Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
This has been a great fall movie season. Wonderful films like The Departed
, Half Nelson
and The Illusionist
all piled one on top of the other like great, unexpected gifts, but the greatest miracle of the year so far has been John Cameron Mitchell’s sad, joyful, hilarious and chaotic film, Shortbus
Mitchell is a bonafide American genius, quite deservedly famous for his freewheeling, sentimental rock opera, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
. This second film is mainly notorious for containing a lot of graphic, un-simulated sex. The film follows the stories of several loosely connected New Yorkers, all dealing with trials in love and sex and loneliness and connection. They all come together at a salon/sex-club called Shortbus, which is presided over by the beautiful Justin Bond. Though Mitchell called it his “sex movie” in the casting ads he ran in industry papers a few years ago, the film is most emphatically not pornography (whatever the hell that means, anyway). Instead, the sex is used to explore the way we connect—or fail to connect—with one another. It’s played for sweetness, for grief, for beauty, and frequently for slapstick hilarity, but not really for prurient interest.
Many reviewers have gone on at length about how not-erotic Shortbus
is, and in a sense, I just now agreed with them. At the same time, I really don’t. Just because the film isn’t pornographic (again, whatever the hell that means), doesn’t mean it isn’t sexy. It is deliriously sexy, but maybe not in the ways you would expect. It lives in hundreds of small details. The sexy is in a close-up of the fingers of the Statue of Liberty as Anita O’Day croons “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby,” and in the swoop of the camera over a colorful, fairy-tale version of New York. It’s in the look of warm sympathy a beautiful girl gives Sook-Yin Lee’s character as Lee stares longingly at a tangle of fun from the outside, and in the cheerfully unselfconscious way that Jay Brennan’s character calls out, “Switch!” during a threesome. It is in lots of sweet kisses, and in the awkward-beautiful tangle of knees and elbows and breasts and cocks that is the Sex-not-Bombs room of Shortbus. It is in the idiosyncratic beauty of each of the actors, and it is in every second of screen time for the scorching-hot Justin Bond. (That man’s mouth is clearly one of the seven wonders, and he’s funny as hell on top of it all.) And the sexy is in the deliriously hopeful tone of the movie, every frame trumpeting the joys of freedom and courage and difference.
Yet for all that, the film isn’t just about sex, nor is it entirely joyful. Shortbus
doesn’t bother to hide the fact that—all too often—living is a struggle. The movie and its characters are all too aware that we are each trapped, alone inside our separate skins. Sex can be a way to get close to breaching that wall, but in the end, that barrier will never come completely down. Shortbus
is full of folks attempting to make that connection against the odds, sometimes succeeding beautifully, sometimes failing painfully.
But I am making this film sound like an art-house tone poem of boredom, when it really is quite the opposite. It is very snappily paced for an ensemble piece, and there is enough uncertainty in each of the entwined plots to keep you curious about the outcomes right up to the very end. There isn’t a moment when the film seems to drag or slow, or when you just wish it would hurry up and end. And it is funny, my god! There are so many fantastic visual jokes in the film that the audience I saw it with was laughing over a good quarter of the dialogue. I had to see it twice just to get some of the plot points. Believe me, that was no hardship. It’s a rollercoaster whirlwind of a good time, and would be worth it just for the entertainment value, but it has a real heart, and a hopeful vision for us humans, and both times I saw it, I left the theater feeling as if the world had been saved for just one more day.