Perhaps in times when the rest of the world suddenly has explosions of rampant violence and chaos and disorder that brings out the best in those who care but still leaves devastation in its wake, a movie to counteract that is just the trick. When the main character (or the one that probably has the most interesting story, Sofia, played by Sook-Yin Lee) is introduced to the world of the Shortbus, a gathering for all kinds of sexual kinky folk, LGBT, and some straight along with BDSM and a certain ex-Mayor (rhymes with the late Bed Soch), she is reminded that a lot of these people are in New York city because 9/11 was the first "real" thing that happened to them.
|And characters smoke sometimes while inside a little cubby in water.|
That struck me as a curious beat: these people in their little NYC/Brooklyn bubbles only can feel the outside world pierce through when it's something too monumental to contemplate. Even when a black-out (or brown-out whatever it's called) happens, as it does in the climax of John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, it's treated as a moment to sink in deeper, be serene, and then just have fun again. While the movie has hardcore sexual acts, all real - yes boys and girls, you got real penises doing real things with real big time action, and women doing their own sexual things (whether real or not who knows, though if not real it'd be sorta ironic given Sofia's own plight with not ever actually having an orgasm), it's not "dirty" in a real big way. If you find the stuff filthy in this movie that's more your problem than the film's.
|And this is... about as easy as it looks.|
In actuality, the movie is just too sweet-hearted, except with the case of one other main character, and it just wants to be a big puppy that comes up and licks your face before it licks your genitals. It embraces the joy or intimacy, and just connection in general. It's great to see the character whose actual name is Jennifer Aniston ("There can be two in the world," comments Sofia), who takes polaroids of people and has trouble having an actual conversation get to have one or two or more and find herself in the process. And with Sofia, we get a kind of classic New York neurotic (though Chinese-Canadian export) who can't have the big O though is a couples counselor.
She's like a Woody Allen character that happened to wander into an avant-garde sex group, like one of Jack Smith's sex parties only with an extra dosage of 21st century hipster-y. Her awkwardness with her own husband Rob, how they too have trouble connecting despite being married and in love, is the basis of some solid comedy throughout but with a serious undercurrent that was fascinating. Can you just tap into that current of sensual feeling, or will you keep trying too hard to get to that point?
A little more problematic, for me, was the relationship between James and Jamie, though mostly on the side of James who is a self-obsessed depressive who is making a movie about... himself. I never bought into his mopeyness, at least in the context of the rest of the movie. And compared to Sofia or even Severin/Jennifer's problems, it was not presented as a full-on significant crisis. By the time all the cards are laid out on the table for James, not to mention with a persistent voyeur who keeps watching James/Jamie/another gay fellow Ceth, it is just kinda laughable in a way. It never took me out of the film, and the director Mitchell kept his camera sharp for those scenes in the sense of not losing his focus dramatically shot to shot, but the character and his performance bugged me. I wanted it to get back to the more complex, emotionally and physiologically speaking, with Sofia.
|Yep. That's penetration right there. And flexible leg movement.|
But still, you get a lot with Shortbus, more than what you can expect. You may go in just expecting, frankly, to get off watching other people get off. I'm sure Mitchell is fine with that if that's what you want to do. But like a good Jack Horner director (ala Boogie Nights) it's his goal/dream/idea to make a film where the story sucks you in so you can't leave until the movie ends. He does that successfully by giving us witty, knowing dialog, real palpable consequences (at least in some part) for these characters, and that ultimately they will find happiness in some way or another. The ideal of making something where people are making love rather than making war is a noble venture, and Mitchell leads it to a place that is frank, provocative, and a lot of fun. Doing a lot of that, while making it a character study that is more or less successful on the terms of its own characters' finding their own cycles (and he even puts in a quasi-Requiem for a Dream cut-across between the characters in a frenzied montage), is admirable.
PS: You might've noticed I didn't bring up Hedwig the Angry Inch, Mitchell's previous film... I still haven't seen it. But Rabbit Hole, his follow-up to this, is a wonderful dark drama, and the right way to follow up a movie like Shortbus I think - show the dark side of desire and sex, especially when surrounded by grief and loss.