Monday, November 06, 2006
Voyeurism is participation.
I'm pro-sex, and you probably are too. Yet it remains a taboo in our popular culture - honest representations of adult sexuality are still faced with charges of obscenity, while we're constantly fed titillation and sophomoric smut (I shudder when I recall July 1999, when Eyes Wide Shut was killed at the box office by American Pie). The most impressive thing about Shortbus, the most sexually explicit mainstream American feature ever made, is that it reveals how silly and dated our preoccupation with such barriers truly is. Director John Cameron Mitchell celebrates sex as a doorway into understanding that which makes us human - our insecurities and fears, our desires and dreams, our implacable need to connect. And as I watched one man sing our national anthem into another's anus, I thought to myself, "Finally!"
The film follows a group of young New Yorkers who frequent a salon/sex club called Shortbus - as emcee Justin Bond explains, "It's the home of the gifted and challenged." They include Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a couples counselor who has never had an orgasm; James (Paul Dawson), a former street hustler and aspiring filmmaker (seemingly inspired by Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette) who asks his longtime lover, former child star Jamie (PJ DeBoy), to experiment with an open relationship; and Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix who easily dissects others' problems but is incapable of real emotional connection. The ways that these characters' lives intersect could have felt overly schematic; instead, the entire film has a loose, freewheeling style reminiscent of Altman - the people we meet at Shortbus are lifelike and believable in their searching, self-contradictory natures. Mitchell developed the film's screenplay with the actors, and his trust in their ability to carry the story pays off wonderfully - every scene is filled with humor and insight.
Like Mitchell's first film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (based on his stage play), Shortbus is a wildly ambitious work - it is at once political commentary, character study, slapstick comedy and burlesque (all that, plus cumshots). As with Hedwig, Mitchell equates national identity with sexual identity, suggesting that a paradigm shift in the former causes a ripple effect in the latter. The film's characters live in the shadow of 9/11 - the eye-popping animated grid of New York that frames Shortbus depicts Ground Zero as an open wound, and Bond explains the influx of young people in the city as a direct result of that day - "It's the only real thing that's ever happened to them." Mitchell positions his film as a freespirited anecdote to warmongering and divisiveness; sex here is a statement of community (hence the "National Anthem" rimjob scene). I guess it'd be easy to dismiss all of this as naive, but I really dug the "peace and love" message. Personally I prefer it to the dour humorlessness typical of the left - if we can't win the hearts of the moral majority, why not unite the freaks, misfits and preverts?
Between Hedwig and Shortbus, Mitchell is a refreshingly big-hearted artist; he gives even his most alienated characters the possibility of redemption and understanding. A scene between two lovers watching each other from separate windows mirrors a similar scene in Hedwig and suggests an ongoing exploration of the ways that we can achieve mutual understanding. And none of the sex can be described as gratuitous - even an autofellatio serves as a devastating metaphor for emotional isolation (it's also quite impressive). There's a winning, genuine optimism present throughout Shortbus, the belief that peace can be achieved through dialogue, through relationships - maybe even through orgies (why not?). To say too much would be to spoil the film's delicate charms - it's enough to say that Mitchell has made a film that is kinky in all the right ways.