Shortbus

Cannes Film Festival 2006–“Shortbus,” John Cameron Mitchell's follow-up to his highly acclaimed debut, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” is an audaciously entertaining dissection of the sexual mores of New York's hip crowd, both straight and gay. Sexually explicit in dialogue and imagery, “Shortbus” is an uncompromising indie in which Mitchell, functioning as producer, writer, and helmer, maintains complete control over every aspect of his work.

Hot and cool in equal measures, the movie, which doesn't have an American distributor yet, received its world premiere as a midnight selection of the 2006 Festival de Cannes. After playing the global festival circuit and urban centers, “Shortbus” has good chances to become a midnight movie due to its bold subject, graphic sexuality, and exuberant music, always a strong component of Mitchell's work.

How the U.S. Rating Board will deal with the film is anyone's guess. In 1999, that board gave hard time to Kubrick's “Eyes Wide Shut,” which they deemed pornographic, imposing on it some absurd figurines to camouflage orgy scenes that were mild and didn't reveal much by any standard. Other sexually graphic films, such as Michael Winterbottom's “Nine Songs” and the Swedish “Hole in My Heart,” were released non-rated, but never found an audience; it didn't help that both films were artistically disappointing.

In this movie, Mitchell continues the audacious trail begun by Pedro Almodovar twenty years ago in his early pictures, but he goes way beyond the Spaniard director. Walking a fine line between high camp and serious anatomy of the impact of sex and sexuality on our everyday lives, “Shortbus” is not particularly deep, but it's vastly entertaining. It also exhibits the original voice of a talented filmmaker committed to contesting rigid cultural configurations and to breaking both societal and cinematic taboos.

That said, “Shortbus” is not an exploitation flick, nor is it made to shock audiences with its bold strategy. Mitchell's greatest achievement here is in bringing humor, energy, music, and style to a risky subject matter that in the past has received mostly grim and grave treatment from the likes of Bertolucci in his Paris-set films, “Last Tango in Paris” (1972) and “The Dreamers” (2003).

“Shortbus” refers to the classic American yellow public school bus. Most “normal” children travel in the long yellow bus; the short bus is reserved for disabled, emotionally disturbed or gifted children, anyone with “special needs.” But the film's title also describes a weekly party held in a gay club in New York that had, according to Mitchell, “a junior high school dance atmosphere, without all the 'club' attitude.” Admittedly inspired by Gertrude Stein's literary Parisian salon, Mitchell ups the ante and contemporizes this institution, centering on a modern-day, multi-gendered underground salon in which discussions of music, literature, and art co-exist with public group sex.

Like “Hedwig,” “Shortbus” reflects Mitchell's dynamic view of sex, gender, and identity as fluid concepts in constant need of change. Narratively, the story centers on two sets of characters involved in long-term relationships that want to open them up sexually, albeit for different reasons.

Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sexually-frustrated Asian-Canadian relationships counselor, would like to experiment with an open marriage with husband Rob (Raphael Barker). She's determined to experience a real orgasm since she's been faking it for years with Rob. The film opens as Sofia sets out on a far-flung quest for her own personal consummation.

The other central character is James (Paul Dawson), who comes to Sofia as a client with his longterm boyfriend Jamie (P.J. DeBoy) to discuss a recent development in their relationship. James has suggested that they open up their sexual relationship to other partners, and the adoring Jamie, who's reluctant at first, is willing to give it a try.

Quite depressed, James is trying to prepare his lover for his own imminent suicide. He's working hard on a mysterious video, which, we eventually discover, is meant as a farewell note. When first introduced, James is shooting a video of himself peeing and trying to give a blowjob to himself to completion.

Three other characters orbit the two couples. Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is a dominatrix prostitute/artist who lives in a tiny industrial storage unit. Severin is introduced while treating (i.e. lubricating) her collection of colorful dildos by the window, which overseas Ground Zero. Her artistic work involves taking Polaroid photos of strangers captured at their most vulnerable moments. Severin has never had a deep relationship with anyone, and her loneliness is beginning to take its toll.

Severin volunteers to help Sofia “find her orgasm,” and in return, Sofia gives Severin free therapy to help her quest for meaningful relationship. The women trade their services in the confined but cozy setting of a sensory deprivation tank, where customers float in a pitch-black, soundproof saltwater-filled tank.

Meanwhile, a former model/now singer named Ceth (Jay Brannan) falls for James and Jamie, not separately but as a couple, going out of his way to pursue the idea of a “monogamous” three-way relationship with them.

We also meet James' stalker Caleb (Peter Stickles), who's living in an apartment with a grandstand view of James and Jamie's apartment. Like Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's “Rear Window,” Caleb observes James obsessively and is shocked by the “natural” arrival of Ceth. Perceiving him as a danger to James and Jamie's “perfect” relationship, Ceth sets out to eliminate that threat. However, soon Caleb is not just a voyeur but also a participant in the action.

The salon takes place in the D.U.M.B.O. (Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) area of Brooklyn in the multi-room loft of real-life host Justin Bond, who has carefully fostered a communitarian nexus of art, music, politics and polysexual acts at his weekly gathering. Justin sees Shortbus as a sanctuary of the old New York spirit, circling its wagons against the rising conservative national tide and rapidly gentrifying city.

Serving as a modern prophet, Justin warns that the city's emotional infrastructure is old and outdated, and thus is unable to handle the ever-multiplying hopes and dreams of its young inhabitants. Nonetheless, Justin remains enthusiastic about the city's unique character and talks about it as a “motherboard,” dominated by circuitry of desire for connection through sex, love and creativity.

Mitchell takes pride in the fact that all the orgasms and sperm shots in the film are “real”–one, in fact, lands on a Jackson Pollack painting. But Mitchell is not the first director to use “unsimulated” sex. Decades ago, Italian Marco Bellocchio did it in “Devil in the Flesh,” and more recently Catherine Breillat (“Romance,” “Sex Is Comedy”), Winterbottom (“Nine Songs”), and Moodison (“Hole in My Heart”). Set to music, “Nine Songs” was unfortunately dull and irritating, while “Hole in My Heart” was excessive and offensive to the actors and the audience (see my reviews). The only director who almost pulled it off was Breillat, except that her overtly feminist agenda got in the way, and the humor of “Sex Is Comedy” didn't always translate effectively.

Ultimately, “Shortbus” seems to be the kind of film where process was just as important as the end result. The storyline and the characters were developed through group improvisations. Contributing to the film's authenticity is the casting of young, amateur (or at least non-professional) actors. Mitchell and his producers held an open casting process, first narrowing down the list to 500 people, who were asked to send in tapes, out of which 40 were chosen for the audition stage.

Mitchell then ascertained who was sexually attracted to whom, and who had the potential to play credible couples in the film. It quickly became clear who were the natural actors, trained or not. Mitchell selected people who could improvise off a written script while maintaining a strict scene structure, kind of “paraphrasing” rather than “pure improvisation.”

Problem is, despite sexual frankness, “Shortbus” is not particularly thought-provoking and it runs out of steam after an hour. When the film zeroes in on sex qua sex, it's effective and even funny. However, when it tries to use the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of our lives, it comes across as pretentious and overreaching.

Moreover, with all due respect, as far as dissection of modern marriage s an institution is concerned, Mitchell's film lacks the depth or complexity of Cassavetes' masterpieces, such as “Minnie and Moskowitz” and “A Woman Under the Influence,” films that he might have watched as preparation for his picture.

Even so, quite remarkably, Mitchell doesn't let the depressing politics and zeitgeist of paranoia-9/11 and its aftermath loom large. Lacking bitterness and cynicism, “Shortbus” is quite upbeat and hopeful. Mitchell chooses to end his film with “We All Get It In the End,” and the rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” against the context of a sexual orgy is both comic and stirring. (It's worth noting that another indie director, Richard Kelly, uses the “Star-Spangled Banner” in a non-conventional way, in the sci-fi “Southland Tales,” also premiering in Cannes this year).

As in “Hedwig,” production values are strong. Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, production designer Jody Asnes, and editor Brian A. Kates contribute to a colorful, fast-moving film that's often lurid (by design). Original score is credited to Yo La Tengo, but the movie contains many hip songs that stand on their own; the soundtrack should help market the picture.

As a result of his stage work and experience with live audiences, Mitchell is first and foremost an entertainer, which might explain the decadently intoxicating yet nonjudgmental approach of “Shortbus,” a movie in which “Life Is a Cabaret.” Or is it “Cabaret Is Life.”