Monday, May 16, 2011

Shortbus (2006) — Think kink

In a previous post on movies showing at the Seattle International Film Festival, I observed that if you want to experience movies that think outside the mainstream box, that probably won't ping your Regal Cinemas radar, and that exist off the beaten Twizzlers rack, film festivals are how to do it up big.

While this post isn't another SIFF review (I'm coming back to those soon, promise), I'm in a film-fest frame of mind and this title is absolutely the sort of thing I think of as Why Festivals Exist material. Shortbus, in fact, played the metropolitan and festival circuits in 2006, premiering at Cannes and headlining at the Toronto Film Festival, the 50th annual London Film Festival, and so on.

And it remains one of my favorite "small" indies for its charm, its light-touch humor, and above all its frank and knowing — yet not freighted and mopey — approach to its material. And oh, what material. There are reasons why Shortbus never played down at the mall, although this would probably be a better world if it could have.

First, let's agree on what Shortbus is. Director John Cameron Mitchell followed up his debut breakout film Hedwig and the Angry Inch with this modestly budgeted romantic comedy-drama. It is an Altmanesque study of interweaving New Yorkers dealing with their emotional isolation and their need for support, community, and interaction. (" post-9/11 America," adds the quickly clichéd clip-on descriptor. Shortbus does tilt in that direction, especially in its opening scene overlooking Ground Zero, but as usual there's little here that wasn't true pre-9/11 too.) *

It is engagingly crafted with a pleasing ensemble of newbie actors in an observant little comedic charmer about relationships — relationships with long-time partners and new encounters, with families of choice, and with oneself.

It is charming, soft-spoken, expectations-busting (class 1 understatement), and often quite funny.

Now, what Shortbus is not.

It is not "art-house porn." It's not pornographic in any sleazy sense. That's important to note about a film that integrates scenes of authentic, explicit, see-it-all, holy smokes!, "WTF?!", non-simulated sex.

That sex springs from copious points across the adjust-to-fit sexuality continuum: het and gay and bi, married and un-, polyamorous and polymorphous, kinky and kinkless, electrically aided, solo, duo, trio, and, by the end, orchestral. We witness more tattoos than taboos here. If "-phobic" is anywhere in your personality profile, think twice.

These sex-positive scenes, purposefully incorporated and never gratuitous, aim not to arouse but to simply be: To be truthful, honest, friendly, awkward, hesitant, romantic, silly, frustrating, ridiculous, joyful — pretty much like, you know, ordinary real life.

Although Mitchell makes sure you're fully informed what plane he's working on within the first six fluid-flying minutes (I was hardly settled in my seat before the film provided its first "I've never seen that in a movie before" laser shot at my Straight White Male forcefield), Shortbus is not "shocking" for shock's sake. Some initial discomfort is likely part of Mitchell's benignly subversive contract with us, and that works as its payoff comes the moment we notice the discomfort evaporating under the light of the film's more disarming sensibilities.

Shortbus is not, above all, "dirty." What it is, in fact, is a nice movie, one of the nicest to come down the pike since March of the Penguins.

Pulling together Shortbus' multiple threads is Sophia (Sook-Yin Lee), a happily married sex therapist ("I prefer 'couples counselor'") who has never herself experienced an orgasm. A monogamous gay couple come to her as clients, Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson). James wants to bring other men into their relationship, although his own depression points to a tragic ulterior motive.

They invite Sofia to Shortbus, a "salon for the gifted and challenged" where adults of all ages and sexual predispositions gather to connect through art, music, conversation, play, and sex. "It's just like the sixties, only with less hope. See anything you like?" says Shortbus' host/sensei played by Justin Bond of the cabaret duo Kiki & Herb. (Having known a "Shortbus" or two in my day, I can attest that Mitchell draws from experience, and that such dens of equity attract the very best sorts of colorful, outré folks.)

There "the Jamies" meet an attractive model and singer-songwriter, Ceth (pronounced "Seth," played by Jay Brannon), who joins them as a possible new partner. However, a voyeuristic photographer (Peter Stickle) who has been watching the Jamies voices his own objections to that. Meanwhile, Sophia finds counsel in Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a spike-haired dominatrix with relationship troubles of her own.

As stories unfold — everyone gets his or her Vagina Monologues moment — shared fears and vulnerabilities intermix and collide, sometimes shatteringly. All the while, New York City (represented by an endearing CGI animated Lite-Brite cityscape) is experiencing power brownouts that seem connected to the energies discharging among the characters.

The score's nearly wall-to-wall music includes Yo La Tengo, Azure Ray, and Mitchell's onscreen friends from the New York scene. There's also a marching band and a proctological rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner."

What makes Shortbus something other than just an experiment in mainstreaming hardcore prurience is that it's as affectionate as it is licentious. Mitchell and his cast break through the skin with humor and tenderly staged revelations, and through his recurring themes of identity and belonging the film treats its screwed-up "special needs" busriders with genuine warmth of feeling.

I might wish that Mitchell's bravado extended further into portions of Shortbus' script, which he developed over more than two and a half years in collaborative improv workshops with his cast. Key elements come off as pat or banal. I could ask for greater original zazz in its characters. The arc of Sophia's ironic plight, James' suicidal YouTubed melancholy, Severin's goth-eyed angst.... These are old hooks to hang the movie's boxers and bustiers on.

Yet the whole exceeds the sum of its occasionally shopworn parts.

While it's true that, for instance, the movie's Magnolia-redolent climax succumbs to more than one trite-and-true impulse, it does so with an affirming, feel-good, kumbaya objective. In deliberate opposition to the Eurogloom art-house films that also used real sex (for instance, Baise Moi, the appropriately titled Anatomy of Hell, etc.) and made it as depressing as attending Requiem for a Dream On Ice, Mitchell's happy ending doesn't tumble his progressive pilgrims into the Slough of Despond or leave them run over by some metaphorical truck as punishment for imagined "sins." There's nothing in his vision that's mean-spirited, cruel, or hurtful.

And that counts for a lot in my book.

Just as importantly, nor does he step into the easy trap of smug condescension or dismissiveness toward those audiences whose personal comfort zones aren't even in the same dimension as Shortbus.

For all its no-brow outrageousness, Shortbus strives for a thoughtful, respectful, big-hearted resonance that's in short supply both in and out of the cineplex.

Simply saying that Shortbus "isn't for everyone" belabors an obviousness that applies to every movie ever made. It's fairer to say that fans of, say, or Dan Savage are already tuned into Shortbus' vibe. And yet Mitchell is more inclusive even than that, and Shortbus' "we're all in this together" compassion becomes an open invitation in the most catholic sense.

It's no accident that Shortbus opens with a close-up on the Statue of Liberty. In its unselfconscious embrace of constitutional freedoms and the life, liberty, pursuit-of-happiness ethic, what it is, in fact, is one of the most decent, moral, and American movies of the decade.

If you care to catch Shortbus on DVD (from Velocity/THINKFilm), the disc provides some strong extras. For starters, there's a relaxed scene-specific commentary from Mitchell with castmembers Justin Bond, Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, and PJ DeBoy reminiscing about the scenes and other castmembers, and revealing the processes and improvisational moments that helped shape the final product.

A Sundance Channel behind-the-scenes featurette, "Gifted and Talented: The Making of Shortbus" (30 mins.), brings us Mitchell and his cast chronicling the production from the unusually frank auditions to the group workshopping and principal shooting. It concludes with home-movie footage of the cast during the invitational premiere at Cannes and other festivals.

"How to Shoot Sex: A Docu-Primer" (8 mins.), with optional (and recommended) commentary from Mitchell and Lee, collects some unique behind-the-scenes considerations required for the bountifully populated big-loft-full-of-sex scene. Shanti Carson, a heartstartingly lovely real-life fire-eater and clothing designer with a holstered raygun tattooed on a thigh, is aptly lauded for her presence here.

Also on hand are eight deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary from Mitchell and the cast, plus the film's various trailers.

* Addendum, Sept. 9, 2011: Over at Andrew Sullivan's The Dish, a reader counters what I wrote there by considering Shortbus as "a great 9/11 work of art." I see the point.

Music: The Beatles, Past Masters vol. 2
Near at hand:
Elizabeth's latest story ms.