Magazine article Out

Dale Peck on the Movies

Magazine article Out

Dale Peck on the Movies

Article excerpt

DALE PECK ON THE MOVIES

THE SEXUAL FANTASIA OF JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL'S SHORTBUS HAS AS MUCH TO SAY ABOUT NEW YORK CITY AS IT DOES ABOUT POLES, HOLES, AND ANAL RENDITIONS OF "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER."

For a movie that has yet to secure national distribution, Shortbus sure has a lot of hype to live up to. The follow-up to writer-director John Cameron Mitchells internationally acclaimed Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus has set prurient tongues a-wagging ever since producers at a 2003 casting call for what was then known as "the sex-film project" asked actors to describe their sex lives for consideration for roles that would require them to have actual-read: "not simulated," with "orgasm"-sex on camera. The auditions provoked one of those predictable (and largely pointless) public conversations about the difference between pornography and art, which Mitchell wisely sidestepped in favor of a practical discussion of how the current erotophobic climate made it difficult to raise the film's modest $2 million budget The message, if there is one, seems to be that sex sells only when if s fake. TomKat, anyone?

Fortunately, the money was raised, and equally fortunately, Mitchell continued to de-emphasize the sex in his film while playing up the emotional lives of his characters. De-emphasize may seem an odd term for a film that opens with a scene of autofellatio, a splatter of come on a Pollock, and a heterosexual couple trying out a half dozen positions from the Kama Sutra-not to mention the film's pièce de résistance, a rendition of "The StarSpangled Banner" sung up the ass of a man who's blowing the singer's boyfriend. But these scenes are no more representative of the film than its nonlibidinous moments, as when a dominatrix writes down her birth name instead of uttering it because she's too ashamed of it (lef s just say she shares it with Hollywood's most famous divorcée), or when a group of women discuss their sexualities salon-style, or when Justin Bond leads a simple, rousing sing-along at the close of the movie.

As with any organically coherent film, both the sex and the singing come across as, uh, uncut representations of the characters' lives. In this case, a group of 20- and 30-something New Yorkers that indudes Mistress Severin, a dominatrix who lives in a storage space because she can't afford an apartment; Sofia, a sex therapist who has never managed to tell her husband that she's preorgasmic; and James, an ex-hustler whose fear of penetration is a projection of his inability to let anyone, including his boyfriend of five years, get under his skin. The explicit sequences manage to undress the act of fucking even as they remind us how this most basic of human activities inevitably becomes clothed in the baggage of its practitioners. Rather than quest after some falsely innocent space where bodies can exist without personal or historical context, the film contends that libidinous energy can overcome this or any other obstacle, a claim no less naive than the counterproposition-that sex is a distinct part of life that must be excluded from polite conversation, not to mention polite art. Yet it is no less moving for that naïveté.

The polymorphous sentimentality of Shortbus succeeds because the real star of Mitchells film is New York City, not the characters. Indeed, the director has referred to his movie as a love letter to the city, and though the film's action is sandwiched between September n, 2001, and the August 2003 blackout, it more closely resembles the urban milieu of the early '90s-when the empowering rhetoric of ACT UP and Queer Nation, coupled with the invention of safe sex, led to a four-year period of sometimes playful, sometimes strident sexual experimentation among the city's gay populace. …

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