dir: John Cameron Mitchell
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I really wanted to like this movie. I went in with an open mind, and when I use that phrase, I don’t just mean it as a cliché palliative. Generally, I walk into a cinema with a mind so open wide that bits of brain matter fall out every time I open my mouth to shovel in popcorn.
It’s not a bad way to approach film watching. The more crap we see, the more preconceived ideas we have of what something is going to be like unwatched and how it is likely to turn out. It helps to preserve your sanity if you can try to switch off at least some of the voices in your head when you walk across the threshold, if you ever hope to get anything out of 90 per cent of flicks you end up enduring.
John Cameron Mitchell’s first film Hedwig and the Angry Inch was a complete surprise to me, in that I didn’t expect to like it and came out loving it. The thought of watching a post-pre op transsexual onscreen for an hour and a half didn’t appeal to me until I got to enjoy Hedwig’s sweet blend of humour, music and surprising poignancy.
It was with that in mind that I went into this hoping Shortbus would be as enjoyable, despite my initial misgivings. I fought hard against my preliminary impressions that it was going to be a pretentious arthouse wankfest so that I could enjoy it on its merits instead of letting my preconceptions rule.
I was wrong. Not only was it about as bad as I imagined it would be, but on top of my preconceived ideas, it managed to be even worse. Not only was it badly acted, poorly conceived and crappily implemented, but its pretentious use of actual sex scenes managed to alienate me even further to the point where I’m now convinced that it is one of the worst and most overrated movies of 2006.
I feel like I need to apologise for even saying this, but this flick is a load of cobblers. I know what Cameron Mitchell was trying to do, but I’ll be buggered if any of those good intentions flow from the screen in the film’s actual as opposed to intended form.
Speaking of being buggered, I would extend a hearty warning to anyone who thinks they might check this out, regardless of my review, before the flick ends its run at the cinemas or when it ends up on DVD. Not only does the movie include scenes of actual sex, it also incorporates scenes of the gayest of gay sex that was conspicuously lacking from Brokeback Mountain.
I know it’s hypocritical of me to have less of a problem with the hetero scenes than the gay ones. But that’s how I feel about it; feel free to enlist the aid of the pink mafia to sue me whenever you feel like it. Other people are more open-minded than me. They’re not going to have a problem with watching a guy blow himself and then ejaculate into his own mouth. They’re not going to have a problem with watching three guys blow each other and then have one of them sing the Stars and Stripes into the anus of a toyboy twink. But I can’t say that they did much for me.
I’m not ashamed to admit my own limitations. Through the magic of the internet, which they have on computers these days apparently, and from decades of watching the obscenest of obscene horror flicks, I thought I’d pretty much seen it all. It turns out that there’s stuff I’m not able to watch after all.
It’s not like the hetero scenes are a pleasure either. At best they’re not irritating, at worst they’re meaningless in the context in which they’re intended.
As a premise, maybe it would have sounded good to a lecturer at first-year film school: everyone is connected or connectable. They’re just too hung up on their hang-ups, and just need to relax and have sex with whoever they can in order to re-connect with the world.
What a peach of a premise. Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), is an incompetent relationship counsellor (who most people refer to as a sex therapist, ironically) who despite trying really hard, has never had an orgasm. A gay couple, consisting of Jamie and Jamie (rentboys PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson), one of whom spontaneously decides he wants to be called James, comes to her for counselling because they are wondering whether they should bring a third wheel into their relationship.
She can’t help them, but they, hearing about her problem, bring her to a mysterious and exclusive sex club called Shortbus, where every fetish, orientation and proclivity can be found and indulged.
Also thrown into the mix is a strange dominatrix called Severin (Lindsey Beamish) who eschews all actual contact with other humans in lieu of beating them with a whip, and an even stranger voyeur called Caleb (Peter Stickles) who spies on the Jamies unbeknownst.
There are other extraneous characters, but none of them or what they do really matters. The moments of time captured at the club are amateurish and show how far the director / writer / producer’s reach truly exceeds his grasp in terms of his ambitions.
The various subplots are facile and badly realised. Sofia’s quest for an orgasm, not helped by her crap acting throughout, is so banal that I wished I was watching the kind of 70s porno flicks that used something equally deep as their excuse for existing. The other stories are even worse.
One of the Jamies is deeply disturbed by, I dunno, stuff, and decides to record every moment of his life, including when he’s blowing himself, as a parting gift to his adoring lover. To say his narcissistic story is crap and his acting is excruciating is an insult to crap actors everywhere. What bad movie makers strive to achieve through incompetence multiplied by ambition, this flick has to go out of its way to realise. Nothing the James character does, which includes ejaculating into his own mouth, emoting into empty space, having gay sex or recording himself pissing underwater in the bath adds anything to this flick
The actual place Shortbus looks less like a seedy cabaret of the debauched and truly naughty, and more like a corrugated iron shed where a bunch of mimes and performance artists hang out in between having sex with each other and drinking cask wine. The whole production reeks of having been put together by performance artists and the kind of people who spend their days painted a metallic colour and standing still for tourist’s money on busy streets.
In one of the most telling scenes, Sofia, agog at the fact that there is a place in New York city where people have sex in front of an audience, stumbles into a room full of lesbians. One of the head lesbians introduces herself by saying “Hi, I’m Bitch”, to which Sofia of course has to say “Hi, Bitch”. The scene proceeds with the lesbians slouching around and half-heartedly badmouthing Sofia’s husband specifically and men in general.
It’s not like we don’t deserve it, but, jeez, spare me the lame homilies. No-one on this planet gets to enjoy a deeper understanding of life, the universe and everything because or in spite of their sexual orientation, so why would any of the cipher characters in this flick presume to be fonts of wisdom because of the body parts they like to rub or not?
There is such a pervasively amateurish feel to the production and to the way the themes are implemented that even if there hadn’t been any pointless sex scenes I still would have thought this was a load of crap. But on top of that the sex scenes, which range from tolerable to idiotic, add absolutely nothing to the proceedings, and bring none of the extra layers of meaning that the makers assume come with their inclusion.
That’s the essential problem with this contemporary notion that you can tell a more compelling story if you’ve got actual actors having actual sex in your films: it’s predicated on a faulty notion. There’s no such thing as having “real” sex in a film. Porn films film professionals having sex for the camera. It’s not like the makers or the consumers actually believe the people involved are having sex for any reason apart from money, regardless of what’s written on the DVD cover.
When such sex occurs, it’s shot, lit and edited for the consumer. It does not introduce us to the inner life of the actors or the characters the way the makers presume it does only in arthouse films. It’s not like anyone thinks it’s real. To anyone else who is thinking of making another arthouse flick with sex in it, let me just give you a little reminder.
These are the flicks I can think of where the claim was made that the real sex added to the story: Caligula, 9 Songs, The Brown Bunny, Shortbus, Baise Moi, Romance, Anatomy of Hell, The Idiots and In the Realm of the Senses (Ai No Corrida). Of all of these, only In the Realm of the Senses was worth the celluloid it was printed on, and the polycarbonate used to produce its DVDs. The rest are crap at best and worthless at worst. Actual sex doesn’t make a movie more meaningful. Being decently thought out and implemented, well acted and well put together makes a movie good. Cocks and vaginas have their place, and I’m certainly not a prude, but they added nothing to this film, regardless of their length, width, girth or usage.
As much as I loathed this film, I do have to admit, in all conscience, there were at least two scenes in the film that worked and worked well. In the first, an aged former mayor of New York (Alan Mandell) talks to a young twink about New York, about the nature of its people in this post 9/11 world, and about his regrets about not doing more in the 80s to stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic. They are sweet scenes, and completely out of place surrounded by the rest of the mediocrity.
The other contradictory kick in the teeth occurs at the end of the film, where I had already decided I thoroughly hated the flick, yet a song sung by the impresario drag queen running Shortbus (Justin Bond) still managed to move me to tears. We do, in fact, All Get it in the End, in more ways than one, but even though it worked effectively, it didn’t manage to change my mind about the flick’s overall craptacular nature and self-indulgent shortcomings.
Avoid at all costs. Please, I’m begging you.
2 times some of that acting and dialoguing made me want to rupture my own eardrums out of 10
“It's just like the 60's. Only with less hope.” – Shortbus.