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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Shortbus (2006)

Shortbus is a tragic comedy (or humorous drama, depending on your point of view) from the fertile imagination of John Cameron Mitchell, writer/director/star of the wonderful play and film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Unlike Hedwig, however, Shortbus is a lot less interesting. Perhaps that is because one of the themes of the film is the collective ennui of young bohemian New Yorkers struggling with post-9/11 disillusionment. Or maybe it is because it depends too hard on the supposed shock value of its content and not hard enough on stuff like direction, writing and editing. Shortbus received a lot of criticism for containing real sex scenes, which is quite possibly the stupidest reason in the world to criticize a film. How could people have trashed this movie for such a superficial reason when it has such a host of other shortcomings?

Shortbus is a modern day counterculture film, reminiscent of the many free love art house pictures that grew popular in the 1960s. The youth of that decade cried out "You're either on the bus, or you're off the bus,” in defiance of the norm and in praise of the new countercultural ideal. Shortbus’s title is clearly a reference to this slogan, and, like that era, it contains a number of jaded hipsters for whom there are no clear social boundaries. So far, so good…I would have loved to see a real examination of what makes my generation tick. Lamentably, Shortbus only provides a peep show without taking us into the Champagne room. It strives for Tinto Brass but it only manages Russ Meyer.

The Shortbus is a kinky salon that serves as a node for a number of characters, including a dominatrix named Severin (couldn’t they have some up with something less obvious?) a marriage counselor who can’t have an orgasm, and a stable, loving couple who is neither stable nor loving. Their lives intersect in various ways that are only marginally interesting and not particularly well written. The only problem with writing witty, intellectual characters is that they have to actually say witty and intellectual things. The actors are generally okay, and many of the Hedwig players make appearances. I really liked Sook-Yin Lee as Sofia, the marital therapist. Most of the other actors, however, are only minimally competent.

Shortbus toys with being hard core, but many of the pivotal scenes left me feeling bored and impatient precisely because I felt so emotionally detached from the poorly written characters. The countercultural and sexually explicit imagery Shortbus was nothing I haven’t seen before (especially since I have a penchant for male masturbation scenes and guy-on-guy action). A compelling, well-written screenplay with consistent and believable characters could have set it apart and made it really special; Shortbus’s shortcomings make it a disappointing and, ironically, a decidedly anticlimactic film going experience.


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