Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, 2006)
There's no doubt about it, John Cameron Mitchell's sophomore feature, Shortbus is made with good intentions. Although the first ten minutes of the film consists of the most explicit, inventive and shockingly direct sex scenes ever committed in serious celluloid, there's not a tinge of exploitation or pornographic intention that can be felt. We get a sweeping view of New York City (made out of what seems to be a mixture of clay, cardboard and acrylic paint) as the camera flies from the Statue of Liberty to apartment after apartment. In one apartment, Sofia (Lee Sook-yin) and husband Rob (Raphael Barker) are enjoying every form of copulation invented. In another, James (Paul Dawson) a lonely gay man tries to perform self-fellatio while a voyeur (Peter Stickles) watches from an apartment window across the alley. In another apartment (not far from Ground Zero), dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish) whips and sexually satisfies her client.
The aftermath of this celebration of sexual freedom betrays, in an ironically humorous manner, the pulsating energy of the montage. Severin's client ejaculates into a Pollock painting (a bit of visual wit as the drop of semen doesn't seem to make a noticeable dent on the artwork); the absurdity of the situation gives Severin an epiphany. After what seems to be great sex, Sofia kills the mood by discussing her patient's inability to reach female orgasm (which alludes to her life-long quest to experience an orgasm). James' boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy) suddenly comes home, catching James post-ejaculation and embarrassed.
Their lives converge in an underground bar called "Shortbus." Like some sort of sexual Wonderland, Sofia, desperate for that first orgasm, explores the premises with Alice-like curiosity. There are different places for different kinks: a room that never seems to run out of orgies, a concert venue, rooms and hallways for socializing. More interesting are the different men, women, and everybody in between who fill the rooms and hall of the club. A former NYC-mayor, a model in search of his perfect husband, the drag queen host, a horde of lesbians, homosexuals, and plain amorous individuals --- the club is practically the sexual core of the city where lovemaking sees no boundaries and limitations.
Shortbus is like Mitchell's loving ode to New York City. It's a very hopeful film and despite its preoccupation with the needy calls of the flesh, there's something strangely philosophical, and political with each of its characters' quests. But whenever Mitchell's far-reaching attempt to draw out something deep and resonating surfaces, a thick and overt fake-ness permeates. Mitchell's neo-philosophisms and far-out yet sadly inert political awareness (one of the film's most visually witty scenes is when a trio of men suddenly start singing the American national anthem to each men's erogenous body parts --- truly, it should be seen to be believed) are either visually depicted or spoken in embarrassing strides of overwritten dialogue. There's such a weightiness in Mitchell's ambition to be carried over by a film that is about practically nothing. I don't see irreverence or a high-powered rebellious notion in Mitchell's filmmaking, at least none if compared to Pedro Almodovar's early works (which possess a greater deal of eroticism, with a lot less of the shock value).
Mitchell strives for a celebration of love, gay, straight, lesbian, or whatever, yet his viewpoint is clearly queer that the main thread of Sofia's search for her orgasm has none of the realism or the emotional investment that is placed in the other storyline about James and Jamie's failing relationship. It's lopsided and often (especially in the end) sinks in a quagmire of unintended self-importance and gravity. It's also my problem with Mitchell's first feature, the highly enjoyable Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). That film drowned with an ending that felt the need to put the entire narrative in a perspective of importance, which just doesn't work. Similarly, Shortbus has something to say and desperately urges to say it (with all its courage and inventiveness) yet unfortunately, most of it gets lost in translation.