John Cameron Mitchell is awesome. I met him once, a few years ago at Sundance. I’d like to say I was there hobnobbing with celebrities and attending red carpet premieres, but really, I was an unpaid volunteer at Tromadance, down the street. But for some reason we still got into cool events, and at one of these, I got to shake the hand of the one and only John Cameron Mitchell, and I thought, he’s kind of short, but quite good looking. He was really nice, but I didn’t talk to him much, as there was a breakfast buffet. I know what’s important in life.
Anyway, I think he’s awesome. So when I heard he’d made an explicit tribute to New York’s underground sex hotspots, I was there. And I am happy to report that Shortbus was everything I’d hoped it would be. The hardcore sex was (mostly) there to further the plot, the acting was believable, and the spirit was fun and oh-so-naughty. The celebrity cameos spiced up the mostly no-name cast, with some celebs even playing major roles as themselves (see Justin Bond, heading the titular sex community under his own name). The movie’s best performance comes from Sook-Yin Lee, as Sofia, our heroine on a hero’s journey to find her orgasm. Paul Dawson and P.J. DeBoy, as James and Jamie (respectively), share the screen time with their own sexual problems, which tend to the graver end of the emotional spectrum of the film. The film is a mishmash of sexual neuroses and fetishes, as well as a Saturday Night Fever-style portrait of alienated souls in a big city, whose only joy comes from a weekly escape into forbidden pleasures.
This is really the first film I can think of that portrayed the underground sex scene, in New York or anywhere, with such high production value, while still retaining some edge and humor. Shortbus got a lot of attention for its ‘graphic’ sex scenes, but most of the shocking scenes are contained within the first five minutes (perhaps to weed out the prudes). John Cameron Mitchell’s writing has all the rebellious swagger of John Waters, but he steers it away from the discomforting, just-for-shock-value aspects of Waters’ films, and explores the relationships on a slightly deeper level. It tends to work, and you find yourself hoping everything works out for the flawed leads.
So although I think Mr. Mitchell could work on his plot development a little (the story feels a little like a soap after a while, as the characters seem to only have one thing to talk about), this was still a nice movie, and it manages to feel satisfying even while it brings up troubling questions that it leaves largely unresolved. Visually, the film isn’t quite the eye candy buffet that Hedwig and the Angry Inch was, but it is often beautiful to look at, and shows that Mr. Mitchell is still adept at setting a mood or tone for a scene with color and light.
Mostly I’m just glad that alternative sexuality is showing its face so proudly these days. What with the recent success of Shortbus, Big Love, and The Girls Next Door, not to mention the continuing popularity of shows like The L Word, more and more people are being exposed to unusual lifestyles and forms of sexuality every day. Soon the vanilla nuclear family will be a thing of the past! Or not. But at least Middle America might become a little more tolerant. Or not. Sigh.