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May 18, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 20
 
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The Real Spin
Beyond the graphic sex, Shortbus is one heck of a ride
By: Ron Anders - SGN A & E Writer

It starts with a view of a computer-animated Statue of Liberty - then zooms into the heart of New York City. We whoosh into windows of various buildings -- witnessing a gay man giving himself a yoga-enhanced blow job (observed by a handsome young voyeur in an adjacent building), a heterosexual couple fucking their brains out in every conceivable sexual position, and a bored dominatrix having a cranky session with her eager, young trust-funded client. All this to the tune of Anita O'Day's sublime cover of Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?

So begins John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, easily the best film of 2006.

I was greatly impressed by Shortbus when I saw it on opening night at last year's Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. In subsequent viewings on DVD, I found that the film touched a deep emotional nerve that no film since Brokeback Mountain has come close to. During one viewing, I found myself laughing out loud. During another, I cried like a baby.

The Shortbus of the title is a salon where sex, music, art, angst and more sex - along with our protagonists - intersect. It is a place, we are told, for the gifted and challenged. No need to worry if you are too nervous to join in. The mantra of Shortbus is: voyeurism is participation.

Thinking about adding a third person to jump-start their relationship, James and Jamie, a cute young gay couple, seek the help of Sofia, a couples therapist, who proceeds to have a meltdown in front of them. It seems Sofia is in a highly sexed relationship with her boyfriend, but has never had an orgasm. The couple invites her to Shortbus to explore her erotic options in finding her elusive climax. At the club, Sofia makes the acquaintance of Severin, the previously mentioned dominatrix, who - despite her veneer of cynicism, longs for an honest relationship with another human being. Thus, the scene is set for a variety of sexual adventures, some comic, some erotic -- all with the ring of authenticity. Reigning over the festivities is Justin Bond, the sarcastically sympathetic, self-proclaimed mistress of Shortbus, who swaggeringly guides his flock from foreplay to orgasm with a withering sense of humor and a knowing, jaded eye.

This vibrant valentine to post-9/11 New York also has a brief, thinly veiled portrayal of former Mayor Ed Koch, who voices regrets about his closeted past -- and not acknowledging the AIDS crisis at its most critical point. He celebrates the city by acknowledging that it is the place where people come to get fucked - and forgiven.

Of all the performers, my personal favorite is Lindsay Beamish as the disillusioned dominatrix, who uncannily manages to embody a comic combination of anger and pathos. In a sweet and funny episode, she tearfully reveals her real name to Sofia (I won't give it away here) after deciding that their isolation tank is the perfect place to have a smoke.

The film ends with a salute to Fellini - a surreal scene complete with a marching band playing the gorgeous, bittersweet anthem In the End, sung through a megaphone by Justin Bond. Our friends are reunited in a haze of joy and sadness, and all is (almost, but not quite) right with the world.

After the considerable achievement of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, we know that director Mitchell is no stranger to the use of music to underscore the emotional turmoil of his characters. Here again, his choice of music is impeccable, especially the performance interludes by composer-performer Scott Matthew. Matthew's hoarse tenor-falsetto gives a poignant edge to the sexual escapades. You will also never think of our national anthem in the same way after hearing it sung into an unexpected orifice.

The extras on the disc are especially absorbing - and fun. In Gifted and Challenged: The Making of Shortbus, we get a complete overview of the development of the film - a three-year process of weeding 500 applicants down to 9 roles, through numerous workshops that developed the storyline, which Mitchell fashioned into the final shooting script. The majority of the leads are non-actors, which brought a raw and sexy spontaneity to the movie. In How to Shoot Sex: A Docu-Primer, Mitchell takes us on an explicit tour of how to get the right body part on the screen at the right time. Very informative, very hot.

How much fun it is to witness sex where people actually seem to enjoy themselves -- so unlike the invariably solemn depictions that have come out of Hollywood: witness the sterile orgy in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut - or garden variety porn, where fucking is mechanical and uninspired.

The film is also accompanied by a commentary track by Mitchell and the actors, along with the obligatory deleted scenes.

I never thought that the most sexually explicit film ever released by a mainstream film company (where the actors are actually fucking each other) would be a warm and fuzzy ode to love and connection. It moved me deeply. As an observer says in the film: "It's like the 60s, but with less hope".

Shortbus touched my heart, hit me in the gut and tickled my groin. I could ask no more from a film experience.

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