[box cover]

Shortbus (Unrated)

First, let's say what Shortbus is. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Shortbus is a modestly budgeted indie romantic comedy-drama. It played the metropolitan and festival circuits in 2006, premiering at Cannes and headlining at the Toronto Film Festival, the 50th annual London Film Festival, and so on. It's an Altmanesque/WoodyAllenish study of interweaving New Yorkers who are dealing with their emotional isolation and their need for support, community, and interaction. ("...in post-9/11 America," adds the already cliché clip-on descriptor. Shortbus does tilt in that direction, especially in its opening scene overlooking Ground Zero, but as usual there's little here that wasn't true pre-9/11 too.) It is engagingly crafted with a pleasing ensemble of newbie actors. It's an observant little comedic charmer about relationships — relationships with long-time partners and new encounters, with families of choice, and with oneself. It is charming, soft-spoken, and often quite funny.

Now, what Shortbus is not. It is not "art-house porn." It's not pornographic in any sleazy sense. That's important to note about a film that integrates scenes of authentic, explicit, see-it-all, holy smokes, "WTF?!", non-simulated sex. That sex springs from copious points across the adjust-to-fit sexuality continuum: het and gay and bi, married and un-, polyamorous and polymorphous, kinky and kinkless, electrically aided, solo, duo, trio, and orchestral. We witness more tattoos than taboos here. These sex scenes aim not to arouse, but to simply be. To be truthful, friendly, romantic, honest, joyful, and purposeful. Shortbus is not "shocking" for shock's sake, although some initial discomfort is part of Mitchell's benignly subversive contract with us; its payoff comes the moment we notice that the discomfort evaporates under the light of the film's more disarming sensibilities. Shortbus is not, above all, "dirty." What it is, in fact, is a nice movie, one of the nicest to come down the pike since March of the Penguins.

Pulling together Shortbus' multiple threads is Sophia (Sook-Yin Lee), a happily married sex therapist ("I prefer 'couples counselor'") who has never herself experienced an orgasm. A monogamous gay couple come to her as clients, Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson). James wants to bring other men into their relationship, although his own depression points to a tragic ulterior motive. They invite Sofia to Shortbus, a "salon for the gifted and challenged" where adults of all ages and sexual predispositions gather to connect through art, music, conversation, play, and sex. "It's just like the sixties, only with less hope. See anything you like?" says Shortbus' host/sensei (Justin Bond of the cabaret duo Kiki & Herb). There "the Jamies" meet an attractive model and singer-songwriter, Ceth (pronounced "Seth," played by Jay Brannon), who joins them as a possible new partner. However, a voyeuristic photographer (Peter Stickle) who has been watching the Jamies voices his own objections to that. Sophia finds counsel in Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a spike-haired dominatrix with troubles of her own.

As stories unfold — everyone gets his or her Vagina Monologues moment — shared fears and vulnerabilities intermix and collide, sometimes explosively. All the while, New York City experiences power brownouts that seem connected to the energies discharging among the characters. The score's nearly wall-to-wall music includes Yo La Tengo, Azure Ray, and Mitchell's onscreen friends from the New York scene. (There's also a marching band and a proctological rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner.") What makes Shortbus something other than just an experiment in mainstreaming hardcore prurience is that it's as affectionate as it is licentious. Mitchell and his cast break through the skin with humor and tenderly staged revelations, and the film treats its screwed-up "special needs" busriders with genuine warmth of feeling.

We could wish that Mitchell's bravado extended further into portions of Shortbus' script, which he developed over more than two and a half years in collaborative improv workshops with his cast. Key elements come off as pat or banal. The arc of Sophia's ironic plight, James' suicidal YouTubed melancholy, Severin's goth-eyed angst.... These are old hooks to hang the movie's boxers and bustiers on.

Yet the whole just exceeds the sum of its occasionally shopworn parts. While it's true that, for instance, the movie's Magnolia-redolent climax succumbs to more than one trite-and-true impulse, it does so with an affirming, feel-good, kumbaya objective. In deliberate opposition to the recent spate of Eurogloom art-house films that also used real sex (Baise Moi, the appropriately titled Anatomy of Hell, etc.), Mitchell's happy ending doesn't tumble his progressive pilgrims into the Slough of Despond or leave them run over by some metaphorical truck as punishment for imagined "sins." There's nothing in his vision that's mean-spirited, cruel, or hurtful. Nor does he step into the easy trap of condescension or dismissiveness toward potential viewers whose personal comfort zones aren't even on the same continent as Shortbus.

We could ask for more protein in its story and greater original zazz in its characters, as well as more of the disciplined directorial hand we saw in Hedwig. Nonetheless, for all its no-brow outrageousness, Shortbus strives for a thoughtful, respectful, big-hearted resonance that's in short supply both in and out of the cineplex. Mitchell makes sure you're fully informed what plane he's working on within the first six fluid-flying minutes. But saying that Shortbus "isn't for everyone" belabors an obviousness that applies to every movie ever made. It's fairer to say that fans of, say, Nerve.com or writer Dan Savage are already tuned into Shortbus' vibe.

Mitchell is more inclusive even than that, though, and Shortbus' "we're all in this together" compassion becomes an open invitation in the most catholic sense. It's no accident that Shortbus opens with a close-up on the Statue of Liberty. In its unselfconscious embrace of constitutional freedoms and the life, liberty, pursuit-of-happiness ethic, what it is, in fact, is one of the most decent, moral, and American movies of the year.

*          *          *

Velocity/THINKFilm's DVD release of Shortbus presents a flawless image (1.78:1, anamorphic) with DD 5.1 and 2.0 stereo audio options.

The relaxed scene-specific commentary comes from Mitchell with castmembers Justin Bond, Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, and PJ DeBoy reminiscing about the scenes and other castmembers, and revealing the processes and improvisational moments that helped shape the final product.

A Sundance Channel behind-the-scenes featurette, "Gifted and Talented: The Making of Shortbus" (30 mins.), brings us Mitchell and his cast chronicling the production from the unusually frank auditions to the group workshopping and principal shooting. It concludes with home-movie footage of the cast during the invitational premiere at Cannes and other festivals. "How to Shoot Sex: A Docu-Primer" (8 mins.), with optional (and recommended) commentary from Mitchell and Lee, collects some unique behind-the-scenes considerations required for the bountifully populated big-loft-full-of-sex scene. Shanti Carson, a heartstartingly lovely real-life fire-eater and clothing designer, is aptly lauded for her presence here.

We also get eight deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary from Mitchell and the cast, plus the film's various trailers. When you load the disc, it frontloads the eight-minute THINKFilm trailer gallery before the main menu. The gallery is also accessible from the Special Features list, so press "Menu" to skip it. Keep-case.

Mark Bourne

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