| December 10, 2006

If a viewer can breach his/her discomfort (and prejudices) in regards to un-simulated onscreen sex (in all its variables) director Mitchell’s study of the riotous foibles and fumblings of a questing group of anxious New Yorkers pushes past coitus into unexpectedly tender and sweet terrain. It’s quite an accomplishment given that the film opens with what could be seen by some as a series of confrontational shots of characters in various indelicate states of arousal, climaxing, as it were, with one character’s inadvertent but just contribution to what I believe is a Jackson Pollack painting. Mitchell pursues a highly original vision, to present his characters’ very blunt sexual selves, but have them simultaneously remain fully defined figures emotionally and psychologically, aspects that most pure pornography tends to excise as distractions from the major point. Although we witness most of the actors’ naked bodies and the actions they indulge with them, we experience them in concert with the rest of their lives, so that engagement with them does not end at orgasm. In fact, the ways in which each character in the first sequence achieve (or do not achieve) their goals, the feelings with which they are left after climax, speak volumes about what we come to know of their personalities and perspectives.
“Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?” poses the opening line of song to an animated rendering of that great symbol of freedom and harbour, the Statue of Liberty. Much is made of the characters’ existences in a post 9/11 New York; how much of the explanation for their fraught crises of conscience and identity, their listless focus and free-ranging panic is the result of psychic fallout from that great day of upheaval is unclear, but the event works well (and respectfully) enough as a structural device that has unbalanced them enough to send them each off on a journey of self-discovery and self-fulfilment.
Through extensive workshops (improv and confession gave shape to final script), Mitchell has elicited fascinating and brave performances from his mostly unknown cast. Paul Duncan and PJ Deboy play a gay couple whose relationship has run aground on one member’s increasing sense of isolation: they seek a third party member to possibly reignite a passion. Their couples counsellor Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee in a great performance of comic despair) is unravelling, unable to achieve orgasm with her husband Rob (despite much tantric and New Age techniques). Dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish, in perhaps the film’s most touching performance-Beamish suggests the wounded, brittle melancholy that made a young Jennifer Jason Leigh so magnetic) hides her vulnerability and sensitivity behind the façade of leather and whips and chains. She’s a bit lost as to how performance has come to overtake her life.
With the film being so up front with its sexuality, credit must go to Mitchell that soon into the film the sex scenes have lost their potency, as we become less interested in the body parts than the state of everyone’s soul; we wish happiness not to be so elusive to them. Sex is not seen as a guarantee for joy and pleasure , and, indeed, in the sexual cosmology of the film, only when one opens his/her soul to a more unified consciousness of how we are all linked by surrendering our fears of our own worths and values, by embracing our failings and weaknesses, and by accepting that we are loved and adored in spite of them, is sex capable of being fulfilling. Mitchell knows that there are more frightening ways of being exposed than merely touching body parts together, and his characters only grow and settle once they start to be more honest with and open to each other. It’s quite a paradox that the most truthful moment in the film occurs within the confines of a closet-two characters must return to this most infantile of places to actually relax enough to relate! Shortbus, which is the name of the club where the characters gather to explore their best selves (presided over by the wicked Justin Bond, of Kiki and Herb fame, and resembling a cross between Warhol’s factory and a mad cabaret) is the adult playground of collective exploration, a safe haven from a reductive outside world which doesn’t seem to have anyone’s best interests in mind.
Mitchell falters a bit in that I sometimes thinks he doubts his own abilities to balance the film tonally-in fear that he may pass off his cast as mere hedonists (tipping the weight in the sex scenes into mere titillation), he overcompensates in assigning nearly all of them miserable sex lives, or at least encounters that conclude mostly in some state of despondence. He needn’t have worried, as it’s not possible to respond other than soberly and sincerely to his film and cast. I also wish that he would have resisted the too-cute device of the recurring brown-outs, as the characters’ carnal activities directly affect the actual electricity grids throughout the city, as they plug into the greater universal energy bank-it stands out as an unrefined sitcom gimmick in an otherwise sophisticated palette.
The great effort of Mitchell’s, to return dimension to cinematic sex-comic, emotional, spiritual, to place it within the whole of personality-is really to be applauded. I don’t think it’s sacrilege to state that he locates in sex what is close to religion (when incorporated properly into lifestyle), a sense of transcendence and largeness, a mystery both intimate and infinite. And you can have a ball getting there.

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