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I will start out by saying if you have any reservations about seeing explicit sex depicted on screen, or if you want to watch the explicit sex on display for arousal, don’t see this film. Director John Cameron Mitchell has woven together a tapestry set to the “language of sex” (as stated by actor Peter Stickles during a short Q&A which occurred after the screening at the Dipson Amherst Theatre) that shows a frankness of sexuality with all its inhibitions, awkwardness, and truth. These people are real, wonderfully fleshed out, and interesting to follow around for the few days we are able to watch their lives. As learned from the entertaining anecdotes post-viewing, the cast was all picked around 2003 and after years of workshops, the movie is mostly ad-libbed and written collectively, and financial hardships finally shot during the summer of 2005 for its debut at Cannes. Every character, at least of the core group, being that most others played themselves, created a persona that soon became them. With Shortbus, Mitchell and company created a story of love, friendship, and life in general. There is joy, frustration, depression, and hope all mixed together to create one of the best movies of the year.

The story is centered around a woman couples counselor’s journey to experience an orgasm and a gay couple’s, both named Jamie, need to open up in order to find the true love they share. Add to this the counselor’s husband’s feelings of inadequacy, the couple’s inclusion of a third man to their relationship, a quiet voyeur following them, and a dominatrix who desperately wants to connect with someone on a personal level and be a woman. Intercutting this group of seven strangers’ stories that soon converge into the attending of an underground salon called Shortbus is a beautiful camera swooping trek through a 3D model of an expressionistically painted New York City. We as an audience fly through the skyscrapers and land at the buildings where our next scene is set, all on this fateful weekend in 2003 during the East Coast blackout. In a post-911 NYC, these characters go on with their lives needing to find more, to make them whole by picking up the broken pieces and being with those who truly care about them.

Every performance in the film is amazingly stark and real. Our entry into the story begins with our leads engaging in unsimulated sexual activities. Paul Dawson, as one of the Jamies, is engaging in autofellacio while filming his video project, Sook-Yin Lee, the sex therapist, is making love in all sorts of ways with her husband, and Lindsay Beamish is dominating a John in a hotel room. All three culminate with a release and every audience member finds out what’s in store for them for the duration. Lee is good as the confused sex counselor who herself can’t reach climax. The performance began a bit weak, where you could tell she’s not quite an actress, actually she was a VJ on Canada’s Much Music, but as the movie continues the job becomes fitting to her role and successful as a result. Beamish is magnificent as Severin. She is isolated from the world, taking photos of sad images she passes through her travels. Her character is multi-faceted and surprising poignant once we learn the story of who she is. The real scene-stealer is Dawson, however. Along with his lover, played with real heartfelt love by PJ DeBoy, Dawson really carries the most interesting story thread. He is a broken man who has realized everything he wrote about doing when he was twelve is still waiting to be accomplished. His life’s story is a sad one that has made him hardened to the outside world. Dawson’s character knows and sees the love around him, but it just can’t penetrate to his core. The performance is amazing as he tries to orchestrate the lives around him so that all will be well once his film has been completed.

Kudos must go to all involved, as they have created what they set out to do. Each performer is asked to portray their emotions and feelings, not only through words, but also through the physicality of their sexual endeavors. You know exactly what they are thinking and what the encounter means to the character’s development, none of which would have happened if the sex was not real. Mitchell has shown us life on film, all the imperfections and every small moment of humanity and love which occurs on a daily basis through life. Shortbus is a place for misfits to come together for art, music, film, and sex, to be with equals, never being questioned for what their motives are, but instead accepted for just being human. There are many laugh-out-loud moments to counteract the brash sexuality, yet also set us up for the emotionally wrenching scenes at the film’s climax. Mitchell is a true artistic genius, framing it all close-up and invitingly, mixing in the artsy indie tricks that only prove to enhance the story. Besides the gorgeous model being lit and darkened with the changing of the day’s hour, we are shown surreal moments like one of a lamppost on the beach and interesting shooting positions inside a sense-depravation tank, as well as a great soundtrack compiled by Yo La Tengo. Each quirk and story arc culminates into a final scene of raucous absurdity and found life, without any words but the singing of Shortbus’s host(ess). Sexual energy proves to be able to fuel a city lost and help it find its way.

Shortbus 9/10

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photography:
[1] Raphael Barker as Bob and Sook-Yin Lee as Sofia in ThinkFilms’, Shortbus – 2006
[2] PJ DeBoy as Jamie and Paul Dawson as James in ThinkFilms’, Shortbus – 2006

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