Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Would St. Valentine have approved?

To the Curzon Street Odeon for sexarific drama Shortbus, where hearts are closed but legs are always open.

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, whose first flick was the rocking, heart-breaking Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus has attracted a lot of attention for its explicit, unsimulated sex scenes. Most notable among these is the rendition of the 'Star-Spangled Banner' during a threesome (providing possibly the only kind of patriotism George W. Bush wouldn't approve of), but there are plenty more vivid scenes, including an opening autofellatio and several orgies.

To put these in context (and put out any fires of outrage), Shortbus takes its name from a New York sex-club where the innocent pursuit of pleasure is paramount. All of the lead characters, all afflicted by emotional problems manifesting themselves as sexual difficulties, find themselves at Shortbus, where sex is removed from any kind of moral judgement or puritanism. Sex is [almost] just sex, although it has layers of meaning through the main characters' eyes.

James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (P.J. DeBoy) are long-term boyfriends whose relationship has reached a block; the staleness is implied in their similar names - they've become each other. To solve the problem, they decide a third wheel wouldn't be so disastrous, and at Shortbus they fix on Ceth (Jay Brannan).

Meanwhile, sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) finally reveals her sexual problem to husband Rob (Raphael Barker): she has never had an orgasm. Her visits to Shortbus are in search of the elusive O, to eliminate her violent outbursts of self-frustration and save her marriage.

Immediately you can see that Shortbus' sex has a dramatic context and purpose; all the sex here is vital as an exploration of the characters' plagued psyches. The sex needs to be explicit and not simulated because it adds layers of truth to the situation. It's one thing to act raw and exposed - it's quite another to be raw and exposed on camera.

The sex in Shortbus is not pornography. There is no dodgy synthesiser music, no 'Oh my, I didn't call for three plumbers!', nothing exploitative. It is not titillating but rather extremely psychologically revealing and emotionally nuanced. In the same way as people in other films show their emotions by fighting or painting or shouting, here it is done through sex.

The amazing thing about Shortbus is that the sex does not dominate. Mitchell and his actors create such a strong emotional world that the sex takes its part as an aspect of it, not a rival to it. This is certainly in part due to the devised nature of the piece: it is based on the experiences of the actors, meaning they can bring authentic feelings to it. Also helpful is another crossover between life and film: Dawson and DeBoy are partners beyond the camera, and the complex nature of their relationship is vividly brought out.

Dawson is absolutely heart-breaking as James. His sadness has no depths, his desperation just to feel is crushing. DeBoy has to stand by while his lover drowns under his emotional troubles. Dawson makes us feel in our bones how he must feel and his intense sex scenes serve as a counterpoint. In a similar way, Lee as Sofia cannot help her frustration and anger: they are etched into her face; even her fucking is angry.

The production aspects of the film deserve comment too. The scene zooms from one part of New York to another via what looks likes a cardboard-box version of the city but is in fact a beautiful computer creation, providing glorious segues. Shortbus the club is beautifully put together, not a den of iniquity but a place of comfort and fun, and the climactic scene there (I won't ruin it for you) is magical.

New York might appear as a latter-day Sodom to those not inclined to accept even the most pointful sex in a movie. As one character, said to be a former mayor of NYC, puts it in the film, "People come to New York to get laid ... People also come to New York to be forgiven." This film is as much about human emotion as it as about human passion. No-one in Shortbus is undamaged and the film ends up both as a lament for the post-Aids, post-9/11 loss of innocence and as a celebration of human vitality and the restorative power of love.

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