens on Thursday