Shortbus came strongly recommended after I recently wrote about John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole. I’m a fan of the director’s other two works. The reputation and controversy of Shortbus definitely preceded it. By some accounts from when it came out the media would have you believe it to be a modern day In the Realm of the Senses. Sure, both depict sex very graphically, but in completely different ways.
Unlike the Oshima film, Mitchell’s is much less about obsession and perversion (though both work their way into the narrative) as it is about loss and the human connection. Drawing heavily on music as in his other films, and with animated interludes depicting the NYC blackout, the film fits a nice aesthetic niche between Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Rabbit Hole. I don’t think it’s necessary a progression as much as it is a branching out of style and form.
Shortbus follows a bunch of couples of all orientations as they deal with their own sexuality, partnerships, evolving romances and the idea of being a human with needs and wants. The process of making the film is, as I discovered on the DVD extras, quite interesting. Mitchell held a number of improvisation auditions, and basically wrote the script after casting it. It comes together very nicely and is, in the end, an uplifting and touching film that isn’t afraid to be blunt and frank about “taboo” subjects.
One of the best moments in the film comes when former model Ceth (Jay Brannan) meets Tobias, the former mayor of NYC (Alan Mandell) in the titular club The Shortbus – a haven for sexual experimentation and freedom for people of all persuasions and ages. Tobias’ monologue concerning his regrets about his tenure, the citizens’ regrets about it, and his coming out of the closet culminates – of course with a musical background – with Ceth kissing him and hugging him. It’s a small moment, but the lines are delivered so passionately and ther performances so strong in this moment that it really delivers. Couple this with the fact that, just prior to this scene, Ceth has been ardently attempting to attract the attentions of several young men in the club, and the effect of his kissing the elderly, wise, and perhaps tired man is that much stronger.
Mitchell’s characters have a tendency to preach, but not in a preachy way. His writing is usually peppered with enough humor and bluntness that the “message” (which is usually a universal one about acceptance) is not so much dulled as hidden. This is a good thing, as his film, when not featuring montages, are often rather dialogue driven. That these scenes are culled from improv and real-life experiences doesn’t harm the overall.
Back to the montages. I complained (pretty harshly) awhile ago about a forgettable film called Happythankyoumoreplease for its over-usage of the montage. If I have any particular beef (well I might have another) with Shortbus it’s that Mitchell relies too much on the montage and the music that backs it. His music is often diegetic, and the major location in the film is its source, making it more believable and acceptable (less of a “listen to what I like” then a “here’s the world I’m showing you”). Nonetheless, the ending montage is slightly lessened by the no-fewer-than-three “we’re all human characters” montages that come earlier in the film.
There’s only one moment in the entire film that felt false. That is: that feels written and doesn’t fit into the overall flow of the narrative. This is when Caleb (Peter Stickles) who has been stalking couple James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy) finally confronts Jamie.
SPOILER HERE: Jamie is attempting to commit suicide. In a beautifully shot scene – from Jamie’s POV – Caleb comes in and saves him. Loved this moment. But the aftermath – overly talky, not expertly acted by Stickles, and hitting an emotion that seems to want to rely more on a character’s individual words and tears than the context Mitchell has created to that point – isn’t great.
Regardless, the film has its incredibly poignant moments. Mitchell spares no-one with his camera – homosexual, heterosexual, transsexual, or otherwise. If graphic sex bugs you out, you’ll likely be turned off in the first 10 minutes of this. Otherwise, ignore the rep and check it out.
Under the Yum Yum Tree (Swift, 1963)
Very short one here. I like Jack Lemmon. He’s good in this film as Hogan, the lascivious landlord who hits on every tenant he gets. When Robin (Carol Langley) and her boyfriend Dave (Dean Jones) decide to move in on platonic terms to test the long-term feasibility of their relationship, Hogan does all he can to come between them.
The film is funny and its got a few repeat gags – including Hogan spying on his tenants, falling off of the roof, and being in the bushes by his handyman the next morning. Hogan’s apartment is appropriately outfitted with various hidden devices – the requisite pull out bed, low lighting, a collection of teddy bears to give to all of his “loves.”
Still, the film feels very dated – even for 1963. We’re talking about a fairly revolutionary time in film history, where the Code is crumbling. Baby Doll was made in 1956! Not that every film of the period has to be challenge the moral fabric, but if it doesn’t do so and therefore feels illogical and unbelievable – as does this at times – then it’s certainly to its detriment.