I'm not sure wall-to-wall sex was what E.M. Forster had in mind when he wrote his famous line "Only connect." But that is nevertheless the theme of Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell's sweetly sad look at a part of New York City that doesn't usually make it into the travel brochures. Call it the sexual underground or call it Heaven on Earth, but the after-hours club that serves as ground zero for Mitchell's investigation into the Big Apple's post-9/11 libido isn't quite like anything we've ever seen before. Think Cabaret's Kit Kat Klub, only with Sally Bowles indulging in every flavor of sex except vanilla. Actually, it's weirder than that. Think Cabaret's Kit Kat Klub, only with Liza Minnelli herself indulging in every flavor of sex except vanilla. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, the actors, most of them quite easy on the eyes, perform all their own stunts. Those are real penises, and they're not in the resting position.
Directors have tried this before (9 Songs, most recently), but never with Mitchell's insouciance. He opens the movie with glimpses of the main characters in what ought to be their most private moments, and it's surprising how quickly our prurient interest subsides and our story sense kicks in. Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a hunky dimwit, is videotaping himself in the bathtub. (Shrinkage!) And, yes, that yellow stuff issuing from his penis, like octopus ink, is urine. Meanwhile, somewhere across town, Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist, is rewriting the Kama Sutra with her husband, Rob (Raphael Barker). And down by where the Twin Towers once stood, Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix, is whipping a trust-fund baby into shape. But back to Jamie's apartment, where his live-in lover, James (Paul Dawson), an artist, is breaking new ground in the area of autoeroticism.
It's every man's dream, something dogs take for granted, but after James reaches his goal (with the video camera as witness), he has to wipe away a tear. For Shortbus, though as full of bounce as a Russ Meyer flick, is laced with rue. Severin, deep inside her punk-demon exterior, longs for a love life that doesn't involve strapping someone to the bedpost. And Sofia, although she knows exactly how to lead her patients to the Big O, has yet to get there herself. Finally, James, though married to the nicest, nicest-looking guy a guy could ever ask for, can't dig himself out of the hole he's been buried in since his days as a hustler. Not even the addition to their family of Ceth (Jay Brannon), the nicest, nicest-looking guy two guys could ever ask for, can pull James out of his slough of despond. "It's just like the '60s," the Joel-Grey-in-drag emcee at the club says while surveying the crowd one night, "only with less hope."
I don't know, it all seems pretty hopeful to me, downright utopian. Mitchell told The New York Times that he wanted to "break the audience's hymen," force us to lose our virginity vis-à-vis the depiction of sex in movies not meant for the trench-coat brigade. But if he does so, it's with such a gentle manner that we're more likely to moan with pleasure than cry out in pain. The movie's largely improvised, which took a toll on the quality of the dialogue. And with a couple of notable exceptions - that emcee, for one - the actors don't exactly pop off the screen. But nobody can accuse them of not having risen to the occasion, if you'll pardon the expression, or of having failed to expose themselves, often with hilarious results. It'll be a while before I forget the singing of our National Anthem by three gentlemen who, their flags waving proudly, are celebrating the frisky freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Talk about a more perfect union.