Thursday, March 15, 2007

Film Notes: "Shortbus"

Okay, darlings, do you know how even so-so sex can seem utterly thrilling after a long 'dry spell'? Oh, please! I know you know! Anyway, for the same reason, we should resist the urge to declare Shortbus a masterpiece, or the greatest movie of its generation, or any such thing. It's a flawed film, but it's definitely a step in the right direction, and certainly better the waves of shitty romantic comedies and sexually explicit films that have come out in the last decade or so. So, let's raise our glasses to that!

First, let's deal with the strengths of the movie. Shortbus is one of the most sex-positive American films in years, almost gleefully so. And its joie de foutre is positively infectuous; you leave the film believing in the healing powers of sex itself, a topic that hasn't been dealt with by anyone but Marvin Gaye since the early seventies. In fact, American films have taken a rather negative view of sex since the sex romps of the sixties, which this film clearly hearkens back to. If we need to put a R.I.P. date on those films, we could go with 1977, when Looking for Mr. Goodbar was released. Movies after that tended to see sex as tempting fate in the Greek sense, as somehow inviting in danger. Halloween (also 1977) established the motif in slasher films of characters having sex and then being murdered by a lurking maniac. But, even the thrillers of the 1980s and 1990s tend to show sex as a destructive force in society, and perhaps the best of these films is Basic Instinct.

Pornography shows sex as purgatory- endless and pointless- and ultimately destroys any sense of narrative. Are there positive and life-affirming stories in porno? Well, that depends on how important it is to you that the plumber actually fixes the plumbing.

As for American romantic comedies, they seem to be populated by people who never have sex. Their climax is generally that our characters finally get to kiss! If they do have sex, it's off-camera. As for the teen comedies that feature sex, they're not really about sex as much as they're about status. Will the nerd get to fuck the hot girl? Sex is a means to a social end, as it is with many teens. Maybe you don't really learn to enjoy fucking until your thirties anyway. Lastly, American gay films sometimes take a positive view of sex, although they also tend to have their main characters get killed off by gay bashers! One might think that Americans were a bit prudish considering how many of our sexually-active characters get murdered on film.

Contrary to popular belief, European films aren't any more sex-positive than American films. In recent years, they have become sexually explicit, as the films of Catherine Breillat exemplify. But, the sexually explicit films also tend to be downright depressing, as the films of Catherine Breillat also exemplify! Clearly, these films were an inspiration to John Cameron Mitchell, and he seems to have decided to make a sexually-explicit lighthearted comedy in response. Basically, if Woody Allen showed cum shots, it would be like this!

At any rate, the film deals with three intersecting stories: Sofia, a marriage consellor played by Sook Yin-Lee, is struggling to have her first orgasm while her husband is struggling with unknown issues, a cute gay couple, played by PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson, are looking to open up their relationship, and a dominatrix, played by Lindsay Beamish, just wants to connect with another person. In the end though all of the characters want to connect with another person, and they all come together (I know! I know!) at Shortbus, a hipster orgy in the literal sense.

Okay, now the problems. First off, I hate the look of digital video, so filmmakers, please, knock it off! It looks like cable access television! Secondly, I imagine that twenty years from now, we'll be making jokes about how filmmakers in this era couldn't convey deep emotions without a music montage! Characters are missing each other. How can we tell? Because they're staring into space while indie rock plays in the foreground! Thirdly, the movie's a bit glib. Interesting ideas are tossed off and never mentioned again. This is, of course, better than most films in which interesting ideas are never mentioned. Lastly, the film sticks to the basic formula of sitcoms- characters are established in the first act, they have conflicts in the second act, they brood over those problems (during a music montage), and the problems are neatly resolved in the third act. Again, it's a bit glib.

But, it's also surprisingly liberating because the answer in this film really is sex. This film believes in that schoolyard wisdom: "You just need to get laid!" In fact, one character's life is probably saved by fucking. It was astounding to me how revolutionary it still is to show sex as life-affirming. Because it is, in fact, life-affirming. Of course, sex can be destructive too. But between Dateline's war on pedophila, countless 90s films about hot stalkers, the religious right's conviction that buttfucking is destroying the American family, and endless books about 'online predators' and 'little girls gone slutty', I think the destructive side of sex is well-covered territory.

Besides, Shortbus doesn't have a negative bone in its body (I know! I know!). This is a film that loves its characters; finally, we've got a movie with gorgeous close-ups of the human face: they're almost as much of a revelation as the close-ups below the belt. And because it loves its characters, the sex is good. Not only is the sex in Shortbus life-affirming; it's also creative, convivial, and goofy, just like it is in real-life, but seldom in the movies. In one of the best scenes in the film, three men have group sex while singing the Star Spangled Banner. Not only did this scene provide the film with one of its best jokes ("Is this the first time somebody has sung the Star Spangled Banner into your ass?" "No."), it was also surprisingly heartfelt. One suspects that, to John Cameron Mitchell, that this is what America is all about- freedom, ingenuity, and the creativity to live your own life in the pursuit of happiness. And for the people who don't seem to get that these days... well, maybe they just need to get laid!


Emily said...

Since you are single-handedly responsible for my entire teenage indie-film education, it should come as no surprise that I agree with you 100%. I saw Shortbus a few months before it came out in preparation for my interview with JCM, and at the press screening, Ian and I both cried real salty tears. I cried because it was so sweet and relevant and surprising and good-natured as well as so inclusive and positive (Did you see that naked fat girl lookin' all hot in the orgy??? Hell yeah! I actually took a dance class with her once and I also think I saw her at last year's fat girl flea market.) I also cried because it took a gay man to make a movie that actually dares to tell the truth about women and orgasms without being boring and pedantic. Viva la Shortbus!

Rufus said...

I did notice the naked fat girl. And actually, I also spotted a hero of yours on the swing. I actually exclaimed "Hey! That's Murray Hill on the swing!" So, call me (spread) Eagle Eyes.

gregvw said...

What does a "fat girl flea market" involve?

Rufus said...

I'm guessing it means they sell clothes in larger sizes... sorry if that's a let down!

Emily said...

Yeah - it's ostensibly a flea market of all plus-sized chick clothes with proceeds going to charity, but they hold it at the LGBT Community Center, and from what I've observed, it could just as easily be called The Fat Girl Meat Market. Three words: Communal Dressing Room.

Rufus said...

Well, okay, not so much of a let down actually.