Shortbus

Rating:

SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL

Main Cast: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson

Director: John Cameron Mitchell

party PD

I was expecting something more like this. But we do the best with what we have, I always say.

I have had my grand open house and, if I may so, it was a stunning success.  Somehow the invitation was posted to every Twitter and Facebook account in the greater Los Angeles area so hordes of adoring fans descended on Casa Maine on the appointed day.  It was a bit more than we had anticipated and the caterers had to keep sending out for more canapes to keep everyone fed.  When it became evident that the Beverly Hills police SWAT team was going to be necessary to maintain order, I had the brilliant notion of converting the bar into a no-host one to keep folk from getting too squiffy and to raise the cash to pay for the extra food.  I have always been known for my keen sense of business.  I had to have my friends on the force stop the gang from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills smuggling in their own tequila in the guise of gallon bottles of Evian.

Normy and I had thrown the whole house open for our guests to enjoy.  Leah, general manager of my merchandise lines had had the clever idea of setting up tasteful little booths in some of the bigger rooms so that my guests could purchase some of my fine consumer goods at low factory-direct prices.  The Lesterene beauty products for sale in my tap studio were doing awfully well until I figured out that the caterers were busy buying the shrimp and avocado overnight beauty mask and using it as a spread on the Ritz crackers.  I soon put a stop to that one.  My products are made from the finest all natural ingredients but they are designed for external use only.

The evening ended with a grand fireworks display over the house shot off by some mortars installed on the roof.  One was slightly mis-aimed sending a stream of strontium red fireballs through one of the east wing windows and over the heads of the startled party guests.  One of the tapestries caught fire but was quickly put out after a brief visit from the fire department.  We had to close that wing off after this little incident and in rousting everyone out, we found a number of rather unsavory Melrose Avenue types in one of the powder rooms in what I can only call flagrante delicto all over my imported Egyptian cotton towels.  I am all for open sexual expression, but not at parties and not in other people’s bathrooms, especially when you look like Mr. Hyde after a four-day bender.

shortbusThe last guest finally departed allowing me to retire with Normy to the home theater for a nightcap.  Having been somewhat surprised on throwing open the door to my own powder room to find several writhing naked people, I decided a film exploring adult sexuality in its myriad forms was in order so we slipped the DVD of John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus into the player.  Mitchell, a baby-faced Texan who went to Broadway following a stint at Northwestern University, first made a name for himself playing such teen characters as Huck Finn in Big River and Dickon in The Secret Garden on stage.  A strong interest in performance art and pushing the boundaries of stage possibility led him to create his famous transsexual character Hedwig appearing in both the original stage and film versions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  In the early 2000s, as he was becoming more involved in the film world, he became interested in the more explicit sexual nature of European cinema and concerned that sex was often being used in highly negative ways.  He started to think about making a sexually explicit film celebrating sex and the role of sex in adult life in a more positive light and Shortbus was the result.

Shortbus follows the life and loves of a bunch of present day New Yorkers whose lives all eventually intersect at the titular nightclub, Shortbus, a place of bohemian camaraderie and erotic exploration.  It’s named after the bus that takes the ‘special’ children to school and there’s not an adult that attends that isn’t damaged in some way. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a therapist who at first seems to be happily married to Rob (Raphael Barker) but who has difficulties reaching orgasm.  She is working with gay couple Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson) who are having complications in their relationship after years together, made worse by James’s underlying depression.  Unbeknownst to them, James is being stalked by Caleb (Peter Stickles) who wants him all to himself.  The couple invite Sofia to Shortbus to open her eyes to a more hedonistic and sexually open way of life where she meets Severin (Lindsay Beamish), an unhappy professional dominatrix and develops an unlikely friendship.  The gay couple in turn meet Ceth (Jay Brannan), a young man who gets pulled into a three-way relationship with them.  There are twists and turns, a blackout, some musical interludes (mainly with Justin Bond as the club owner/emcee), and it all ends on a note of hope (complete with a marching band stolen from the end of Act II of La Boheme) that the characters may be able to move forward towards a more happy and fulfilled existence.

Shortbus is an interesting experiment which succeeds on some levels and fails on others.  There is a lot of sex.  It’s real, it’s graphic, and it’s as explicit as it is in standard issue pornography but with a different purpose.  It’s not there to arouse or titillate but rather to explore the interior emotions and connections of these characters.  Sex is one of the basic activities of our adult lives but our puritanical culture tends to hide it away in a shame based private life and not bring it up for public discussion.  It’s disconcerting to see it displayed and discussed openly, especially by actors who are truly decent actors, not the usual adult film stars who are chosen for attributes other than their ability to create and project character.  If you can get over our innate cultural conditioning and start to see what John Cameron Mitchell is going for, it’s rather engrossing.  He doesn’t always reach it, mainly due to some odd changes in tone.  There are scenes where sex is ladled with existential angst, scenes where sex approaches slapstick comedy, and scenes where sex is full of self-discovery.  I suppose this is what sex is, but the moving back in forth in the language of film requires a certain amount of directorial finesse which I don’t think Mitchell has.

The film was not developed in typical fashion.  Given the nature of the material, Mitchell and his associates went through a process of recruiting actors who would be willing to participate in explicit erotic scenes on film and then, once they had found compatible performers, they entered a series of improvisational workshops, creating characters and relationships.  From this process, Mitchell ended up fashioning a screenplay which they then shot.  The actors had, at this point, been working intimately with each other for quite some time allowing them to approach their sex scenes with a great deal more comfort with each other than Hollywood usually allows. (There was a film I did some years ago, where my first day on set I had to shoot a major love scene with Lew Ayres, whom I had never previously met.  Talk about awkward…)

In the end, I quite liked Shortbus, despite some of the unevenness of tone.  I admired the honesty and courage of the actors (most of whom were stigmatized by their participation and have not gone on to major careers).  I enjoyed some of the visual look of the movie, especially the title/interstitial New York dreamscape that resembles a Claymation model.  I liked some of the loose quasi-improvisatory sketches but did not like others.  (Some of the scenes depicting Sofia as a therapist are painful and there’s some minor characters we meet at the club who get way too much screen time).  Most of the actors acquit themselves well.  I am particularly fond of Raphael Barker’s Rob, who has a confused emotional arc that most of us can identify with, and Jay Brannan’s Ceth who stays hopeful using an early version of smartphone dating technology with a sly nod to Carol Channing’s Dolly Gallagher Levi.   I also liked Alan Mandell (a longtime associate of Samuel Beckett) as a thinly veiled Ed Koch.  I was not fond of some of the second-grade symbolism and at times disjointed storytelling.  From time to time the screenplay lurches in odd directions.  A better screenwriter would have found a more seamless way of connecting the various set pieces together.  Can I recommend it?  Only if you’re an adult in all senses of the word.

Jackson Pollock body fluids.  Dildo waving. Lesbian bomb riding.  Vibrating egg.  National anthem on rusty trombone.  Gratuitous sewer reaching. Symbolic lamppost. Multiple candles.  Near drownings. Gratuitous Jeff Whitty.  Water imagery.  Naked actors.  Naked extras.  Naked sextras.  Naked John Cameron Mitchell in the background.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

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