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We All Get It In The End; The Question Is, Which One? Shortbus Stimulates Heart and Mind More Than Loins

We All Get It In The End; The Question Is, Which One? Shortbus Stimulates Heart and Mind More Than Loins

I’ve never seen anything quite like Shortbus, the new movie from John Cameron Mitchell, the writer/director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The movie follows a group of amorous New York City bohemians and a couples therapist as they all collide in an underground salon run by the genderqueer Justin Bond (of Kiki and Herb fame.) Events take place in the days leading up to the North American Black-out of 2003. The brown-outs are used to echo the sexual tension between the characters.

Shortbus is riddled with sex, from the opening scenes of auto-fellatio and sex positions straight out of the Kama Sutra, to the female lead’s first orgasm (ever) in the closing scene (she turns the lights back on.)

Shortbus makes Queer As Folk look like The Odd Couple or The Brady Bunch. Because the actors are actually performing the sex acts in the film, many critics dismiss Shortbus as pornography. This movie is 100% NOT for children, nor for the faint of heart. But by accepting the necessity of sex to the film, Mitchell asks us to accept the necessity of sex in our lives.

Those who look beneath the blatant reality of Shortbus’ sex discover a rich and tender movie filled with stellar performances highlighting broad themes such as the desire to connect, not to die alone, free self-expression, self-doubt and self-loathing, personal identity within romantic relationships, the importance of honesty in love, and the value of a diverse community within a free and open society.

The independent film carries no rating, an act of cultural and commercial defiance on Mitchell’s part. So it’s only running for limited engagements in select theaters around the country. Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinema ran the movie for the last two weeks with a warning that no one under 18 would be permitted.

Mitchell clarified the difference he feels exists between his film and pornography to reporters at last March’s Cannes Film Festival. “The purpose of pornography is to arouse, and I don’t think anybody got a hard-on watching this film.” He added, “We weren’t planning on exploring the erotic side of sex. That’s certainly been done to death. Most people have said that at the end of the film the sex is the last thing they think about.”

My own experience seeing Shortbus supports Mitchell’s point. I was far too busy identifying with the emotional highs and lows of the characters, enjoying the vibrant, lyrical soundtrack featuring Yo La Tengo and several guest artists, or laughing at the film’s sharp satire and impeccable dialogue to become much aroused.

A remarkable feat of the film is that it is unscripted. Shortbus was developed in a series of evolving workshops between the actors. To develop the supporting character Caleb (who spies on, follows, and photographs main character James), actor Peter Stickles confesses his own romantic obsessions to Mitchell.

Between them, director and actor crafted a modern twist on the classic unrequited-love-from-afar saga, in which both characters are redeemed by their first and only physical encounter without ending up either in a relationship or miserable apart. Mitchell’s process allows the actors to transcend the boundary between themselves and their characters. The matter-of-fact naturalness of each of his shots then bridges the gap between viewer and character.

The movie has some stand-out moments. One of the most striking and disturbing is a home-video made by one of the male leads, a former hustler named James (played by Paul Dawson), for his partner Jamie, a former child actor (played by PJ DeBoy.) In the shot, James films himself staring into his camera by way of a mirror in which we see him naked, emotionally devastated, and covered nearly entirely in band-aids. (I can’t discuss the revelation which makes this scene so poignant without giving away too much.)

Another powerful scene occurs in the Salon between young, randy Ceth (pronounced ‘Seth’) and the former Mayor of New York. While on the hunt for a long-term bed-partner, Ceth’s electronic Yenta (a matchmaking PDA) accidentally sets off the elderly gentleman’s pacemaker. A conversation follows that cuts to the quick as it echoes the intergenerational love of Hal Ashby’s 1971 classic, Harold and Maude.

The end scene goes on a bit too long, teetering into the maudlin: during the actual black-out all the characters have taken refuge in the Salon. The camera lingers over them as they give one another significant looks just before they begin to… you guessed it. Above it all, Justin Bond growls a number written for Broadway, “We All Get It In The End.” This moment, while beautiful, feels a little too easy after the depth of the angst expressed earlier.

There will be many who undoubtedly consider this movie obscene. The three-way relationship between human beings, sex, and religion are some of the more controversial, if not the most controversial, subjects facing human society today. Clashes within and between religion and sex dominate so many aspects our lives including who we love, how we identify and shape ourselves, who we elect to govern us, and who we wage war against. One only has to look at the politics of this November’s election cycle to see America’s struggles with sex, religion, obscenity, and politics. One only has to see the global battles against AIDS, fundamentalism, and religious terrorism to see how crucial it is that we resolve our struggles.

An obvious goal of Shortbus is to push viewers across such boundaries into unquantifiable, uncharted, and dangerous areas. Canadian radio host Sook-Yin Lee is one of the movie’s stars. In a 2004 interview, she suggests that even today we’re still “very repressed as a society. With Shortbus we are just trying to make sex a bigger part of our dialogue, to show people we mustn’t be ashamed about it. But many people are really freaked out about our sexuality and our bodies. This [movie] can be groundbreaking.”

Freedom of speech comes first in the Constitution. It’s the cornerstone of the American way of life, but it isn’t absolute. Art and pornography are both protected under freedom of speech, but hate speech and obscenity (especially that which involves minors) are not. Since 1973, American courts have used the Miller Test (named for the Supreme Court obscenity case Miller v. California) for judging what is ‘obscene.’ The test goes as follows: (a) the material must depict or describe sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, (b) the conduct must already be specifically described in law, and (c) the work must, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value and must appeal only to a ‘prurient interest in sex.’

The Supreme Court’s current stance allows for regional and cultural differences, because Miller specifies that judgments be determined by community values of what is patently offensive, pending constitutional review. So what might not fly for Rehoboth, might be fine for Boston. What might not be fine for one movie theater is fine for another. A further decision allows states to protect minors from the harmful effects of explicit materials that may not pass the Miller’s Test, hence most cinemas’ de facto voluntary compliance with the MPAA rating system.

Prior to Miller, the most famous quote about pornography was issued by Associate Justice Potter Stewart when he wrote that the Constitution protected all obscenity except “hard-core pornography.” Stewart wrote that although he could not “define the kinds of material…within that shorthand description. But I know it when I see it.”

Repeating that, people often leave out the rest of Justice Stewart’s quote “and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” The same is true of Shortbus. Mitchell’s film is a moment of rare beauty and artistic integrity which marks a significant point in American cinema.