Shortbus

November, 2006, Drama

Directed by:John Cameron Mitchell

Starring:Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy, Raphael Barker, and Peter Stickles

Nearly 40 years ago, a Swedish film entitled I Am Curious Yellow introduced graphic sex to American movie theaters. Five short years later Linda Lovelace became the topic of late night television jokes for her appearance in Deep Throat and a new industry went into high gear, spawning what is now a $10 billion dollar industry serving up hard core product for the video/DVD markets from a cluster of production facilities in the San Fernando Valley, porn’s low-rent answer to Hollywood. Sexual arousal is the clear goal of this genre; but what if a filmmaker sought to use explicit material to make a movie whose purpose was polemical, rather than erotic? Would it be art, or simply smut with a fancier name?

Writer/director/actor John Cameron Mitchell, creator of the acclaimed Hedwig and the Angry Inch, struggles to answer that question in this highly praised, unabashed paean to carnality which gently argues that not only should we be more tolerant of our own sexual appetites but equally generous to those of others, especially in the gay, lesbian, transsexual and transgendered communities. Whether you buy his argument or not, can his film be judged on its creative accomplishments quite apart from the merits of his case? Mitchell announced before production began that he wanted to make a film in which sex wasn’t dreary or negative. He’s batted .500 here; Shortbus isn’t negative, but dreary is another matter… 

Mitchell’s characters copulate in diverse ways, suggesting the director has carefully studied The Kama Sutra. Three gays contemplate a ménage a trois, a woman strains for her first orgasm by trying various positions with her husband; when that fails she masturbates and finally hits the jackpot during an encounter with another woman. A dominatrix hates herself nearly as much as her clients while the patrons of a private sex club reminiscent of New York City’s Plato’s Retreat grope each other aesthetically. But all this coupling, (not to mention the solitary pleasuring) while enthusiastic, winds up reaffirming a point its creator probably didn’t intend; sexual release isn’t a very interesting subject in and of itself; it requires something more than imaginative gymnastics to hold an audience’s interest. The characters in Mitchell’s story aren’t looking for love in all the wrong places; they’re just looking for physical release. Not a bad thing to pursue perhaps, but those euphoric moments typically come in one of two flavors; pornographic excitement or romantic eroticism. Mitchell clearly wants to avoid the first, while insisting that the second isn’t really necessary either; as a  result, the audience isn’t given much, (you should pardon the expression) to sink its teeth into. This one’s more clinical than prurient, and who wants to go to the movies for a course in sex education?

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