Published at: Oct. 5, 2006, 6:05 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
This is the movie RENT desperately wanted to be.
This feels like a bohemian New York that rings true. This is a film I wholeheartedly recommend, but at the same time, this is not a film for everyone. The movie contains graphic onscreen sexual activity. Real penetration. Real ejaculation. It’s explicit. Some of it straight. Some of it gay. Knowing that, you have to decide if you’re comfortable with it. Some people won’t be, and they won’t really have much reason to see this film. No matter what, they will not be able to see past the sex to anything else that’s going on. And I’m not saying this to be hipper-than-thou, either. Nudity and sexuality onscreen is a powerful thing. It’s real, and the more explicit it becomes, the more “real” it becomes. I know exactly why that makes people uncomfortable. And there’s material in SHORTBUS that tested my threshold, certainly, things I’ve never seen before.
And I’ll admit... I gave this film the benefit of the doubt before I ever saw a frame of it, based entirely on how much I remain impressed by HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH, the debut film by writer/director John Cameron Mitchell. That movie played Sundance in 2001. It’s five years later, and Mitchell’s finally made the film he was talking about even back at Sundance, his “sex movie.”
The first thing that struck me about SHORTBUS is how funny it is. The film starts cheeky, playing “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” over a loving, lingering close-up of The Statue Of Liberty. Everyone who moves to New York wonders that, wonders if they’re conquering New York, or if New York is conquering them. We meet all the main characters in the film in a protracted intercut series of vignettes, all building to some sort of release, whether sexual or emotional or both, in some cases. Some of the film’s most shocking imagery takes place during this scene, but I think that’s by design. By rubbing your nose in it right up front, he’s testing you. Can you take it? Are you going to get freaked out? Better do it now, rather than later.
If you do make it through that sequence, the movie itself is fairly sweet and funny and human, and when it does delve into the graphic, it’s for a reason. Life is graphic in a way that movies rarely are. People don’t shit in movies, except for comic effect. When people have sex in movies, it’s always about lighting and slow-motion dissolves, or it’s about tactfully-hidden nudity. And that’s pretty much it. Sex in films is encoded to such a degree, standardized to such a few select recognizable ways of presenting it, that it’s almost pointless to include it in a film at this point. The flip side of that coin, of course, is that in modern pornography, things have gotten so explicit and extreme and, frankly, bizarre, that the notion of finding any sign of real humanity in one of those films is laughable. That’s the distinction that I think keeps SHORTBUS from being “pornographic” in my mind: the humanity of it. This is a film with sex in it, but it’s not about sex. It’s about people. It’s about connections. It’s about the way we relate to each other and the things that go right or wrong in the spaces between us.
Sook-Yin Lee is the star of the film, playing Sofia, a couples therapist who has never experienced an orgasm. She’s reached a point in her relationship with Rob (Raphael Barker) where something’s got to change. She’s got to finally relax and let herself feel something. Meanwhile, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy) have reached a point in their relationship where they’re starting to look outside for satisfaction. Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is a dominatrix who is starting to lose her taste for the trade. And all of them are connected by a place, a club/salon/brothel called Shortbus, hosted by Justin Bond, playing himself. Bond’s a mainstay of the NY drag scene, and he’s the best ambiguously gendered Greek chorus since Joel Grey’s Emcee in CABARET. Both Lee and Dawson make strong impressions with their performances, and I think it's brave work. They lay themselves bare in more ways than just the physical, and knowing how Mitchell workshopped the film with his actors, allowing them to play a part in the creation of the characters, it makes you wonder how much of the pain they're playing is real. I love that the film’s most subversive quality is just how average and sweet these characters all turn out to be. They’re just looking for a little love, freaked out by 9/11 and the way New York has changed ever since, desperate to feel something genuine in a world that seems increasingly fake. As with HEDWIG, there’s a real beauty to this film, a generosity of spirit that marks Mitchell’s work as special.
Frank De Marco’s photography is great, lush in places, almost documentary at other times. I’m not a huge Yo La Tengo fan, but their score for the film is incredibly important to the overall success of the picture, and it works like crazy. There’s one musical moment, a parade near the end of the film, that is so strange and lunatic and surreal that it sort of breaks the fourth wall, and the film ends up feeling more like a party than a conventional movie. The animated model of NYC that's used to tie the whole film together is beautiful and expressive, and a great case of a budgetary concern turing into a stylistic strength.
I’m sure this will roll out gradually, and that it’s going to be a little trickier to find in your local theater than, say, THE DEPARTED, but it’s worth the effort. I’ll have an interview up next week with John Cameron Mitchell that’s a lot of fun, even if it is spoiler heavy.
Be back in a few hours with my take on THE DEPARTED. Till then...