Sunday, 7 February 2010

It's Like The '60s, Only With Less Hope.

There's not much I can say about this film that I haven't rambled on endlessly to anyone unfortunate (or, dare I say, fortunate) enough to have got me started. It's pretty much my favourite film of 2006, one of my favourite films of the noughties, one of my favourites of forever.

John Cameron Mitchell first came to notice in the film world with his feature Hedwig And The Angry Inch, a film that started out on the stage (and was rendered so amazingly and brilliantly in Sydney a few years back with iOTA in the lead role) before becoming a bit of a cult hit. He followed it up five years later with a film called Shortbus. I first saw it in Australia when the distributors, Hopscotch, organised a massive preview screening for people in the film industry. Certain it would run into problems with censorship due to the amount of actual sex, including gay sex, in it, they put everyone in two cinemas in Paddington, talked about how the movie was so much more and then screened it, presumably in the hope that we would all come out swinging for the film if people did try and ban it. As it was, I don't recall any controversy about its release (amazingly), but I don't know anyone who didn't come out of that movie loving it.

There is a lot of sex. A lot. The opening sequence involves Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) and Rob (Raphael Barker) having vigourous sex in a number of positions in their home, Severin (Lindsay Beamish) dominated her charge Jesse (Adam Hardman) to an impressive orgasm and James (Paul Dawson) self-felating in his apartment, watched by his stalker Caleb (Peter Stickles) from across the street. That's a pretty full on start, and I'm no prude. But the film, despite the constant references and reliance on sex, is not about sex at all. It's about people, relationships, desires, hope, loss. Feeling. The sex is a catalyst, a backdrop.

Our main characters are Sofia, James, his boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy), Severin and to an extent where his input allows the cohesion of the stories, Justin Bond playing himself. The Shortbus of the title is an underground club in New York, where James and Jamie take Sofia, their couples counsellor, after she reveals to them that she has never had an orgasm. There, she meets Severin, and the two begin a friendship as Sofia tries to help the dominatrix to have a real human relationship while she returns the favour by helping the therapist achieve a sexual climax. James and Jamie meanwhile have decided to open up their relationship, and pick up Ceth (Jay Brannan), making him part of their lives. James is documenting much of this, making a film that he is not allowing anyone to see.

Within Shortbus, this debauched place of fantasy, far removed from any reality the average person might recognise, the reality of each character's fragile existence is played out. All of their fears are recognised, whether overtly through passionate monologues (there is a particularly moving one from Alan Mandell, playing an ex-New York mayor, discussing the AIDS crisis and his time in the closet) or inwardly through witty rebukes and sexual encounters. We see into James' despair during a game of truth or dare, and into Severin's through her apologies with art. Eventually James goes off in an attempt to write the final chapter in his film, only to be found by Caleb, and what he was really trying to do by introducing Ceth into Jamie's life becomes painfully apparent, and somehow incredibly noble.

The film is a true triumph in almost every way. The story was developed with the actors over years, Mitchell whittling down audition tapes to find his core group of collaborators. Yes, some of the performances are flawed, but they still feel very real, and the stories, the truth within them, is what is really important and so fully realised in Shortbus. The score from Yo La Tengo is impeccable, and the animated sequences fit perfectly with the impressions of the club. A final rousing chorus from all involved puts a candle on this lush and indulgent cake, leaving you overjoyed, triumphant, and close to tears of happiness.

If you are able to look past graphic sexual sequences to what they represent (and what I've already described is nothing - there are large orgy scenes, and an hilarious scene involving a national anthem being sung into orifices most people would not think to sing into) and how they allow their characters to progress than I'm fairly certain that you will love this film. For the most part there is virtually no titillation in the film - anything arousing comes from within. 5 stars, and a huge recommendation.


  1. aargh lovelovelove this film. love it so hard.

  2. as much as life itself?

    as much as life itself.