It occurred to me the other day that in just about every new film I have seen recently the male lead has popped off his top at the first available opportunity. Then I thought about it some more and was forced to admit that no, that isn’t quite true. After all, at no point in True Grit does Jeff Bridges pause in the middle of the Choctaw nation and break out his chest, right there in front of an aghast Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld. Still, in a lot of new films I’ve watched, an awful lot of men find reasons to get themselves shirtless. Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love, Eric Bana in The Time Traveller’s Wife, Jim Sturgess in One Day, Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits, Chris Hemsworth in Thor and so on. It seems to have become a regular event. Of course, the king of the shirtless is Matthew McConaughey, a man who has long considered a moment on camera with anything obscuring his chest, including a co-star, to be an affront to everything he stands for. Where he has led, plenty now follow.
The film that really made me think there has been a deliberate shift towards getting some naked man action on screen was Crazy, Stupid, Love. Ryan Gosling sits there, with his face which is actually an unhappy collaboration of two halves of faces, the facial equivalent of Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing ‘Little Drummer Boy’, with his top off because Emma Stone asked him to take it off, and she comments on how spectacular his body is (“Seriously? You look like you’ve been photoshopped”). What an odd scene. It really is just, hey, look at Ryan Gosling’s body! And he sits there looking all yeah, it’s pretty good I know, smiling with his wonky, half and half, ‘Little Drummer Boy’ face.
And he’s right, it is pretty good, and she’s right, he does look photoshopped, and that is part of what I think is happening. Men have always gone about with no top on in films but now it has become a big deal. It is an event. Men get their shirts off in a film now because they have bodies that people will want to see rather than try to forget as quickly as possible. There are websites that categorise the best topless men of the year. I’m not sure that happened when Sean Connery was nobly striding about like an incontinent sex bandolero in Zardoz but if it had, he would surely have won. Look at him. Look! Don’t you dare look away.
A shirtless male in a 70s film was more an eye-watering display of hair than an exhibition of sculpted muscles. Their bodies were essentially hair-studded sacks, often topped by a simian face and a perm. Male bodies now are decorative, and they must appear on set in the correct state. It is no longer enough for a male star to learn his lines and turn up and speak them, possibly drunk if he is a real man, or hell-raiser, as alcoholic dicks were often called. Now they have to drink protein shakes and put in months of physical training with bizarrely bulked-up and unsettling personal trainers in tight t-shirts, all so that they can play the lead in a romcom or charge about in front of a green screen in a loincloth, waving a sword.
We should pity them. They can’t get off the shirt to reveal a bit of slack around the middle or a gentle, comfortable sagging of the pectorals. People would not approve. They want the photoshopped man. They want the event.
After the event has taken place and filming has stopped, these bodies are permitted to disappear under clothes and return to civilian life. They are intended for display and what they do when they aren’t on show is of no interest. Anyone unfortunate enough to walk in on a off-duty Ryan Gosling getting out of the shower would probably see something that looked like a physical representation of depression. Everything would be feeling gravity a little more keenly, muscles would have retreated and there would be a fuzziness over all the previously sharply defined lines. Poor Ryan. Oh, alright, he’d still look great, just not as great. Just leave it, ok. We can’t all be Ryan Gosling.
Hang on though, I am sure you are saying, a bare torso is not proper nudity. A man is not naked on screen unless the bottom half is out and about, be it a backside moving across a bedroom after getting out of bed or the rarely seen and even more rarely welcomed penis.
Shame really digs into what it means to be something or other and makes us take a long hard look at ourselves. It also makes us take a long hard look at Michael Fassbender’s great dangling penis. The opening minutes are like one of those psychological tests where they stick things to your temples and flash pictures at you to measure your reactions: meadows, flowers, FASSBENDER’S COCK, a smiling child. There is a beautiful regularity to its appearances (and, of course, its appearance). There it goes, round the flat, like a great big cuckoo clock striking the hour. Every time it sweeps by we are presented with it at cock level. It’s like repeatedly finding yourself face to face with an elephant. Imagine it at the Imax. It would loom over the audience like its new god. His frenulum would be as thick as a ship’s rigging. And then, for extra unflinching reality, Fassbender has a piss, naked, with the end of his cock visible between his legs, like a party trick.
Fassbender’s cock has already appeared so often it should have its own entry in IMDB. Before Shame, it had a cameo in Hunger and is currently slated to join the regulars for Ocean’s Fourteen but Shame is its most important work. It attempts to show that a penis can carry a serious film. The penis, as I am sure you are aware, has long been marginalised, forced to scratch out a Hollywood living in the porn industry or as a comic prop. In Shame, Fassbender’s cock says no. Each time it sweeps past the camera on its round of the flat, like a questionable conveyance for a child on a fairground carousel, it is confronting us all with the penis as a player in serious drama. “I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. Well, I’m going round the flat again but figuratively I’m not going anywhere,” it says.
At least, I suppose this is what it’s saying because otherwise one is compelled to ask quite why the viewer is given these repeated, fleeting looks at a cock. Perhaps the idea is that Fassbender is a man damaging himself through sex and the implement he beats himself with is his penis so, here it is folks, the implement itself, here’s the pendulous reality. I suppose if Steve McQueen ever makes a film about a man’s cocaine habit destroying his life he’ll begin it with the lead actor’s nose drifting past the screen in close-up several times. That will be a big day for noses. Anyway, whatever the reason, Fassbender’s cock takes a major role.
Or does it? Being the penis of a famous man, yes, its appearance on screen is a bit of an event, but this film about a sex-addicted man with a great big cock and a really nice coat (the film is coat porn. If you like coats, watch Shame) features plenty of female nudity as well as male. Carey Mulligan, playing Fassbender’s messed-up sister, sort of just stands there, totally naked, for about a minute. Yet before seeing it, it was all penis and no vagina when people talked about nudity in Shame. The reason for that, perhaps, is novelty value. Film has a long, ignoble history of ruthlessly exploiting the female body and so nobody was particularly interested in a bit more. Fassbender’s cock, despite its efforts to force people to confront the idea of the penis in serious dramatic roles, is notable principally as a novelty. Unlike the male top half, which has become a major player, the penis has still to break out into the dramatic mainstream.
So, it fails, but it fails well. I think it might even earn itself a place at the top table of cinematic cocks, alongside those warrior-princes, Little Harvey Keitel, Little Viggo Mortensen and Little Ewan McGregor. Harvey’s work in Bad Lieutenant is probably still the standard to which all other penile actors aspire, while Viggo puts in one of the truly great depictions of helpless terror in Eastern Promises, as it sits squarely between its owners flailing legs, offering an occasional telling jiggle, as a fight to the death goes on around it. Ewan is ever dependable and ever present. It is the McConaughey’s chest of penises. No, on reflection, Fassbender’s cock has no place with these luminaries. It is always the way: too much regard is given to the new at the expense of the old. We must always be alert to it.
Steve McQueen has said that he thinks Michael Fassbender was not nominated for an Oscar because Americans are afraid of sex. The more likely reason is that if he had been nominated someone would have had to find a clip that didn’t feature his cock, backside or sex face. An even likelier reason is that Shame isn’t really all that good and his performance is fine. If you want to see a great performance in a film about the damaging effects of a bad childhood on a person with an addictive personality then I suggest you watch the vastly superior Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story instead. As a bonus, it features perhaps the funniest penis in the history of cinema. There is a penis that knows its kind was born for comedy.
MarvMarsh tweets at @MarvMarsh