Looking for meaning, finding a lot of sex
“You’re either on the bus, or you’re off the bus” was a rallying cry of the ‘60s counterculture, and the same holds true in many ways for “Shortbus,” the new film from writer-director John Cameron Mitchell, whose previous work was “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” In tracing the physical connections and spiritual-existential malaise of a group of post-Sept. 11 New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s, Mitchell’s new film is full of sex -- real people having actual sex -- in various gender permutations. The whole “sex in cinema” dilemma has long vexed filmmakers as different as Stanley Kubrick, Catherine Breillat and Larry Clark, and begs from the audience an open-mindedness that might once have been branded simply “with it,” but which in the currently divisive political and cultural climate becomes a flag-planting gesture of radical purpose.
Its sexual provocations aside, the film works best as an idealized portrait of a specific time and place, a hipster bohemia where everyone struggles to find meaning in the everyday acts of living. The action revolves around an informal salon, a combination happening and love-in, where people come to watch and participate, to talk, look at art, listen to music and hook up. As one character dryly notes in what must surely be thought of as the film’s signature line, “It’s just like the ‘60s, only with less hope.”
If only the film seemed more up to the high-minded, well-meaning goodwill it inevitably attracts. Though it flirts with the hard-core, there is something strangely flaccid about “Shortbus,” a ragged, uneven quality that, however purposeful, makes it feel less than fully formed. Following an open casting call, Mitchell worked on the story and characters over a period of years with his chosen cast. Rather than leading to electric, snappingly real talk, this unusual process seems to have over-inflated the characters’ exchanges, such that the dialogue feels leaden, too on-the-nose, and the conversations are often too directly ingrained with the vernacular of therapy.
It’s never intended to be titillating or particularly erotic, as there is instead an unexpectedly warm, friendly and playfully naughty charge to many of the scenes, such as during an unconventional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Perhaps the most admirable, and offhandedly transcendent, exertion in “Shortbus” is simply Mitchell’s attempt to make a film that is both of and about his times, and in so doing respond with a gesture fueled not by anger and disillusionment, but rather one full of love.
MPAA rating: Unrated
A ThinkFilm release. Director-writer John Cameron Mitchell. Producers Howard Gertler, Tim Perell, Mitchell. Director of photography Frank G. DeMarco. Editor Brian A. Kates. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. (323) 848-3500. Expands to other locations Oct. 13.