Kimball's Twin Peak
Years ago, back when writer-director and Colorado Springs native son John Cameron Mitchell was promoting his transgender musical masterpiece, Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Sundance Film Festival, he began alluding to an experimental film he was making as his "sex movie."
Now, with Shortbus pulling into theaters, the controversial provocateur doesn't need to beg for our attention. He already has it, for Shortbus is the most sexually graphic American independent film ever made. Directing an ensemble cast of non-professional actors, Shortbus pushes erotic boundaries some viewers may have never even known existed.
Mitchell's thought-provoking screenplay, delivered in largely improvisational fashion, rattles to the core; there is no shortage of full frontal nudity, penetration, ejaculation and fetishistic group sex. And yet, as easy as it might be to write Shortbus off as mere pornography disguised as salon philosophy, the truths that its characters speak are so honest and painfully unglamorous that we care about them and develop sympathies for their sexual plights.
Canadian journalist Sook-Yin Lee nearly lost her job for agreeing to star as Sofia, an orgasm-challenged sex therapist who leads us into the city's underbelly of casual sex. Two of Sofia's patients, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy) are head over heels in love with each other, but something is missing from their relationship. James, a suicidal filmmaker, thinks they would benefit from an open relationship. Ceth (Jay Brannan) is the nubile stud they welcome into their bedroom and Caleb (Peter Stickles) is the voyeur across the street who sees the new addition to their sex lives as a threat to their "perfect" relationship. Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is a lonely dominatrix who is becoming desensitized by her occupation. When she meets Sofia, she helps our guide get in sync with her body in return for free therapy.
Each of these characters attends the salon-like Shortbus club/brothel in search of a lasting connection. But if Shortbus dispenses any relationship advice, it's that there are no easy answers. Mitchell warns us that complacency should not be mistaken for happiness and encourages us to wander outside our comfort zones and experiment in stimulating ourselves, both mentally and physically.
Besides being every bit as daring as Last Tango in Paris and Nine Songs, Shortbus also happens to be one of the most accurate films about bohemian Manhattan ever made. The creative energy on display achieves what the recent film adaptation of Rent tried and failed to capture.
New York, a one-of-a-kind city, is filled with one-of-a-kind people, and there is no one who embraces that culture more than Mitchell, who is one of cinema's most endearing, original, creative artists. The simple fact that his cast is willing to stand naked in front of the camera and bare their souls to the world speaks volumes about the trust they put in him and the faith they have in his work.
A bold, provocative masterpiece of sex, love, tolerance, homoeroticism and everything in between, Shortbus teaches us that sex isn't about giving or taking it's about sharing and revealing our innermost selves. Mitchell and his cast are artists of the most important kind; those willing to expose social taboos and consciously break down barriers erected by our sexually repressed society. Shortbus is a kaleidoscopic mlange of unfettered intimacy that announces Mitchell as a true auteur.