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Anuran, n. an amphibian of the order Salientia (formerly Anura or Batrachia), which includes the frogs and toads

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Shamelessly Stumping for Shortbus

How would a celluloid artist like John Cameron Mitchell plan a follow-up to the over-the-top rock musical Hedwig and The Angry Inch? To begin, by taking his time.

Building this film in an improvisational and intensive manner, Mitchell gives back to his community by casting the community and creating the script in workshop fashion. The cast spent more than two years testing the wild waves of such a progressive waters and learning how to touch, taste, and teach each other.

Given that this dynamic and daring director shares writing duties with the actors, it’s no surprise he ends up onscreen in one of the many pansexual orgy scenes. In a radio interview, Mitchell admitted that he gave oral sex to a woman for the first time in his life on the set of this film. While the steamy, salacious—and at times silly—sex is central to Shortbus, the prolifically prurient parts are so seamlessly woven into this psychological comedy that viewers should be warned of wanting anything purely pornographic. Shameless and self-assured, Shortbus shocks—not with the sex—but through profound intimacy, soulful perversity, and disarming honesty.

Showering viewers with geysers of cinematic semen, the movie makes us contemplate what a glob of masculine goo can do to the canvas of a Pollack painting. A sex therapist and couples’ counselor by day, the female protagonist cannot actually achieve orgasm, and the pursuit of climax helps form one of the countless plotlines. In the excruciating yet jovial interactions between the therapist and her male lover, viewers might hear painfully humorous echoes of Woody Allen’s devastating critiques of heterosexual relations from the Manhattan and Annie Hall days. In other insurrections of indecency, we get to learn what three horny men can do with the national anthem during a three-way suckoff. With this organic and orgasmic outing, Mitchell honors another queer visionary, Gus Van Sant, as the character James chronicles the beginning of his hustling days—trying to turn tricks outside a middle American screening of My Own Private Idaho.

With utopian vision and a context of collaboration, the Shortbus salon captures the fascinating flavor of fringe communalism. By culling a cast willing to function as an experimental cooperative, Mitchell mirrors the utopian process of radical New York nudists from another time-frame. In its experimental excess, the cast conjures memories of The Living Theater—anti-war pleasure pacifists whose Paradise Now marked the late 60s sacking of stuffy, sedate entertainment. Composing the script for that popular play involved, among other experimental strategies, the casting of the I-Ching.

As one character remarks regarding the bodies engaged in bawdy bacchanal, “Voyeurism is participation.” With this line, the Shortbus collective invites its shyer viewers from red states and beyond to join the funky fray. While such a gesture invites the kind of “don’t dream it, be it” subculture camping of Rocky Horror nerds, there’s something more suggestive and subversive, radical and real than anything found in Rent, Rocky Horror, Hair, or other similarly sentimental and sympathetically superficial versions of American subculture.

Years after Mapplethorpe and Monica, sex scandals still stalk us from the TV screen. While the Mark Foley situation reminds us what happens when repressed desires express themselves inappropriately, former president Bill Clinton discusses the best of the sexually open Bonobo chimpanzees in a New Yorker interview. Laws legislating the bedroom still make headlines, and deviants still drift away from the draconian norm to redefine family. Shortbus sneaks its way into our theaters and hearts against this backdrop. Of all its astonishing qualities, this flick fights the culture war without fighting. Instead, it flies sorties of consensual sucking, confronting the enemy of fear with ferocious lust and humorous love, with temptation and cunning, with tenderness and cunnilingus.


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