Get on the Shortbus

John Cameron Mitchell's brilliant indie drama, Shortbus, which a) played the film festival last month and is awesome, and b) almost got Sook-yin Lee fired from her blah blah blah we've all heard this a thousand times, is opening at the Cumberland today for a limited engagement. Why is this significant? Read on:

As was revealed by Mitchell at his conversation with Lee and filmmaker John Waters last month, the MPAA (that's the Motion Picture Association of America) currently has American filmmaking in a veritable stranglehold. Every major studio in La La Wood has a contract with the MPAA whereby they must submit their films for a rating by that board. Since all of these studios are also hamstrung when it comes to releasing films with an NC-17 rating (because of the Wal Mart / Blockbuster DVD sales market), this pretty much means that no major studio can make a film like Shortbus.

Fortunately, no major studio did.

Shortbus opens with a montage sequence of parallel scenes. In one, a man videotapes himself ejaculating into his own mouth. In another, a married couple has sex in every single position imaginable in an ill-fated attempt to bring the wife to orgasm. In a third, a dominatrix flagellates a prep school idiot on a hotel bed until he, too, ejaculates.

In other words, an NC-17 rating wouldn't even begin to describe this thing.

Shortbus takes place in Manhattan in the odd two years between 9/11 and the 2003 blackout, and is one of the most concise looks at the destruction of the American ego that took place as a result of the World Trade Centre tragedy. Mitchell hangs his subject on the most personal of human frailties: our sexualities. In Shortbus, all of the characters mentioned above are throttled by the limits and demands of their own sexual identities. As they all live in a city that is now "under attack" by shadowy forces unknown, this disintegration is perfectly understandable. By coming crashing together at a sex lounge in New York - called, of course, Shortbus - they will either break through to the other side of their own self-destructions, or die trying.

It's an amazing film. I loved it as much for what it was saying as for how it was saying it, although it's the "how" that will get the most airplay because of the graphic, unsimulated sex that runs rampant throughout the picture. Mitchell is using sex the way musicals use dance numbers and kung fu movies use fight scenes: as a dialogue language all its own.

This heady broth of orgies, homosexual three-ways, masturbation and domination, and at least one scene where two women spank it off in a sensory deprivation tank, will not be for all audiences, but what I found most compelling about Shortbus was the degree to which it was a humanizing experience, when witnessed en masse at the festival last month. There is power in confronting sex and sexuality in the safety of an audience, where we know that everyone is seeing the same thing, and no one is being judged or dismissed. It's a reminder that although we take great pains to hide this aspect of all of our lives, it is as omnipresent as air and as significant as breathing. Stop doing it, and there's trouble.

Most notably, one of the first questions at the Q&A after the festival screening was, "How do we get a Shortbus club in Toronto?"

Shortbus begins a limited engagement at the Cumberland - on two screens! - today, October 6th. As it is being released unrated and therefore in a very small number of screens across the country, it is my fervent recommendation that anyone with even the slightest interest in Shortbus or other films like it get out and support the flick this weekend or as soon as possible. Only with demonstrable audience support can independent films like this one continue to be made in the increasingly-hostile American marketplace.

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