Dir/scr: John Cameron Mitchell.US.2006. 102mins.
A film thatshows three men having no-holds-barred group sex while bawling out The Star-Spangled Banner at the top oftheir lungs is not going to delight the US censors - but John CameronMitchell's follow-up to Hedwig And The AngryInch has plenty to offer the rest of us. Shortbus is an often very funnychoral drama of sexual mores set against what's left of the artsy, transgenderclub scene in post-9/11 New York. Ratings questions will be upper most in mostpotential buyers' minds, but if it can overcome this hurdle, then Shortbus has thepotential to be more of an adult crossover film than musical adaptation of Hedwig, which was confined in mostterritories to a mainly gay, cult, RockyHorror Picture Show demographic. Think of it as Me And You And Everyone We Know for urbanswingers.
Thefilm is reminiscent of early Almodovar in its deftjuggling of camp farce, indie music and emotionalengagement, though it is more improvisational in its technique and far moresexually explicit than anything the Spanish maestro has ever done. Mitchellbrings an overflow of joy to his material that's too often lacking on thethin-lipped US independent scene, but this same impulse is also his greatest weaknesson the few occasions when he lets the club scenes descend into indulgentwhimsy, and in the overly pat all-you-need-is-sex finale.
Neverthe shrinking wallflower, Mitchell lays his cards on the table in the stylishopening sequence. After caressing the surface of a rough-hewn mock-up of theStatue Of Liberty, the camera pans across the water toa cutesy 3-D model Manhattan that has some of the jazzy sass of a golden-age HannaBarbera cartoon backdrop.
Weswoop in on, and through, the windows of the main characters: depressed formerrent boy James (Paul Dawson), who first films himself pissing and farting in thebath before attempting auto-fellatio; dominatrix Severin(Lindsay Beamish) who lubricates dildoes whilesurveying the Ground Zero building site from a high window; and Sino-Canadianmarriage counsellor Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), who ishaving comically acrobatic sex with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker) - thoughwe later discover that her orgasm is faked (she's never actually had one).Filling us up before the meal has even started, thistour de force entree ends when the sperm hits the Jackson Pollock painting onthe wall of Severin's rich-kid sex slave.
Afterfilms like Nine Songs and Hole In My Heart, actors having real sexis beginning to feel like the norm, and Shortbus uses its (often literally) in-your-face raunchyaction not to shock but to make the point that sex is a huge part of mostpeoples' emotional lives. It helps that the actors are mostly debutants or non-professionals: there is a gauche tenderness in these unions that would havebeen difficult to method-act. Sook-Yin Lee is a realrevelation: she brings not only deft comic timing but also a gritsy emotional intensity to Sofia that lifts her sexuallyfrustrated character from the joke it might have been to the film's emotionallynchpin.
Theother main character is James, who got the idea of becoming a rent boy whilewatching My Own Private Idaho (one ofa number of sly meta-cinematic references) but is now a confessional diary film-makerwith obvious debts to Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation). PaulDawson delivers a strong, though somewhat monotone performance as a man riven by clinical depression while at the same timereluctant to hurt his partner Jamie by taking the quick way out.
TheShortbus of the title is a weekly soiree held in agay-kitsch, shabby chic underground club where all the characters find refuge,solace and, eventually, solutions to their problems. Presided over by real lifecamp entertainer and showman Justin Bond, it is Cabaret meets Fellini's Casanova, seasoned with a generous pinchof nostalgia for Lindsay-Kemp-era New York. One room has a permanent orgy goingon, of the kind that makes the masked-ball scene of Eyes Wide Shut look like a Teddy Bears' Picnic (as Bond says to Sofiaat one point, "It's like the sixties, only with less hope").
Thefilm wears its libertarian political agenda on its sleeve: one of the Shortbus passengers, a former New York mayor, lauds thecity's "permeability" and "sanity", adding: "that's why we always get attackedby the impermeable and the insane".
Brightlyshot and snappily edited, Shortbus has tremendous visual confidence and a catchy, notto mention marketable, soundtrack by indie bands andsinger-songwriters - including actors Sook-Yin Leeand Jay Brannan (who plays Ceth, the pretty boy who turnsthe James-Jamie rapport into a triangle).
Themusic comes to the fore in the stirring WeAll Get It In The End anthem that closes the filmin excessively feelgood mode: it's here that CameronMitchell's Broadway musical tendencies are given their fullest rein.
Butin the end, you have to like a film whose end credits list not only dozens of "sextras", but even a "pee and vibrator consultant".
Michael J Werner
John Cameron Mitchell
Frank G DeMarco
Brian A Kates
Yo La Tengo