Knight at the Movies Archives
John Cameron Mitchell is back...and how! At right, the clothed writer-director at Cannes with Shortbus star Sook-Yin-Lee
The biggest surprise about Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell’s long awaited follow up to Hedwig & the Angry Inch, turns out not to be
the graphic sexuality (and it’s all there, folks, right down to the money shots). Rather, it’s that the film, an Altmanesque focus on a
group of sexually frustrated New Yorkers, is so gloriously, unapologetically FUN about sex. 30 years after The Rocky Horror Picture
Show someone has finally taken the challenge of the “Don’t dream it, be it” message of sexual freedom and playfulness to heart
and put it on the screen. Remember giggling with delight at the profile of Dr. Frank-n-Furter in bed with first Janet and then Brad,
one after the other? Shortbus has the same delicious frisson and an added smartness and emotional resonance about sex (all
kinds) and love that’s very powerful. I don’t know how it’s going to play in Peoria (I strongly suspect, tongue firmly planted in cheek,
that conservatives will run in horror) but based on its honesty alone, Shortbus is a cinematic breakthrough.
For a culture so obsessed with sex it’s amazing how often the reality of it in our lives is so rarely depicted on screen (as opposed to
the fantasy versions produced by the porn and entertainment industries). How appropriate is it that this simple act would come from
out writer-director-performer Mitchell who is no stranger to pushing sexual boundaries in enormously creative ways (take another
look at Exhibit A, the rousing Hedwig, his debut film, as proof of that)?
The movie doesn’t dawdle. It opens with James (Paul Dawson) in the tub filming his penis. Then he’s masturbating. Soon he’s
outside the tub and pushing himself into a yoga position popular with men who have the unique ability to pleasure themselves which
James does. Meanwhile, Sofia (Sook Yin-Lee) and husband Rob (Raphael Barker) are going at in seemingly every position in the
Kama Sutra. Then there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), the cranky dominatrix who’s so bored she can barely be bothered to give one
of her regulars what he’s paid for. Mitchell cuts this opening montage to a sly musical commentary – Anita O’Day singing “Is You Is
Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” As the song and the characters build to their respective climaxes (or seeming ones) we see that the
physical act of sex – as fun and pleasurable as it obviously is – no longer is enough for these people.
Soon the melancholy James and perky boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy), after a first session in which they discuss bringing in a third sex
partner with Sofia their couples counselor, are heading to Shortbus, a private club presided over by the hilarious, throaty Brothel
Madame (Justin Bond). A think tank made up of separate rooms (including one just for womyn) filled with acolytes of sexual
freedom, witty banter, performance art, and insightful conversation, Shortbus is a sort of modern day combination of Gertrude Stein’s
Parisian salon and the infamous 70s New York pleasure dome, Plato’s Retreat. Here all the characters (including the dour but
actually insecure Severin who ends up making a connection with Sofia) let it all hang out (literally in the orgy room) and help each
other try to emotionally reconnect anew in and out of the club.
The richly layered script was written by Mitchell after months of character development exercises between the actors and it shows.
There’s a lot of very insightful, funny observation and the inclusion of small details that ring true for both heated up strangers and
couples familiar and comfortable with each others sexual habits. I especially loved the sexy, funny scene with James, Jamie and
their boy toy of choice singing the national anthem in the midst of a three way and the conversations between Severin and Sofia as
they meet each night in a sensory deprivation tank.
A misstep (the movie’s biggest one): aside from being sexually adventurous (we get gay-bi-straight sex) the celebrants are also
young and have great physiques. At one point, the ample buttocks of a large woman is glimpsed and one elderly gay man, in an
obvious nod to former New York mayor Ed Koch, is given screen time. But mostly this is a sexual palace for those with comely
figures and faces. My libido liked it but I was aware that it went against the grain of the movie’s “don’t dream it, be it” theme and it
suddenly seemed suspect. Where were the ugly Betties? The bears? The large and lovelies? The not so shapely show tune
queens? The trannies of both genders?
And though I liked the irony of having the Koch character become the wise sage for the club, saying things like, “New York is where
everyone comes to be forgiven,” the speech in which he admits he could have done more during the AIDS crisis is a bittersweet
example of wishful thinking on Mitchell’s part. I’m not quite ready to absolve those who were in charge at the height of the crisis –
even fictional versions – of their implicit guilt in letting what has become a pandemic take hold because of ignorance, homophobia or
fear for their own outing. As for AIDS and STDs – the movie makes a point of showing characters pulling out the condoms and love
supplies before diving into sex which emphasizes the “play safe” message without hammering it over the head.
The film ends with a rousing song (one of several – all terrific – featured throughout). It’s led by Bond (appropriate as Bond’s alter
ego is the singing half of the phenomenally successful duo Kiki & Herb). By the time the Brothel Madame begins to lead the
Shortbus devotees in a rousing chorus of “In the End,” – in a song finale that seems both homage to Fellini’s clowns, the Cockettes
and, yes, Rocky Horror – all the characters – and perhaps some in the audience – have come to embrace the “don’t dream it, be it”
mantra and to understand Mitchell’s assertion that sexuality is a lot more fluid than labels would lead one to think. That idea, so
joyfully presented in a time with our country deep in conservative denial, makes Shortbus a revolutionary movie – and a hell of a
sexy one to boot.
I Want Your Sex:
10-18-06 Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.