Shortbus seems anthemic for generations X and Y. Watching it tonight (and not wanting it to ever end) was like watching a retrospective of the people and moods that germinated in the post-Vietnam years and were ushered rudely into maturity by 9/11. These people include me, even though the birth of MTV precedes my own, and even though I was too young to be cognizant of, say, Ronald Reagan, the AIDS crisis and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But these were more a part of John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, anyway. At the beginning of Shortbus, Mitchell's second masterpiece, we are shown a 3D paintscape of New York City. The camera glides past colored buildings, idles briefly on a Crayola-ized Ground Zero, and proceeds to peer into the apartments of Manhattan denizens, who are in hot pursuit of orgasm and its less reliable counterpart: satisfaction. The big S. Or, as Mick says, that of which we can't get no.
And so, Shortbus throbs along on a concept much more universal than an anthem. This movie is not specific to any age, nation or sexuality, even though it uses all the latitude of these days of moral decay to tell a story about 20- and 30-something New Yorkers who (gasp) have sex, fear sex and value and devalue sex as a means to an end. Yes, I wouldn't necessarily want to watch this movie with my parents and grandparents. But if I did, I bet it would speak to all of us and we'd leave the theater red-faced but a little more plugged into our shared humanity.
If you've heard anything about Shortbus, you know it's stocked with amateur actors having actual sex onscreen. "That is the definition of pornography," you think, "and I don't care to pay $10 to see porn on the big screen when I can download it for free at home." Settle down first. Pornography depicts erotic behavior and intends to cause sexual excitement. Shortbus depicts erotic behavior but intends to make a connection to you and, in turn, connect you to your neighbor. In that respect, Shortbus is more Sondheim than smutfest. We are a wired world that is incredibly disconnected from itself, Shortbus says. But when we do connect, we are capable of tremendous release.
It's easy to conclude that the film's thesis is pro-bohemia, anti-monogomy -- a live-fully-or-die-lonely statement without regard for the importance of safe sex. It is less responsible (the anti-Kushner) and cloying (the anti-Larson). This is a film that knows it is coming into the world at a breathtakingly cynical, dangerous time. "It's just like the '60s, but with less hope," says drag queen Justin Bond when she gives Sofia, our protagonist, a guided tour of the titular sex parlor. That is, I suppose, exactly the way to define our times. We are free-wheeling, but ever mindful of catastrophe. Which maybe means we're not free-wheeling at all. Which means we may, in fact, be sterile in more ways than one. The happiest people in Shortbus are two characters who have no lines, but seem to always exist in the gentle throes of coitus, a genuine smile on their faces as if to say, "There is no orgasm; there is only that connection."
There are moments of great truth and beauty in Shortbus, and I won't give any of them away. Like Hedwig, it is often funny and moving, and boasts a sublime score and soundtrack. Mitchell is a born filmmaker, and the pacing and ingenuity of the movie are so fresh and engaging that watching is like breathing pure oxygen. The cast of unknowns is perfect, especially Sook Yin-Lee as Sofia and Alan Mandell, who plays an Ed Koch-y character in one marvelous short scene. Mitchell fashioned the screenplay from these actors' real-life stories. In this way, Shortbus is like an "A Chorus Line" for the aughts. It certainly has the real-life component and generation-defining potential.
But again, it goes beyond the generational thing. It celebrates that which makes us human: the degree and quality of connectivity to others. Not to make blanket statements, but those who don't enjoy Shortbus suffer from the same chronic cynicism Mitchell has tried to cure with his jubilant work. Look at the movie's poster. It's Queer-as-Folkish. But everyone's smile is broad instead of ironic.
Upcoming posts: Borat boasts the most outrageous scene ever committed to film, but I am otherwise sick of the hubbub. The noble sweep of the Up documentaries, and why hasn't the template been copied in America? Plus, my ode to Dracula: Dead & Loving It, as part of The Film Experience's Vampires Blog-a-Thon.