Monday, November 11, 2013

Shortbus / ***1/2 (2006)

The first moments play like an invasion into the bedrooms of strangers. The camera cuts between three distinct romps: in one, a lone male films himself on a handheld digital camera attempting to engage in auto-fellatio, and the frame reveals the full package. In the next, a couple experiments with varying sexual positions as if attempting to outdo the Kama sutra, and the penetration shots are genuine. In the third, a woman dressed in eccentric dominatrix garb verbally abuses a man for money, whips him, clamps his nipples with clothespins and reveals a gaze of dismay when he winds up having an orgasm on her headboard painting. What do these three scenes exemplify, other than a shockingly frank attitude about the sexual bravado of its characters? For “Shortbus,” the answer is not nearly as simple or one-dimensional as the surface would suggest. This isn’t an exploit into pornographic ideals, but a movie with genuine ideas that are completely freed from political correctness in a time when society continues to fear absolute truths about our individual desires.

Here is an endeavor that stands distinctly outside of that mentality, born from the brain of an actor-turned-director that sets his sights not in the realm of the traditionalists, but of the pioneers. John Cameron Mitchell became a name of notoriety after the release of the inspired rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” in 2001, but here his chutzpah has painted a much broader portrait of intention. “Shortbus” plays like a mosaic of human life told from the perspective of those seeking release within the tensions of a conservative society. The boldness of its characters is produced by nothing more than basic instinct, and their conditioning has taught them to put notions of pleasure and satisfaction in the background because, well, that’s just where the mainstream society likes them. In telling this degree of a story, Mitchell knows that his motives are about more than just freeing characters from those restraints: they are a reflection of where we continue to stand collectively as a populace. Do we have the right to be afraid of our own bodies and desires in a time when the world is saturated in the tragedies of persecution and genocide?

I will avoid going into too much detail of the story – not so much because of its graphic makeup, but more because of how precious these discoveries will be for viewers. A brief rundown: Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a relationships counselor carrying around a big secret: she has never actually experienced an orgasm. The movie reveals this detail in a brilliant early scene where she attempts to detach herself from the suggestion through hypothetical dialogue: in it, she asks her husband if a client of hers should continue faking orgasms in order to keep the lover satisfied, or if she should reveal the information so they can work on their problem together. A couple of gay clients – Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson) – experience similar relationship woes. They are fairly sexless, with James opting to masturbate rather than engage in trysts with his partner, and Jamie masks his desire for that companionship with picture-perfect delusion. Inevitably they converge in a frustrating intervention where all of their sexual vulnerabilities are revealed to one another, and the movie takes them on a journey that is ripe in unwavering honesty and detail.

The key to this all working lies is in the dialogue exchanges, which do not reduce the characters to mere caricatures as most movies might. Some of the observations contain alarming clarity (“Let's face it, monogamy's for straight people”), while others find an irony that touches on more than just the conundrums of the characters (“It's just like the 60's, only with less hope”). Not surprisingly, Mitchell cast his movie mostly with relatively unknown actors; considering the degree to which they engage in actual sexual contact for the sake of the camera, it would have been doubtful that anyone in the mainstream would want a major presence in a movie like this. But those that he does use have a certain unrefined innocence that adds credibility to the ideas, and at a certain point we are not sensitized to their explicit antics. Sex in front of a movie camera comes with the risk of being used as a ploy to grab attention, but “Shortbus” is a movie with established rules that allows the intercourse to exist plausibly with dialogue and story.

The title refers to a locale that kind of acts as a narrative petri dish. The Shortbus is a club that attracts the sexually dysfunctional for the sake of liberating them: they descend into a universe where their individual plight is mirrored by outspoken peers, connections are made, and experiments can be conducted (consensually, of course) to deal with and surpass the restraints they each have about their sexual identity. Sofia’s inability to reach orgasm may provide the movie a center for its redemptive intentions, but the true heart lies in several outlying characters. The gay couple embodies the penultimate test of homosexual relationships – is it okay to share a love normally reserved for two people with a third? – and there is a series of sequences between them and a new friend named Ceth (Jay Brannan) that are sad, charming, compassionate and even audacious (most notable: a sexual encounter in which the National Anthem is sung into an orifice as part of foreplay). Likewise, the dominatrix character of Severin (Lindsay Beamish) takes on an ironic resonance when the full reveal of her rigid persona is undertaken: here is a woman who commands total control of those in her bedroom, but what causes her to fall into that role? In the company of another who can identify with the personal restraint that fuels such bedroom play-acting, epiphanies are made that seem torn from the root of our own existence. These are not merely characters, but standards. And in some ironic way, our lives seem cast in their shadows.

The industry’s history with sexual exploits in movies is a curious one. Filmmakers are often punished with box office-killing ratings when they opt to reveal the full scope of the acts instead of skirting around them in stylistic innuendo. On the flip side, gratuitous violence and bloodshed are handled with minimal fuss or obstacle, lending credence to the belief that our movies are free to horrify with no obstruction. Who came up with that standard? Sex and love are natural; violence is impulsive. What this reality highlights, in essence, is an ongoing social paranoia in dealing with intercourse from a productive standpoint, and the movies are casualties of that. I don’t suspect it will ever change, at least in this lifetime. Until that day, though, the endeavor to cause progressive waves falls in the hands of filmmakers who are willing to inspire a little chaos, and “Shortbus” is the mark of a man who has spirit and gusto for expanding that horizon. What a brave, off-the-wall and liberating experience this is.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Comedy/Drama/Romance (US); 2006; Not Rated; contains pornographic sexual material; Running Time: 101 Minutes

Sook-Yin Lee: Sofia
Paul Dawson: James
Lindsay Beamish: Severin
PJ DeBoy: Jamie
Raphael Barker: Rob
Peter Stickles: Caleb, the Stalker
Jay Brannan: Ceth

Produced by
Wouter Barendrecht, Alexis Fish, Howard Gertler, Pamela Hirsch, Richie Jackson, John Cameron Mitchell, Morgan Higby Night, Tim Perell, Bobbi Thompson, Michael J. Werner, Neil Westreich and Richard WoffordDirected and written by John Cameron Mitchell

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