Second Sight & Shame (2011)


Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan in Shame

When films have shocking scenes or unconventional structures, it can take a preliminary buffer viewing before the subtler content sinks in…

On first seeing Shame (2011) several months ago in the draughty Leeds Town Hall I was deeply underwhelmed. Brandon (Michael Fassbender)’s character struck me as a soulless sadomasochist, cruel to the only character who cares about him, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). There is no backstory to contextualise his sex addiction so sympathising with his internal struggles is key to caring about his fate. And If you don’t, the heart of the film is lost. Sure you get its eyes (cinematography) and loins (Michael Fassbender’s) but this is not enough of a return on the effusion that has built around the film.

This week, lured by the promise of a Q&A with the famously blunt Steve McQueen, I found myself at the BFI for another Shame screening. As the lights went down and the film rolled, it swiftly became clear that someone had switched the reels with a different film. Cold Brandon had been replaced him with Sweet Brandon – a nice guy trapped by his destructive urges. The shock of the sex scenes had worn off. He doesn’t need to feel THAT bad, I thought, noting that Brandon’s shame-induced paralysis is as harmful to his life as the promiscuities. When McQueen, who has very clear ideas on what it all means (just ask one poor guy in the audience) spoke afterwards, it added further depth. I felt for Brandon’s strange struggle,  and for all the real people McQueen and Abi Morgan spoke to who informed his creation. The second time round, Shame was a success.

This is not the first time that a second viewing of a film has revealed its riches. It was a similar story with Black Swan

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan

When I first saw Black Swan (2010) I was on a date with someone whose reactions to the on-screen events were deeply distracting. He fell asleep within the first five minutes, awoke and became very alert during the lesbian scene, then noticeably freaked out during the body horror scenes. Afterwards, he grabbed my hand, placed it on his heart and murmured: “I’m going to have a heart attack.” I went home feeling that I’d just watched a ham-fisted, unnecessarily visceral melodrama and in the process psychologically damaged someone. The second BS viewing was during a relaxing mini-break in Leeds in the charming ambience of the Hyde Park Picture House with two good friends. I had a rip-roaring time, laughing loudly at various points.


Renewed appreciation can come about when watching on the small screen as well. Half Nelson (2006), an understated film about a hard drug taking teacher’s downward spiral and friendship with one of the pupils starred Ryan Gosling, pre Man of the Year status. Not even a fan could accuse HN of having a fast-moving plot. It’s distinctly possible that while watching it in bed I nodded off a few times, waking to find RG several notches closer to desperation but equally calm in demeanour. It was a film-watching event in which the end credits feel like release from Chinese water torture. But then I read a review of the film by a critic whose opinion I respect to a potentially creepy extent. Shortly afterwards HN came on TV at a convenient time so I watched it again. Suddenly this version of the film played out before my eyes.

Ryan Gosling as Daniel Dunne in Half Nelson

So, it can take a trial run before a hotchpotch of images and sounds turns into something meaningful. And what? Do I now diligently watch every film twice? No, of course not. There’s not time. This phenomena is just further proof that we as a race are not to be trusted. Perception is framed by too many inconsistent forces to ever be kept level. All that can be done is make a list of bullet points then move on.

  • As with other matters, the intervention of a kindly, alternative opinion can cause us to see with new eyes.
  • A minimum level of heating is essential in cinemas.
  • Seeing films with people you quite fancy is not fair on the film. It’s basically two-timing.
  • When films have shocking scenes or unconventional structures, it can take a preliminary buffer viewing before the subtler content sinks in.
  • If the film’s director is articulate in person then they will deepen your appreciation of their work.
  • The bigger the screen the better.

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