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Review: ‘Shortbus’

FilmOut Monthly Screening Picks A Winner

Sook-Yin Lee plays a sex therapist -- oh I mean couples counselor -- who's ne...

Credit: THINKFilm

Above: Sook-Yin Lee plays a sex therapist -- oh I mean couples counselor -- who's never had an orgasm in "Shortbus," playing tonight as part of FilmOut's monthly screening series.

John Cameron Mitchell gained fame for bringing his drag queen stage hit "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"to the big screen. Now he presents us with a group of New Yorkers trying to figure out the connection, if any, between sex and love in "Shortbus" (screening January 18 at the Birch North Park Theater as part of FilmOut's monthly screening program).

Living in the new millennium, we like to think that we've come a long way from things like the restrictive Hays Code that dictated what Hollywood could and couldn't show. In some ways we have come a long way, and films are able to deal with far more than they could in the past. Yet when it comes to sex, there are still taboos. We may not have a Hays Code regulating what's on screen but studios and filmmakers engage in plenty of self-censorship. Explicit sex in independent films is more rare now than it was in seventies moviemaking, and it's practically nonexistent in mainstream films (the recent "Shame" is the exception that proves the rule). For example, it's difficult to imagine a major studio making "Last Tango in Paris" now.

Then along came John Cameron Mitchell and his sexually explicit film "Shortbus" (2006). Variety called it, "The most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry." But what's actually surprising about "Shortbus" is not so much the sex and the fact that the cast engaged in real sex, but rather that it's a funny film about sex and people enjoying sex. If you think about sexually explicit films such as "Last Tango in Paris or the more recent "Shame," they are serious dark works in which sexual experimentation rarely leads to happiness.

Having worked at a TV station where I had to censor theatrical films for air, I can attest to the fact that one of the things that management felt was most objectionable was people enjoying sex. Rapes scenes could often be left in a movie but never a woman enjoying an orgasm -- even if you saw nothing and only heard the sounds of her pleasure. That being said, I would like to commend Mitchell for making a warm, funny and very human film about people who don't just want sex but rather want to enjoy sex with someone they love. What a concept!

"Shortbus" refers to an underground salon where one can find art, music, politics and a wide array of sexual activity. It's also where a group of native and adopted New Yorkers converges on a weekly basis. It's ' a place where some can explore their sexual curiosities and try to work out their problems.

In an Associated Press interview, Mitchell has stated that he does not view his film as "pornographic -- it's not a film that's meant to arouse. We try to de-eroticize the sex to see what kind of emotions and ideas are left over when the haze of eroticism is waved away. This film isn't a one-night stand, it's a relationship, and by the end if you're thinking only about the sex, then you have a problem.

But when the film starts the characters are not just thinking about sex, they're engaging in it. The film opens with James (a sweetly sad Paul Dawson) videotaping himself in the bathtub and then engaging in a limber display of self-stimulation that would impress "Clerks'" Randall and Dante. His home video would seem narcissistic and pornographic except for the fact that James seems so deeply sad. His partner Jamie (P.J. DeBoy), however, is his polar opposite. Jamie is hyper, extroverted, and just wants to love everybody. After 5 years of a monogamous relationship, James suggests that they experiment with others and this leads to a hilarious group sex scene. Their experimentation also leads them to a sex therapist -- oh, I mean a couples counselor -- named Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee who practically steals the film with her delightfully conflicted performance). She is a woman we have seen earlier in the film engaging in wild sex with her husband, trying various positions and moving through every room in the house. But we discover that she's never had an orgasm and has been faking them for years so as not to upset her husband. So the fact that she's a sex therapist -- oh I mean couples counselor -- proves to be deliciously ironic.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: THINKFilm

Justin Bond playing himself in "Shortbus."

Rounding out the cast of characters is a handful of other characters exploring their sexuality in some way. There's a dominatrix (Lindsay Beamish) who would love to find someone to carry on an intelligent conversation with or at the very least a man or a woman who can give her an orgasm, something she's only been able to give herself. There's Ceth (Jay Brannan) who joins the two Jameses for sex and a relationship. There are also peripheral but important characters like Justin Bond (playing himself) who runs Shortbus, and a voyeuristic young man (Peter Stickles) whose motives are not what you might expect.

For his first film, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell placed himself at center stage and savored the spotlight. For "Shortbus," Mitchell stays behind the camera and generously turns the focus on an ensemble of young actors. Mitchell collaborated with his cast to create the script, essentially allowing each performer to craft a character and then shape his or her fate. What they come up with is a group of flawed, damaged, funny, and very appealing characters who win us over almost immediately. The film works best through humor, finding insights in a highly entertaining manner. Mitchell is less adept at the more dramatic turns in the story but nothing ever goes seriously wrong in this smartly crafted ensemble work.

"Shortbus" (unrated but no one under 17 will be allowed because of the sexually explicit material) is a rare film in that it explores the relationship between sex and love, and does so with humor and compassion. The graphic sex will offend some, but that's as it should be. "Shortbus" wants to push some buttons and defy conventions, and it can't do that without outraging someone. But if you look past the sex, you'll find a very sweet tale of people trying to connect in meaningful ways.

Companion viewing: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Henry and June" (the first film to receive the NC-17 rating), "Last Tango in Paris"

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