You may want to decide now how close you want to sit to the screen when you see John Cameron Mitchell’s new film. If for some reason you thought that the man responsible for a musical about a botched East German transsexual named Hedwig might, for his second feature, try something a little less outré, a little less flamboyant, a little less in-your-face, you might want to take an easy-exit aisle in the back row. If, however, you came to see big-screen depictions of elephantine strap-ons, acrobatic self-fellation and every position in the Kama Sutra — in the first 10 minutes — then you’ll want to be front-and-center opening night.
Shortbus is the culmination of an ambitious, years-in-the-making, barely funded idea Mitchell had to shoot a narrative film full of sex scenes that are both unabashedly hardcore and decidedly nonjudgmental. Focusing on a half-dozen New Yorkers who are trying to balance their finicky libidos with their inexperienced hearts, this scruffy, likable, problematic movie is nonetheless a blast of fresh air in the otherwise stale and stifling world of indie film. Mitchell obviously aspires to make a grand statement about art, death, politics and the life-sustaining power of sex, and even though he doesn’t manage to connect all the dots, he has a lot of fun trying.
The cast of unknowns helped devise the screenplay with Mitchell, and their stories intertwine with his own musings on life in a post-9/11 New York. There’s the dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish), who’s introduced as she’s flagellating a “trust-fund hipster” in a hotel room overlooking Ground Zero. Then there’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a relationship counselor who’s never had an orgasm; her secret is dragged out of her by two of her gay clients, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a long-term couple interested in pursuing an open relationship. They clue Sofia in on a polysexual “salon” where writers, musicians and hedonists congregate to get their rocks off, both erotically and artistically. It’s there that she begins the search for her big “O,” as the bubble-headed Jamie and the depressive James court a cute, naive model named Ceth (Jay Brannan).
Shortbus should be more insufferable than it is. It’s clear from Hedwig and this film that Mitchell has a hard-on for the free-love era, albeit one tempered by a distinctly post-millennial angst. He mixes psychedelic colors and shadowy orgy scenes with sardonic humor and pop-culture references. The combination works splendidly when he focuses on the women in the film: There’s a hilarious scene in which Sofia discusses her Sapphic side with a room full of lesbians, and her burgeoning friendship with Severin makes for some of the most resonant moments in the film. But the guys don’t get off so easy, at least not in terms of performance quality: Dawson is a hard-to-read Rufus Wainwright look-alike, while DeBoy and Brannan are sweet and amply endowed (like all the men in the film), but terminally shallow.
Also, Mitchell doesn’t succeed in connecting his hardcore scenes to his emotional ones. James’ self-love and athletic involvement in the ménage-à-trois doesn’t affect his desire to kill himself. You get the feeling that, having accomplished the goal of filming people while they had real live sex, Mitchell didn’t go back for second and third takes; he didn’t direct his performers to actually act while they were going at it.
But what’s important is that all of the sex looks like fun: lusty, consensual screwing between people who actually like each other. Too often in movies, directors will show explicit action in order to depict the sordid, seamy underbelly of desire: illicit affairs, sexual assault and $50 blow jobs. For all their talk of being “frank” and “honest,” these bad-sex movies actually end up reinforcing the puritanical notion that primal urges are something to be ignored, controlled or extinguished — lest we want Glenn Close to boil our pet bunny, for instance.
Even as it encourages boys, girls and everyone in-between to color outside the lines of their relationships, Shortbus preaches the need for love and affection in a world full of anonymous, fatalistic hookups. What could be more heartwarmingly traditional than that?Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].