Friday, September 22, 2006

Shortbus (Mitchell, 2006)

Early on in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, the director makes a critical decision that impacts the rest of the film and, despite all the fun it offers, gives it a deep undercurrent of sadness. After soaring over and around a 3D-animated version of New York City and peeking in various windows to find characters engaged in sexual encounters that are enthusiastic, yet ultimately unsatisfying, Mitchell lingers momentarily over the gaping hole that remains in the midst of the city where the World Trade Center once stood. While most films that can be found in your local video store’s ‘adult’ section offer promises of enacting your fantasies, Mitchell makes it clear early on that his film featuring scenes of explicit sexuality will be grounded in reality. Although his name is never mentioned, Shortbus is very much a product of the George W. Bush era. Indeed, Mitchell’s most palpable success is the way he captures the ever-present feeling of dread that has been a part of living in America for the past five years as we have been encouraged to fear the boogeyman that might strike at any moment and have watched as bombs have been dropped on innocents in our name.

Given these circumstances, is it really any wonder that Sofia, our central character, has never been able to achieve an orgasm? Living just blocks away from America’s enormous open wound, how does one go about seeking the kind of pleasure that is unapologetically selfish? For many of us who despair about the Bush policy of perpetual war, the ideals of the sixties come to mind and a retreat into hedonism seems like just what the doctor ordered. However, we also know that the sixties cannot be repeated. Our awareness of AIDS and the harmful effects of drug use, as well as the drastic impact of an increasingly large media and the internet have contributed to our collective sense of cynicism. We see that a large amount of money and power can buy you exactly the kind of news you want broadcast. We see that the current administration has successfully linked activism and terrorism in the minds of many Americans. Under these circumstances, how is it possible to really dive into life and experience without guilt the pleasures that make it worth living?

In his deeply emotional (and hilarious) ensemble piece, Mitchell suggests that there is at least one ideal from the sixties that is still attainable and still has the potential to make the world a better place: connectedness. It is connectedness that James lacks when he feels that he must communicate with his lover through a homemade video. It is connectedness that is lost when Sofia attempts to communicate with her husband through cheesy psychiatric exercises. For Severin, disconnectedness means being separated from her own identity and being trapped playing a fictional role that has little to do with who she actually is. And it is connectedness that these characters seek at Shortbus, the underground salon where politics, art, fashion and sex collide.

Although Mitchell’s film contains thin plotlines that betray a work put together by actors rather than writers, the unconventional method of creation also allows for moments of startling honesty -- in particular a key scene where a character is confronted with the cold reality of his self-worth. There are memorable lines aplenty in Shortbus as Mitchell once again displays his sense of wit. Occasionally the film becomes a mite too enamored of its own cuteness -- but because of the charisma of the cast and the daring of their good-natured enterprise, these moments are easily forgiven. Perhaps best of all, this is a film that is aware of the decade’s sense of dread, yet does not consume itself with criticizing those who are responsible. Instead, it offers an alternate path and suggests that it is through understanding, accepting and, yes, loving each other that we find strength and satisfaction. Though some may try to convince you that we are destined to travel in different directions, we are, in fact, all dying together. Under these circumstances, the petty divisions that bring so much misery to our lives are nothing short of nonsensical. As with his first feature, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell has created a film that is passionate, vibrant, insightful and truly one of a kind.



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