Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Vault - Shortbus

Shortbus (2006)
directed & written by John Cameron Mitchell
starring: Raphael Barker, Lindsay Beamish, Justin Bond, Jay Brannan, Paul Dawson, PJ DeBoy, Sook-Yin Lee, Peter Stickles

The Internet has made film images of sex so commonplace that in this decade several independent filmmakers have declared that they were going to take the next step -- bring real sex scenes into legitimate cinema. But every time a filmmaker claimed they were the one who had finally integrated sex into storytelling I was disappointed. In Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny the blowjob scene seemed like a tacked-on stunt to get people to see an otherwise banal movie, and the French film Baise-moi was an atrocious nightmare filled with violence and negative, self-destructive sex. Those films flirted with the barrier between porn and independent film. The film finally tore it down was John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus.

The film is set in a post-9/11 New York. It's ensemble cast is an attractive yet real-looking group in their twenties and thirties that represent most of the sexual spectrum: straight, gay, vanilla, kinky, monogamous, polyamorous, sex workers, voyeurs and genderqueers, all present and accounted for. The one constant in this rainbow of sexual diversity is that all of the characters are looking for something from sex that will complete them. To find it they converge on Shortbus, a idiosyncratic club in Brooklyn that celebrates art and sex by blurring the line between them. Based on the real-life Dumba (now defunct), Shortbus is the place to go for everything from pretentious film festivals to joyous orgies.

The central storyline -- Sofia, a sex therapist in her thirties, has never had an orgasm and is on a quest to get one -- is a bit of a cliché but that doesn't matter so much since this is a film one watches for the characters and atmosphere. The gays are up to more interesting hijinks. James, who is secretly depressed and suicidal, is trying to create a triad with Ceth so his boyfriend Jamie will have support after James dies; all the while they're being followed by Caleb, a voyeur. And Severin, a pro domme who is miserable because her need to control every situation keeps the whole world at arms length is tormented by an impish client as she tries to form a real friendship with Sofia. All this frustration and sexual energy builds up through the movie until it literally blows a fuse, metaphorically resulting in the 2003 New York blackout.

The movie is set up to give us a peak into the lives of these characters rather than to fully explore their background. A tantilizing hint is dropped that Sofia's unability to orgasm might be related to her strict Asian father, but the film doesn't pursue the matter. We also never find out why James is suicidal. His history as a young prostitute may have something to do with it but when he talks about those days it sounds like he was already depressed. The video he's shooting as an explanation/suicide note (which seems to be based on Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation) is full of interesting images but I wasn't able to glean any clues. The first time I viewed the film I felt John Cameron Mitchell's ensemble cast, who helped write the movie, had gotten lazy with their character work. On further viewings I realized the point wasn't to plumb the depths of these people but rather to meet them in passing as you might in the real world.

But this movie's greatest achievement is to integrate sex into storytelling in as just another human activity. It's difficult to de-emphasize the fact that the actors are actually performing sex acts on each other because it's such a novelty in movie making. John Cameron Mitchell manages it by keeping his sex scenes short and often playing them for humor: straight people trying unsatisfying sex in every position of the kama sutra, a gay man singing the national anthem into his partner's ass, a submissive ejaculating on a Jackson Pollack painting, etc. This film makes sex seem normal, ironically, by playing up the one aspect that is normally left out of porn or Hollywood sex scenes -- the fact that sex is frequently ridiculous as well as hot.

In other words, the sex in Shortbus is sex we recognize from our own lives, shown on screen for the first time.

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