Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/20/07.
After the cult-success of his 2001 debut film Hedwig & the Angry Inch based on his 1998 off-Broadway play, John Cameron Mitchell was a hero among the independent film community. Taking time off to host IFC's Escape from Hollywood film series showcasing a variety of independent films while spending time being an activist for gay rights. In 2004, Mitchell and fellow iconic gay director Gus Van Sant served as executive producers for the documentary feature Tarnation that drew rave reviews where Mitchell embarked on his next project exploring the world of straight and gay sex and the loneliness of young people. For this project, Mitchell chose to use non-professional actors and use unsimulated, explicit sex that would be entitled Shortbus.
Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, Shortbus tells the story of several young people dealing with their own sexuality in New York City as a sex therapist explores her own sexuality. While taking a cast of actors who haven't been a lot of films or haven't acted at all, Mitchell goes for a natural, realistic approach in how people deal with their emotions and their own sexual awakening. The result is truly one of the most sensational and inspiring films of 2006 as Mitchell matures as a storyteller and as a director.
It's a typical day in New York City where a dominatrix named Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is punishing a client named Jesse (Adam Hardman) while a gay couple named James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy) are having problems. James and Jamie go to couple counseling sessions with a therapist named Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee). The Canadian-Chinese woman is having problems achieving an orgasm that has put a damper in her marriage to Rob (Raphael Barker). After a discussion with James and Jamie, they take her to a club called Shortbus where she meets Severin as well as group of eccentric people including transvestite Justin Bond (Justin Bond), a young man named Ceth (Jay Brannan), and former NYC mayor named Tobias (Alan Mandell). James and Jamie take in Ceth, who they find attractive in order to open their relationship more as James has been spooked by death lately after finding a dead man in a pool where he's a lifeguard. Sofia continues to walk around in the club where she encounters an orgy where she sees a beautiful straight couple (Shanti Carson and Jan Hilmer) having the kind of sex that Sofia had been wanting.
Hoping to get help from Severin about her orgasmic problems, Sofia learns that Severin has been feeling very lonely and often lashes out at her problems in being a dominatrix. Sofia and Severin help each other while James' depression worsens as a young man named Caleb (Peter Stickles) watches across from his building. Hoping to improve their sex life, Sofia and Rob attend the Shortbus club where Sofia wears a vibrating egg in order to help reach her big orgasm. She bonds with Justin Bond about sex while comforting Severin during a tense, emotional moment. During a game of spin-the-bottle, Severin and James connect about their loneliness as James later meets Caleb. After a frustrating event with Rob, Sofia is desperate to find some way to reach an orgasm as everyone from the Shortbus club try to ponder their own lives and sexuality.
New York City has been known as a city where even the strangest or out-of-place person can find some kind of community or club to even connect to. For Shortbus, it's really about people dealing and learning about their own sexuality as well as their own emotional dysfunctions. For the openly-gay writer/director John Cameron Mitchell, he's aware that people have trouble trying to find their place in the world and sex is something that they can easily connect or have a hard time understanding. In the end, it's all about connections. While his script doesn't have much of a plot, it's more driven by characters and how they react to each other emotionally and sexually. Whether it's Sofia trying to find an orgasm, James trying to discover his own dysfunctions in his own little film, or Severin trying to connect through sadomasochism. It's all about people wanting some kind of comfort and companionship whether it's sexual or not.
Mitchell's direction is similar to not just the loose, improvisational style of Robert Altman as well as the character study of Gus Van Sant. Mitchell truly has matured as a director by engaging his camera into some heavy, deep moments where the characters are trying to understand something. Then there's the sex where it may be called explicit to some due to scenes of ejaculation, penetration, masturbation, oral sex, and all sorts of hijinks. Mitchell approaches it with realism but also with great care where the sex is important to the film in relation to what the characters are feeling or how they are reacting to each other. Some times it's playful, other times it's pretty deep. Even the orgy sequences where people are having unsimulated sex might seem shocking but it serves to convey the sense of connection that the characters are trying to find. Mitchell's direction and his decision to use New York City as the center point is inspiring where he proves that even in the strangest of places, there is someone for everyone.
Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco brings a lot of color and style to his camerawork with some intimate lighting shades and some wonderfully stylish shots including a green light during the spa-pool scenes with Sofia and Severin. Production designer Judy Asnes and set decorator Sarah McMillan do excellent work in creating the unique look that is Shortbus with costume designers Bart Mueller and Kurt Swanson created wonderfully fabulous costumes for the characters at the club. Editor Brian A. Kates doe some excellent cutting and pacing to give the film a nice pacing along with perspective cuts for the characters and how they react to something. Sound designer Benjamin Cheah also does excellent work to convey the atmosphere and emotions of what's going on.
Animator John Bair creates unique special effects by creating a wonderful model of NYC with all of its unique buildings and landmarks with the lights of the bridges that are just unique in between some of the film's sequences. The film's music is wonderfully assembled with a wonderfully melodic, unique score by the indie band Yo La Tengo along with some music by Animal Collective, Azure Ray, Scott Matthew, Justin Bond, Anita O'Day, Ari Gold, and many more ranging from jazz-pop standards to indie music.
The film's huge ensemble cast includes some memorable small performances and cameos from Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette, Hedwig star Miriam Shor, a musician named Bitch (no really), Shanti Carson, Jan Hilmer, Paul Oakley Stovall as a club patron named Magnus, Bradford Scobie as a club patron named Dr. Donut, Ray Rivas as the drag Shabbos Goy, and musician Scott Matthew as the club's bandleader. Alan Mandell is great as an aging ex-mayor who expresses his regrets of not being more helping while giving advice to the young Ceth. Adam Hardman is excellent as submissive Jesse who wants to be beaten and try to talk to the more aggressive Severin. Justin Bond is wonderful as the club's owner and leader who reveals to Sofia of what it takes to connect with others as his presence lights up the room. Peter Stickles is great as stalker Caleb who pines for the same affection that James and Jamie has while not wanting them to see the two breakup. Jay Brannan is wonderful as the young Ceth who is attracted to both James and Jamie while being unaware of James' depression.
Raphael Barker is excellent as the concerned yet confused Rob who wants to help Sofia while trying to explore his own sexuality through any means. PJ DeBoy is wonderful as the more upbeat, open-minded Jamie who wants to find something positive despite his lack of realism and understanding towards James’ depression. Paul Dawson is amazing as the depressed, artsy James who is haunted by death and ponders his own existence while having a great scene with Severin that briefly mentions My Own Private Idaho by Gus Van Sant. Lindsay Beamish is great as the sadomasochistic Severin who is trying to find some kind of connection in her lonely world while trying to make it as an artist as Beamish shines in her brilliant performance. Sook-Yin Lee is just amazing as the frustrated Sofia who tries to find her own place in the world of sex while discovering all of these people and finding ways to connect with anyone who understands how her own problems.
The Region 1 DVD from ThinkFilm presents the film in a 16:9 Anamorphic Full-Frame Presentation of 1:78:1 ratio with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound plus Spanish and French subtitles and English Closed Caption. The DVD extras includes three different trailers for the film including a teaser, and two different trailers featuring an intro from John Cameron Mitchell. The first is a censored, theatrical trailer and the other is the uncensored, explicit internet trailer. Trailers for other films like Terry Gilliam's Tideland, Candy, Lie with Me, and Off the Black. The thirty-minute making-of documentary Gifted and Challenged: The Making of Shortbus reveals the process that went on into making this film.
Starting in 2003 with producer Howard Gertler, Mitchell posted a website talking about an untitled sex project he wanted to do. In response to the way European approached sex on film, Mitchell wanted to do something that was a more positive response. He and Gertler received several thousand tapes before choosing around 400 that included a tape from Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette which was a clip from that eventual film. Mitchell invited the 400 people for a thing in New York City before choosing nine people that included Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Raphael Barker, PJ DeBoy, Peter Stickles, and Jay Brannan. Before going into a workshop and a STD test, the actors and Mitchell collaborated on the characters while Mitchell worked on his screenplay. Three of the people later dropped out in early 2004 with funding all falling through. Even worse is that when Sook-Yin Lee, a well-known radio personality in Canada was found out to star in a film that would feature explicit sex. A Canadian radio company threatened to fire until people like Francis Ford Coppola, Gus Van Sant, Julianne Moore, Bart Freudelich, and Moby came on board and helped Lee.
Mitchell finally got more auditions in Los Angeles brought in Lindsay Beamish and many others where by early 2005, the film found distributors and funding. The budget at $2 million was shot in the summer of 2005 Mitchell and the actors collaborated heavily on what to do. Even crew members got to contribute something. By the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, the film got a chance to premiere in its intended glory as it received a huge ovation. The eight-minute How to Shoot Sex: A Docu-Primer reveals how Mitchell and his team shot the orgy scenes where in order to make the extras known as "Sextras" comfortable, Mitchell and his cameraman did go nude where Mitchell participated in the orgy scenes. Often focusing on one couple while others are having sex. Mitchell reveals that only a small crew and the actors got to watch what's going on in order to get everyone comfortable. It's a fine little featurette revealing the process of what goes when shooting sex scenes.
The 30-minute deleted/extended scenes includes extended conversations between Jesse and Severin, Sofia and Shabbos with a scene where Ceth meets the ex-mayor Tobias, a deleted scene between Sofia and Rob about orgasms, and a scene where Ceth has a failed conversation with Magnus. An extended sequence where Sofia talks to Bitch and other women where she meets Severin where a discussion about porno and the differences between gay and lesbian porn is one of the more interesting ones. An extended scene with Sofia and Justin Bond watching the orgy while discussing needs that is wonderful sequence in itself. An extended where Sofia leaves a therapy session is very haunting which would convey her own angst while several deleted scenes involving Caleb who watches James and Jamie in their everyday life while dealing with his own work involving a certain leader. Featuring a commentary track from director John Cameron Mitchell along with cast members on each scene where they talk about the deleted scenes and their experience shooting the scenes. They were obviously cut due to length and pacing issues.
The feature-length commentary track from Mitchell, Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, PJ DeBoy, and Justin Bond. The commentary is done in great fun as the cast and Mitchell watch the opening sex scenes that made Lee a bit uncomfortable while they laugh at a few moments. They also discuss the casting process and production while Mitchell admitted to cutting fifteen minutes of the film, some are seen on the deleted scenes, due to length reasons. The sex is discussed as Mitchell and the cast where they don't think it's a big deal but difficult to shoot not because people are staring but trying to put on condoms and stuff, including vibrators. Overall, it's an enjoyable and entertaining commentary.
Following the film's premiere at Cannes, Shortbus was released in the U.S. in its uncut, uncensored form with an unrated rating. While it received mixed reviews, the film did find an audience through art-house and specialty theaters. Probably due to the controversy, the film did manage to do well despite its non-rating it received.
While it's not as entertaining or as accessible as Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Shortbus is still a brilliant, sensational effort from John Cameron Mitchell. Fans of Hedwig will no doubt find this film enjoyable and shocking while average filmgoers might or might not be into the film's sexual content. Still, this isn't a movie about sex but sexuality and human connection as Mitchell has now put himself into the elite list of cinematic voices for not just gay/straight audience but anyone who understands in being an outsider. For a film that celebrates life in all of its dysfunctions and sexual glory, Shortbus is the film to go see.
John Cameron Mitchell Films: Hedwig & the Angry Inch - Rabbit Hole - How to Talk to Girls at Parties - The Auteurs #66: John Cameron Mitchell
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