The Reeler


October 3, 2006


Director Mitchell uses sex as the entry point -- and what he finds is uniformly poignant, lonely and exhausted.

I was sweating the screening of John Cameron Mitchell's open-hearted, open-everything comedy Shortbus, and not in a good way. Very curious about the movie itself, and how its much-publicized use of graphic sex as a plot device would pan out, I was more apprehensive about the experience; I don't generally take my porn in a public theater. Having settled into an empty row, I tried to shrug off the man in front of me switching rows, to the seat a couple down from mine, and when a woman plunked down right beside me, I wrote the first line in my notebook: "most awkward screening ever?"

What could be more cliched (and more New York), after all, than having a cranky, Woody Allen moment about personal space? Luckily, Mitchell wasn't kidding when he cited Allen as one of his biggest influences, and it became clear very quickly that the film's grace notes of humor and warmth, if they don't fuse seamlessly with the balls-out sex, enhance and offset it in a way that is completely unexpected. Against all odds, including basic human reflex, Shortbus draws us into the lives of its characters in a way that makes their sexual activity seem like a natural progression; "Sure," Mitchell seems to say. "Why shouldn't we see it?" And yet the moments of almost unbearable intimacy often involve nothing more than a face. The shot, for instance, of Canadian actress Sook-Yin Lee watching a couple make love cycles so convincingly through confusion and loneliness and confounded desire that I was reminded of Lily Tomlin watching Keith Carradine sing "I'm Easy" directly to her in that devastating club scene from Nashville.

A gorgeous, double-dipped CGI model of New York City is used to draw us into and out of the lives (and apartments) of various and variously believable New Yorkers who inevitably converge at a weekly salon and sexual free-for-all -- "Shortbus" -- in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. In short, sometimes shocking order we meet Sofia, the married sex therapist (I'm sorry, "couples counselor") who has never had an orgasm; Rob, her husband, who secretly masturbates to BDSM; James, a suicidal artist and former rent boy who can't fuck his boyfriend; Severin, a dominatrix who can't bear to hear her actual name; Caleb, the voyeur who can only relate to people by recording them; Justin Bond, playing himself as the host, den mother and jaded sage of "Shortbus"; and Ceth, the laissez-faire model who came to New York for more of everything but got tired of pulling faces. Mitchell uses sex as the entry point, if you will, for each character's psychology, and what he finds is uniformly poignant, lonely and exhausted.

There is hope in uniformity, however, or at least in company. As the characters converge they help each other remember what it was like to connect with another human being. "Are you a top or a bottom in real life?" one of Severin's clients asks as she arranges her sex toys on a window sill overlooking Ground Zero. "This is real life," she snarls before beating him raw, and it's the question the film explores with the most success: In the communication age, with more people and more ways to connect than ever before in human history and yet more lonely, alienated people than ever before in human history, what do you have to do, who do you have to fuck, to feel something real? "9/11," Bond replies when asked why young people still flock to the city when the expense makes it almost impossible to live here. "It's the only real thing that's ever happened to them."

It's one of several case-closing aphorisms the film offers as a response to the extremely complicated questions it raises, but it contains enough truth and enough bleak humor to work in the world of Shortbus. The problem is that the world of Shortbus, so bold in its assertion of sexuality as self, too often slackens into a soft-headed, just-fuck-already philosophy at odds with the real treachery its adherents are facing in other aspects of their lives. They're already doing it, after all; how can sex, at this late date, be the solution, or the shortcut to connection, when all along it's been the problem? Was it just the wrong sex? And if so, how would group sex and/or sex with strangers be a revelation? If we all aspire to a state of childlike wonder, complete with weekly games of spin the bottle, and if we all, as one character says, want the same things now that we wanted when we were 12, doesn't hardcore slamming get left out of the equation?

Mitchell has crafted his characters with genuine tenderness, however, and their extraordinary moments of vivid, hilarious, helpless emotion urge you to chalk it up to ye olde suspension of disbelief. The hallmarks of a true collaboration between the director and his actors are everywhere, and their performances are what raise the film above any of its shortcomings. It's been a long time since I've wanted to hand myself over to the world of a film, doubts, dings and all, but Shortbus, with possibly the most jubilant finale since It's A Wonderful Life, doesn't leave one much choice.

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