Monday, March 26, 2012

Shortbus (2006)

The Movie: Sofia Lin (Sook-Yin Lee) works as a couple’s counselor/sex therapist in New York City. She has her first session with “the Jamies”, a gay couple; Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a former child star, and James (Paul Dawson), a former prostitute. The two are seeing her because James has suggested that he and Jamie open up their relationship to sex with other people. Unfortunately, it gets heated between Sofia and Jamie, and she snaps. It turns out Sofia has been having problems as well; she’s never had an orgasm, and it’s causing friction between her and her husband, Rob (Raphael Barker).

To help her, the Jamies suggest she join them in a visit to the Shortbus; a downtown club owned and run by Justin Bond (the drag performance artist, playing himself), which every week holds a combination social, artistic and sexual get-together. At the club, Sofia strikes up a friendship with the prickly, socially awkward dominatrix, Severin (Lindsay Beamish); while the Jamies begin a relationship with the ex-model and aspiring singer, Ceth (Jay Brannan, and it’s pronounced “Seth”).

But despite these early successes, it’s not going to be that easy for our protagonists. Sofia’s orgasm continues to remain elusive, greatly increasing her frustration. James has some serious demons from his past that he has to face, and the movie project he obsessively works on is far more than it might first appear. Also, unbeknown to him and his boyfriends, James has a stalker (Peter Stickles). All of these lives and their issues are on a collision course as they desperately seek out that all-important human connection.

The Review:

You’ve heard of the big yellow school bus, well this is the short one. It’s a salon for the gifted and challenged.
-Justin Bond

It is spring ladies and gentlemen! Ah, glorious spring, my favorite of the seasons; how I have missed you! To celebrate, this blog is doing another double feature. Presented here are two movies that deal with the real reason for the season. And what is said reason, you ask? Why procreation of course; this is the time of year when all life focuses on the act of reproduction. But these two films are anything but mere porn or sexploitation; that would be way too easy. Intrigued? Then read on.

I have a tendency to pick out a large number of my Netflix movies on a momentary whim; and as a result I’m constantly receiving movies that I don’t remember when or why I chose them, much less what I’m going to see. Obviously, this means I often wind up watching a lot of crap that I’m unprepared for. However, every so often I discover a particularly delightful gem that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Shortbus falls into this latter category.

Now the make or break aspect of Shortbus for most people is the sex, so I’ll just get it out of the way right now. Shortbus is full of graphic depictions of unsimulated sex, both hetero and homosexual; as well as ejaculation and other body functions. As a result, watching it will, at times, make a lot of people uncomfortable. That’s certainly my personal experience. As I’ve mentioned before in other reviews, my attitude towards other peoples’ sex lives can generally be summed up “if it doesn’t involve me, I’m not interested.” Likewise; while I’m secure enough in my own sexuality to not have a problem with the fact that other men have sex with each other, that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to watch it happen. However, I have seen enough smut, sleaze and serious art films that I can usually figure out what I’m watching pretty quickly; and Shortbus falls squarely into that third category. Furthermore, once you get past your initial discomfort over the sex, it’s actually a particularly sweet and enjoyable little movie.

So what’s the difference? Very simply, it’s not the sex itself that determines whether a movie is sleaze or art; it’s what the movie does with it. If the whole purpose is titillation and exploitation, there will be very little to the movie but the sex. Watch a purely exploitative film sometime, and watch how it approaches the matter. The camera will leer over the proceedings; zooming in on particular moments (or sections of anatomy) more frequently than others. What’s more, the characters and story (if any) will be very simple, usually to the point of being underdeveloped. That’s because they aren’t the point of the movie, the point is to get your rocks off.

Shortbus is different because it’s all about the characters and their stories. It’s just that said characters are specifically dealing with sex. However, the sex, itself is simply a metaphor for something greater; for these individuals’ personal searches for human connection.

As my longtime readers have no doubt surmised, I particularly love good characters in my movies. Apparently, each of the actors came up with their character on his or her own, with some help from the director. While this may seem like the makings of a particularly messy plot, in actuality the exact opposite occurs. The end result is the convergence of several different storylines into a neat and united whole.

And the characters themselves are very convincing and identifiable. This isn’t a typical drama or genre film with archetypes and tidily defined character roles. The characters of Shortbus are ordinary, everyday people with all the quirks, flaws and foibles that all of us consistently deal with. These are people I can expect to meet in town, who I can identify with. Hell, I hang out with these guys on a regular basis.

What’s more, since these are all everyday people, there are no real heroes or villains. Okay, Severin’s john is an unrepentant dick; but at least he’s a realistic one (I have known way too many guys exactly like him), and he’s only a very small supporting element of the movie. I went into the movie thinking one thing about each of the protagonists, and then found myself changing my mind several times before the movie’s end. Ultimately though, I found myself both discovering something in each of the protagonists that I recognized in myself, and desperately hoping that they would succeed in the end.

Sofia, one of the two main protagonists the movie focuses on, is obviously a very intelligent, competent and knowledgeable woman. When we first meet her, she seems to have everything together. However, we quickly find out that she’s missing one rather important life experience; and it’s affecting the rest of her life. Her job for one; one of the women she meets at the Shortbus asks “so you’re a sex therapist and you’ve never had an orgasm yourself?” to which Sofia finds herself unable to respond.

Then there’s her marriage. Sofia and Rob obviously love each other, but the fact that they’re unable to connect on this one basic level is causing friction. This gives rise to insecurities in both of them, which further erodes their relationship. And the thing is that, like the majority of relationships, both of them have equal complaints and blame.

James, our other primary protagonist, has some severe damage from his past that is preventing him from enjoying what he currently has. Jamie comes across as overbearing at first; but he is truly a good guy, he really does love James, and he’s doing the best that he can. Unfortunately, while James is well aware of this, on an important level he still can’t accept it. What’s worse is that he doesn’t feel that he has anyone to turn to about it, which exacerbates his demons and sends him in a truly destructive direction.

I find Severen particularly interesting. Among other things, she is always carrying a Polaroid camera around with her which she uses to snap pictures of people, often at inappropriate moments, and sometimes she then hands the picture to them with a comment written on it. However, rude as it may seem, I don’t get the feeling that she’s being intentionally assholish; but that she’s simply trying to connect in the only way that she knows how.

Severen comes across as somebody who’s either forgotten, or never really learned, the proper way to interact with people. If her regular john is in any way indicative of her usual customers, she is probably never given that opportunity either. She desperately searches for a real human connection, but her mistakes and failures leave her more and more frustrated. That’s something I can readily identify with.

Even James’ stalker doesn’t turn out to be that bad. While he’s kind of creepy at first (as all stalkers are), when we find out his motives for it, he’s suddenly sympathetic. What’s more, he’s the one who winds up saving James; in more than one way.

Finally, I would just like to add that Bond is my personal favorite character in this movie. He’s just a supporting character, but he’s always a lot of fun whenever he’s on screen. He also has all the movie’s funniest lines, which he delivers perfectly.

Throughout the course of the movie we are witness to these people’s trials and tribulations. And while we are shown parts of their lives that may make us uncomfortable, they are things that all of us deal with in our own lives; even if we’re not comfortable holding them up to public witness. What’s more, all of it is honest. The sex scenes are not eroticized, the camera does not leer at them in a way meant to turn the audience on. Instead, they actually help to expand on our knowledge of the characters and their interactions with each other. After a certain point, it actually feels like we are brought right into their lives on a very intimate level.

For me, it is the ending scene that sticks in my mind and sums up the movie. Just as all the protagonists’ personal dramas have reached their peak, there is a blackout (apparently there really was blackout during the filming, and it inspired them to use it in the movie). All the Shortbus’ community heads to it in search of the security of people they know. As the scene opens and the protagonists individually enter, we have Bond standing up and singing.

It’s a beautiful song that Bond sings; a number called In the End whose chorus (“we will all get it in the end”) perfectly encapsulates the movie and the hopes of our protagonists. It starts out a melancholy, wistful, yet still hopeful little tune that asks ‘will we get what we need?’ However, halfway through it suddenly becomes a joyful, boisterous anthem of triumph; ‘we will get what we need!’ And as the song and the movie close over the credits; we are left with certainty that these people with whom we have lived and sweated and suffered with for the last ninety minutes have, each in their own way, finally found what they’ve been looking for.

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