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October 20, 2006

Sex is America

A salon for outcasts in the city is presented with a heartbreaking humanity

If sex makes you squeamish, then Shortbus is not the film for you. But if you want to watch a revolutionary American film in which the portrayal of contemporary urban humanity is more shocking and raw than any of the sex acts shown, then Shortbus will steal your heart and soul in ways that few films are able to these days. If you understand loneliness, then the film will have you in tears by its end.

Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, Shortbus is his follow-up to the brilliant and under-appreciated Hedwig and the Angry Inch. That film showed how savvy a director and performer Mitchell is.

Shortbus is not going to get Mitchell anywhere near the Oscars or any of the big awards, not because it isn�t deserving in some categories, but because it would completely topple the awards� apple cart of pretend propriety and priggish pomposity.

If Brokeback Mountain was last year�s path-breaking, quintessentially American film, then Shortbus is this year�s cinematic revolution that gets at the core of what it means to be American today. Both films, ostensibly about gay characters, hit on the larger facets of the American identity and psychosocial landscape. In a more open-minded culture, both would be lauded as seminal American films, not simply dismissed as queer or alternative cinema.

Shortbus explores the lives of several characters in present-day New York. These men and women--gay, straight, bisexual, transsexual, polysexual, or anywhere else on the spectrum--are on a quest for actualization from within, and through the eyes of others. Love and sex are simply the languages these characters try to use in that journey--geographies fraught with the fear of failure and the angst of inadequacy.

The film gets its name from a weekly underground salon, a Bohemian smorgasbord of art, music, politics and ubiquitous sexual carnality, where �anything goes� is the mantra of these lost souls of the urban nights. The word comes from the smaller, yellow school buses often used to transport the more challenged or gifted students to their special classes, separate from the �normal� kids on the regular buses.

After the success of Hedwig, fans and cinephiles were keen to see Mitchell�s sophomore outing. They were intrigued by his casting call for actors willing to perform real sex acts as part of the narrative--no faking, no simulations, no holds barred. After submitting videotaped interviews and auditions (over a half million people visited Mitchell�s website and nearly 500 sent in tapes) seven leading performers were selected to workshop the storyline with him. All in the ensemble cast are making their feature film debuts.

At the center of Shortbus are Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who is tired of faking orgasms with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker) and goes on a quest to attain the all-elusive big O; James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (P.J. DeBoy) who are in a long-term relationship which James wants to open to others; Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix who bemoans her lack of long-lasting relationships; Ceth (Jay Brannan), who falls for both James and Jamie--not separately, but as a couple; Caleb (Peter Stickles), who lives in an apartment across from James� and Jamie�s, looking in on their every move; and Justin Bond (playing himself), the master of ceremonies at the Shortbus salon where all these characters stumble into one another in a six-degrees-of-separation that is both claustrophobic and liberating at the same time.

The film is a fluid melding of the disparate storylines, creating a milieu of outcasts in New York City that is both believable and imbued with heartbreaking humanity.

There is a lot of humor in the film, a funniness that is laugh-out-loud at times and dark at others. A particularly funny joke involving the name of one of the cast members of Friends is as funny a gag as you are likely to hear this year.

Mitchell never lets the pathos and politics overwhelm the underlying joie de vivre so intrinsic to the film. The film seems to almost be a cinematic manifesto about the quest and attainment of utopia underneath all the layers of hurt and pain and inadequacy rampant in the city. At times the happy endings seem a bit forced, a bit unrealistic. Yet, one has to admire Mitchell�s insistence on a utopian vision in the face of so much that is anything but these days. The last scene of the film, a kaleidoscopic romp of dance, music, and intimacy, is a celebration that flies in the face of all the pain, individual and collective, that these denizens of Shortbus (and all of us) have endured post 9-11.

The actors are all strong, especially for debuts in a film that has asked more of them than more seasoned actors get to chew on in more conventional films. There are moments when some of them seem a bit in over their heads with the emotionally shattering bits of their storylines.

Two actors steal the film: Sook-Yin Lee and Lindsay Beamish. As Sofia, the therapist in need of some therapy herself, Lee is a revelation. Her every moment rings true, from the deeply personal acts of revelation--emotional or sexual--to the more theatrical moments of slapstick with a remote-controlled egg-like vibrator stuck inside of her. Lee is the sexual and emotional heart of the film and if casting agents don�t get scared of her first choice of film, she will be a name to be reckoned with in upcoming projects.

Beamish, with her punk rocker-dominatrix fa�ade, is a scared girl searching for the antidote to her cosmic loneliness. She, too, is stunning as she unveils the layers of her masks and pain to expose the raw core of her broken and lovelorn heart and soul.

DeBoys and Dawson are good as Jamie and James, especially as their onscreen chemistry is being challenged by outsiders and James� struggles with depression.

The film has sex acts as honest as one is likely to see in American cinema, outside of the porn industry.

The first eight minutes are non-stop sex, shown with a no-holds-barred sensibility including penetration and ejaculation. There is a shock value here, but one of a different nature than most would assume. The shock is not so much in seeing a penis entering a vagina or witnessing semen splatter on a face at the end of long session of auto-fellatio, but in how genuinely human the cinematic depiction of sex seems. The sex is real not because of its literal depiction on film, but rather because it has been freed from the pseudo-sexuality of Hollywood conventions.

Sex in Hollywood films, because it is so contrived and so precisely faked (just the right angle of a thigh covering a penis, just the right swash of a bed sheet masking the perfectly shaved vagina, etc.) is rarely truly erotic and almost always joyless.

Mitchell has unmasked that fakery in Hollywood sex and sexuality and given us acts of sex that are physically--and more importantly, psychologically--uncensored.

I do have a few quibbles about Mitchell�s approach to the eroticism, which he seems to say is counter to all that is Hollywood.

First of all, the seven central characters are all young and beautiful, not one ounce of extra fat on any body. The men are all more than amply endowed, and in a film that is so honest about sex acts this becomes all the more relevant to the discussion at hand. It is an obvious pitfall that even Mitchell--all his anti-establishment musings aside--has fallen into: He knows his audiences would prefer to watch beautiful people over unattractive ones, and bigger penises photograph more sexually than smaller endowments.

At some level, Mitchell must be aware of his Hollywood proclivities for youth and beauty and size (small waists or big dicks) and he tries to compensate a bit.

There is a tender kiss between Ceth and an older man, an ex-mayor of New York, at the Shortbus salon. We are made to feel that even the old and discarded can get the attentions of a hot, young stud. But that, as the film quickly shows us, is a fleeting move-against-the-stereotypes and it seems almost patronizing on Mitchell�s part.

There are some quick moments where at the salon Mitchell uses nude, larger women, cellulite and all, to show us how open and accepting this underworld is. Yet they are but a fleeting fetish, and while the salon may accept people of all shapes and sizes, the fact that the main characters are all slim and hot and hung belies Mitchell�s attempts to seem inclusive.

The limits of Mitchell�s revolutionary aesthetic show at another point. While masturbation, blowjobs, cum shots, penis to vagina intercourse, and even a rim job are honestly shown, anal sex is filmed with the coyness of Hollywood. When one of the characters, who has never had anal sex, finally decides to (in a lovely plot point and character development), Mitchell shoots this with all the self-censorship of any mainstream Hollywood film.

Still, Mitchell and Shortbus are rare breeds in cinema--daring, original and filled with humanity.

The film begins with a brilliant framing device: an extreme close-up of a human form with the patina of weathered metal. As the slow pan zooms out we realize it is none other than a realistic but animated version of the Statue of Liberty. She becomes, by proxy, the witness to what is going on under the sheets of New York City, post-September 11, when fear and fanaticism at home and abroad have begun to define the onset of the nascent 21st century.

It is all at once questioning, challenging and reaffirming our very notions of liberty, threatened not only by enemies outside the U.S., but also equally under fire from powerbrokers and the fearful within American borders.

The open sexuality of Shortbus is anathema to both the fundamentalists abroad who claim that America�s licentiousness and sexual liberation need to be destroyed, and to their counterparts at home who say the same thing. The conclusion is that fundamentalism of all stripes is against the American way of life. It is as powerful a statement of patriotism as you are likely to hear in this election season.

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