Reviewed by: Chris

When New York creates a worthwhile film that can't be shown there, by default it becomes like a gift to the rest of the world.

A sexually explicit mainstream American movie is about as rare as a human rights feature surfacing from China. The folks back home ain't gonna like it!

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Meet a group of 20 and 30-something individuals. The loves and lives and heartaches of these very convincing characters could be the subject of any good late night drama such as This Life. But as the storylines are very much to do with the sexual dynamics underpinning their relationships, censoring would be as silly as shooting Jaws without getting wet.

Sofia is a couples counsellor and happily married. Her clients range from a very conservative pair needing to discuss common psychosexual questions of marriage to a young gay couple in a long term relationship wondering whether to experiment. The emotional luggage these two men bring with them causes Sofia to get angry with one of them. Instantly recognising her reaction as unprofessional, she not only apologises but realises it is based on her own suppressed sense of sexual inadequacy. They suggest a club of theirs where she might hope to confront her feelings in the starkest terms.

The club is called Shortbus - "for the gifted and the challenged." It combines avant garde performance art, a visually arresting mix of people from the edge (for instance, transvestites and dominatrices), people of different shapes, ages and sexual ambience, as well as a challenging atmosphere and sections that range from trendy discourse to an orgy room. If that last phrase caught your attention more than the rest of this review so far, fear not, you have been well inoculated with graphic sexuality long before you get to that scene and it will have no more shock value than going skinny dipping with a crowd of friends in your teens.

Now whatever the political correctness of Shortbus, there is no need for you to see it if you find graphic sex in film offensive per se. There is no need for you to have it thrust upon you, because it will only be shown in cinemas where you have made the conscious choice to purchase a ticket for a film that openly warns you about such scenes. On the other hand, if you want to make pronouncements about sex and art you should see the film before passing judgment, especially as many people will want to make up their own minds. If you like good cinema and do not have mental blocks about the above, see it. It's not a film you need to be embarrassed watching with friends either: it's funny, sensitive, engaging, and full of real characters whom you can really care about.

One other taboo should be mentioned, but primarily because it touches on Shortbus' greatest achievement: a fully fledged drama taking on board the modern approach to gender espoused by philosophers such as Judith Butler. This film is about the people rather than about whether they are straight, gay, fetishist or whatever. "There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender," was the deconstructionist approach that allowed Butler to assert human sexual individuality without primary reference to gender. We are able to focus on Sofia, James and Jamie, Ceth and 'Severin' (Jennifer) just as people, even though their sexual lives are pretty way out by many people's standards. But it means that when our characters are having sex, they do it their way, so if watching two men having sex after seeing a man and a woman getting it on will make you vomit, then stay at home and upchuck all over your Urban Etiquette for God-Fearing Moral Pygmies and leave this film to the grown-ups.

Avoiding or faking sex when it is clearly appropriate in a film is grotesque. When Andy Warhol made Flesh For Frankenstein, there was a hilarious send-up where, mindful that scenes of oral sex and homosexuality would not be distributable, two characters seem, off camera, to be indulging. As the camera pans back we see the 'blow-job' is really being performed on someone's armpit. It was great black comedy, but a serious approach to sexuality could not have been shown easily then. Sadly for New Yorkers, Shortbus, like some of Warhol's work even today, will have difficulty getting mainstream certification in the USA.

Shortbus opens with a artist's impression of the New York landscape at night, the buildings beautifully morphed so that the whole thing looks a bit like a glowing circuit board. As we find our way about, there is a neat analogy to the 'circuit board' between brains and genitals. Sometimes we can't find the right pathway or sometimes it gets blocked. Just as we have to find our way around a city, so in Shortbus the clientele are interested in finding their own optimum neural clicks. Sometimes it works, sometimes it just flicks out, especially when we are starting. It can be embarrassing, yet it creates a sense of art unfettered.

I gasped in shock at one scene as our dominatrix (Severin) administers a lashing to an inexperienced submissive. She has a Pollock-style painting on her wall (the famous artist who developed the unique technique of flicking, dripping and pouring paint onto a canvas). Touchingly reminiscent of the slapstick scene from There's Something About Mary (when the masturbating man gets cum in his hair) our submissive shoots it - well - you know where. I jumped in my seat (I like Pollock and was traumatized at the sight his painting being defaced, even if it wasn't for real.)

The languorous jazz score is perfect for Shortbus - not only atmospheric but reminding us of how jazz opposed and eventually encompassed the mainstream. New York is "where people are still willing to bend over to let in the new," says an elderly gent. Then, with a wickedly raised gay eyebrow adds, "Or the old..."

Shortbus is imaginatively directed and 100 per cent American, more in the tradition of Larry Clark than European censor-busting movies. By most standards, in spite of its explicitness (unsimulated sex), it is not pornographic. In a very different vein to, say, Catherine Breillat, it nevertheless conforms to her criterion that, distinct from when we watch pornography, we care about the characters and invest emotionally in them. If you survive the first ten minutes of Shortbus, the ending and totality of the film will be an experience to treasure.

Reviewed on: 02 Dec 2006
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An avant-garde examination of the diverse sexual experiences of a group of New Yorkers.
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Read more Shortbus reviews:

Scott Macdonald ***

Director: John Cameron Mitchell

Writer: John Cameron Mitchell and cast

Starring: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy, Raphael Barker, Peter Stickles, Jay Brannan, Justin Bond

Year: 2006

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


London 2006

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