Monday, October 02, 2006

Naughty but nice

Shortbus begin exhilaratingly. A gorgeous diorama of New York City is unveiled. The nimble camera of cinematic Frank G. Demark glides up and around its talkie avenues, then pops in and out of windows, alighting on couples engaged in various forms of afternoon delight. Overlooking ground zero, a dominatrix cracks the whip over her "trust-fund baby" client. ("If you could be a superhero, what kind of superpower would you have?" he asks. "The power to make you more interesting," she responds. Crack!) A young gay man idly takes pictures of himself, then indulges in an impressive act of "self help" before his lover arrives to lend a hand, while a voyeur watches intently from a neighboring window. A sex therapist (played by Canadian TV personality Soon-Yik Lee, pictured) makes athletic but underwhelming whoopee with her husband, her only partner--to date.

The second film from Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell, Shortbus (opening Oct. 4, from ThinkFilm) is sweet and silly. The therapist, Sofia, confides in the gay couple, who have come to her for treatment, that she has never reached orgasm. (This after slapping them around. Sofia evidently trained at the same institute where Genevieve Bujold's frustrated radio shrink Nancy Love, in Alan Rudolph's Choose Me, got her degree. The films share a slightly similar vibe.) They recommend she joins them at a "shortbus," a polysexual party where anything goes, and where all the film's characters converge, intersect, and break apart, forming new relationships and/or reenergizing the existing ones.

The converging, intersection, and breaking apart is quite literal. As we saw in the opening sequence, which climaxes rather than concludes, nothing if left to the imagination in this unrated film. Mitchell's simple, but radical, idea, is to reclaim pleasure from pornography. The sex, which in most porn looks like pile-driving, is humanized here, even at its most unconventional (a gay threesome whose participants simultaneously start singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" is funny, rather than tasteless, or heavily ironic). There are "money shots" but the camera is largely positioned at a curious, let's-see-what-we-have-here middle distance. The mostly non-professional actors (with a smattering of downtown types, like ringmaster Justin Bond, among them), who helped Mitchell devise the script, are never violated for our jollies. Provided you can handle sex scenes that may veer from your comfort zone, Shortbus is an upbeat and disarming experience, with another langorous Yo La Tengo score to accompany a utopian vision far different than the one depicted in Old Joy.

Shortbus is also a thoroughly enjoyable Manhattan movie, moving from its allusion to 9/11 to the peace and quiet of the 2003 blackout, a bliss-out that settles over the film. I left satisfied.

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