(30/11/06) – At the time of its release in 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up was met with a decidedly fuzzy reception due to its liberal sexual attitudes, and though now widely considered a milestone in Antonion’s career, the film hasn’t to this day shaken off the brash reputation as one of the most controversially audacious films to have been made. Between 1966 and today, however, cinema has come a long way in recognising sex as a complimentary commodity, often misplaced in the wider context of an unfocused script or as a purely adorning appendage, and, as Kirby Dick’s recent documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated showed, we are now more concerned with blue-pencilling violence off our screens than scorning at tastelessly exposed bodily parts involved in all sorts of unpleasant activities.
Movies that focus on explicit sex are generally relegated to a back shelf in a video shop, yet Shortbus is more likely to populate the front sections for longer than we’d expect. Not since Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs has one film come so close to provoking an uproar of general decency, yet John Cameron Mitchell’s new film curtails any sign of graphic moderacy in favour of an explicit dish out of x-rated hedonism and sardonic visual tastelessness that it’s hard to imagine it ever managing to pay off its price.
That’s probably Shortbus‘ biggest flaw – whilst wanting to pare the sex element down to its bare essentials (the UK poster advertising the film shows its protagonist, Sofia, buried in a pool of giant hearts, with the tagline proclaiming "an exxxtremely romantic comedy"), its pseudo-liberal inclinations and pan-sexual games underplay the film’s moral and political groundwork with a conclusion as bitter as wormwood with as little sustenance to munch on.
In the film, a group of emotionally-shattered young New Yorkers converge in Shortbus, a dingy bohemian dive where "sexual healing" is the order of the day. Proceedings, led by New York’s self-pronounced ‘most famous drag queen’ Justin Bond, usher our protagonist, sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lin) from darkened room to darkened room, where bizarre encounters with the many faces of the Shortbus playground – the struggling gay couple, the lesbian dominatrix – interweave on a collective path of self-(re)discovery. It isn’t long before the film plays all its cards and reveals its shortcomings – in fact, it happens halfway through. Shortbus then becomes a big wasteground of scattering ideas and screenwriting filler. Mitchell clearly has one horse up his sleeve and unleashes it only too easily.
Gleefully saucy in all the wrong places, and largely empty in the right ones, its pansexual endeavours obscure the quieter intents of the film. There is a pervasive melancholy to this cinematic close-up of a certain section of post-9/11 New York away from all the sex and hedonist parties, yet Mitchell somehow keeps it veiled. In his favour, it is not fair to accuse Shortbus of being calculating. If anything, it’s been long since we’ve seen a film so fluid about sexuality, presenting it as a fundamental element of our being. And where Mitchell sees this as an opportunity to incorporate political overtones in a delicate cloud of emotional insecurity ("It’s like the 60s, only with less hope", proclaims Bond), we are hard pressed to relate to Shortbus in a way Mitchell probably intends us to.
Well acted, with a soundtrack that emphasises what’s good about American college radio, Shortbus is entertaining celluloid, albeit one that comes with little heart. The publicity surrounding the film has been a tough barrier to penetrate, and few will see this for anything but its adult-rated content. Which, whilst not entirely unjustified, isn’t the whole story.
Shortbus opens in the UK tomorrow, 01 December.