Cumartesi, Kasım 18, 2006

The Unguarded Eye of Shortbus

Shortbus (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: John Cameron Mitchell

I always thought it would be nice to make a film with an unguarded eye. After all, this is how writers write: if a writer is depicting a love scene, there doesn't need to be a fade-out when the couple starts moving toward the bed, and no fade-in with clothes scattered along the same path; and the author doesn't cut post-sex to a shot of the lovers, covered in sweat and breathless, with the bedsheet pulled up to their necks. In a film, when a famous actress strips, there's always a strategic arm, or a shadow, or Goldilocks-length cords of hair covering her breasts. The audience is always consciously aware that they are not permitted that intimacy, and this, after all, is a movie. When nudity is permitted, it's of a certain length, of a certain kind, with an eye toward the MPAA's limits. And sex is always slow-motion, soft-focus, set to music, and either just perfect or some kind of dark moral betrayal. It never seems honest. It never seems unguarded. In a way, it's positively Puritan: all these decades past the abandonment of the Hollywood Production Code and all the married couples are still sleeping in separate beds.

Shortbus, the latest film from John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), is part of a new filmmaking movement to venture into the final frontier: actors having hardcore onscreen sex within the context of a non-pornographic narrative and in a mainstream film. (Well, as mainstream as any film not passed for approval by the MPAA, and limited to arthouse release, can be.) His story features an ensemble cast, and the news here is that he's found actors who can perform sex onscreen and be engaging, convincing, and charismatic--you know, like movie stars. It isn't 101 minutes of explicit sex. No, most of it comes right after the opening credits, as we zoom through an idealized, (literally) cardboard Manhattan and visit our main characters, who are each engaged in activity that has never before been captured in mainstream film, and certainly not in a montage set to "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?" You expect it to be explicit and shocking, and maybe it's still a little more than you were expecting. As Mitchell said in an interview, he wants to "break the audience's hymen." From here on out, the explicit scenes are less common, but when they happen, you're not only prepared, you can actually focus on the characters and not the bodies. The story isn't remarkable, and perhaps one of them is overly familiar: the quest of Sofia (Soon-Yik Lee), a couples advice counsellor and not a sex therapist (as she'll remind every character in the film), to have an orgasm for the first time. Her husband (Raphael Barker) is disinterested--he has secret fantasies he won't share. But when Sofia is invited by two of her patients, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (P.J. DeBoy), to the Shortbus salon, a sort of town hall for the underground, where guests engage in public or group sex, listen to bands, chat, what have you. It seems to Mitchell's vision of a utopia.

But, as host Julian Bond says, "It's just like the 60's. Only without hope." This is a post-9/11 NYC, and each character seems to be emotionally blocked. Sofia has been acting the part of sexually-fulfilled Manhattan professional for so long that she's on the verge of falling apart. Dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish) admits to Sofia that she longs for a real relationship, but instead, self-defensively and possibly out of professional habit, she continues to hurt others--most devastatingly James, who has been slowly composing a video diary that doubles as a suicide note. His relationship with former child actor Jamie is outwardly healthy, but he won't allow himself to be penetrated (much is made of "impermeable" people). A former hustler who picked up his first John outside a screening of My Own Private Idaho, he's always felt that he's known how much he's worth--and it isn't much. Intriguingly, the characters reach fulfillment along unexpected paths. In a sense, the gay couple reaches a traditional resolution, the straight couple does not, but both end happily. It's one of the many subversive elements in this film. (Oh, and I would be remiss if I did not point out that this movie is as consistently funny as Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)

The sex is essential to the plot, and while you can argue whether or not it needed to be so explicit, it's never unwatchable or repellant. (This is a film, thank God, in which the characters actually take joy in sex and aren't punished for it; an experimental menage-a-trois, for example, leads not to tragedy, but to awkward and human comedy.) Of course, the sex is the plot, and to be admitted to the most intimate moments of these characters is--here's a revelation--to completely empathize with them. It's a film that's achieved a more accurate simulation of real life (despite some thrilling fantasy sequences), and that only helps the storyteller achieve his goals.

In terms of on-screen sex, Mitchell isn't the first to get here, although I'm sure he wanted to be (his film was in production for years as he tried to secure nervous financiers). Of course, underground films have danced this tango, notably Andy Warhol's Blow Job (1963) and Blue Movie (1969), but most of these are divorced of narrative. At the height of the X-rated film, many European films began to stick hardcore "inserts" into their otherwise mainstream exploitation films, often with body doubles, just to gain the notorious rating--an example is 99 Women (1969). European films continued to push the envelope in mainstream cinema, and films such as Andres Techine's interesting Rendez-vous (1985) and the films of Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl) pushed the limits of what could be depicted in highbrow entertainment. The 2000 release Baise-moi, about two women on a crime-and-sex spree, featured unsimulated sex (along with graphic violence and rape) and received much controversy in Europe and Canada, although in America it was granted only a small release, and passed without attention or impact. In 2004, Breillat's deliberately provoking symbolist film Anatomy of Hell and Michael Winterbottom's relationship drama 9 Songs featured real sex, but both were heavily criticized for their narratives (the former as absurd, the latter as uninteresting). Prior to these, Larry Clark (Kids, Bully) made a film with hardcore moments, Ken Park (2002), but he struggled to get it released, and even now it's unavailable in the U.S. (Famously, an Australian film festival attempted to show an imported DVD of the film in 2003, but an old-fashioned police raid shut the screening down.) The real breakthrough might have been Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny (2003), which ends with a scene of explicit oral sex between Gallo and mainstream actress Chloe Svigny. The film may have come and gone with a whisper, but that Roger Ebert's reports on a disastrous Cannes screening of an early cut of the film prompted a venomous, over-the-top personal retort from the filmmaker. The subsequent public argument between Ebert and Gallo was an entertaining media spectacle, culminating in a couple of odd resolutions: The Brown Bunny received a fairly wide arthouse release to satisfy the curious, and Ebert gave a three-star review to this completed and fine-tuned version. Granted, the theatrical distributor, Wellspring, went bankrupt shortly thereafter, but at least Svigny has not been blacklisted (she's currently appearing the HBO series Big Love). Clark recently contributed a segment to the hardcore-as-art anthology Destricted (2006), which also featured contributions from confrontational artists such as Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) and Matthew Barney (Cremaster). The idea of this film was to explore the line between pornography and art. It may be enough that this debate is no longer held in the realm of the theoretical.

The doors might now be wide open to hardcore mainstream entertainment, for the first time since porn briefly became a highbrow fad in the 70's. The documentary Inside Deep Throat, on the making of the notorious X-rated film, supposedly features brief hardcore shots from that watershed porno; this is only worth mentioning because it received a pretty wide theatrical release and no controversy arose. Could it be that theatrical distributors now realize adult audiences are willing to be treated like adults? Or is it just that these films aren't quite mainstream enough, and all it will take is recognition from a fundamentalist group of protesters before the distributors shrink away, the curtain falls? It only matters from the point of view of getting more risk-taking films funded. (It's not like we've seen a trail blazed by The Last Temptation of Christ; even though that film was misunderstood by those who protested it, the road was never trod again.)

It's difficult not to see Mitchell's film as a cry for a Shortbus-like utopia in filmmaking: not just for a more honest depiction of sex, but for a greater acceptance of different kinds of sexuality. (When a transgendered character is treated by all the characters as just another human being, you can almost hear a wall off-screen crumbling into rubble.) This, really, is an extension of the unguarded eye. It's an eye that sees without a Hollywood lens. In Shortbus, a moment is reached when the viewer becomes accustomed to this new eye, and becomes submerged in the story being told with a new level of emotional involvement. This, I think, is the holy grail.

Shortbus isn't perfect, but it's the first film to justify its technique by actually being really good. It takes someone of Mitchell's talent and vision to pull it off. I hope he commits to his intentions of making a children's film next. Because, you know, there's more to life than sex.

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