It was approximately a decade ago when a noted film director -- I believe it was Paul Verhoeven -- stated that in American cinema, it was OK to chop off a female breast but not acceptable to caress one. Of course, that quote still applies today, and if anything, American cinema has become more timid -- not in matters of violence or scatology, mind you, just in s-e-x -- since the early to mid-1990s, a period when the controversy surrounding the NC-17 rating was at its peak.
You may recall that the NC-17 designation was created to replace the X rating for the purposes of mainstream cinema. The X became solely the domain of porno flicks; the NC-17 was supposed to allow moviemakers to create raw, uncompromised features made exclusively for the eyes of adult audiences, mature films that didn't need to tone anything down for the sake of the kids. Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. The United States is nothing if not a puritanical nation, and the forces of repression and prudery made sure that the NC-17 would fare no better than the X rating. With many mainstream newspapers refusing to even carry ads for films that were rated NC-17, the designation died a swift death. Today, it's barely ever used, and the few films not aimed at tots, teens or easy-to-please adults are simply released unrated.
BEDSIDE MANOR: Charlotte's longtime art-house will open the controversial Shortbus, starring Raphael Barker and Sook-Yin Lee, this Friday. (Photo: THINKFilm)
That's the case with John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus (***1/2 out of four), but even without an officially sanctioned MPAA rating, the film pushes the envelope of what's allowed on screen further than just about any other non-porn flick that comes to mind. Perhaps not since 1980's Caligula has a non-XXX motion picture been as sexually explicit as this one (admittedly, I haven't seen Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs). But whereas Caligula was a wallow in brutality -- the violence and gore offset any potential pleasure generated by hardcore sequences which, truth be told, weren't all that competently filmed anyway -- Shortbus is a celebration of sex that, in turn, morphs into a celebration of those most inalienable of American rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
A multi-layered film featuring a multi-character ensemble, Shortbus is weighty enough that it doesn't simply begin and end with the orgasm. Well, OK, it does begin with it: The opening montage, the most hardcore stretch in the film, finds the principal characters engaged in their own sessions of intercourse, masturbation or S&M. After this eye-catching intro, the film settles down and allows us to get to know its players better. Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a sex therapist ("I prefer 'couples counselor,'" she states more than once) who has herself never experienced the joys of an orgasm, not even with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker). James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy) are described as the perfect couple, though James' perpetual moodiness and Jamie's constant neediness lead them to mutually agree to seek companionship from a third party; that turns out to be a nice kid named Ceth (Jay Brannan), and the resultant ménage a trois proves to be a point of dismay for their mysterious, Peeping Tom neighbor Caleb (Peter Stickles). And Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is a dominatrix who's so burned out on her daily routine that she's searching for something -- anything -- to awaken her senses. Their paths all converge at an underground venue called Shortbus, a haven for open-minded people to discuss, watch and engage in all manner of sexual expression.
The hype and controversy surrounding the film's erotic content has been so deafening that it'd be a shame if this gets dismissed out of hand as a one-trick pony. Director Mitchell, whose previous feature was 2001's marvelous musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch (in which he also starred as the transsexual protagonist), wrote the screenplay for Shortbus along with the participation of his cast members, and such a free-flowing environment of ideas allows the picture the opportunity to mature -- to grow and deepen -- along with its characters. In many ways, this is a New York picture through and through: That's evident from the witty opening sequence, when an extreme close-up of something (Is it a sculpture? Is that a penis?) comes into focus as the camera pulls back and we realize it's the Statue of Liberty standing guard over the Big Apple. There are the usual references to 9/11, but we don't sense that Mitchell is merely paying lip service -- these are frightening times for our country, with internal threats splitting apart the nation's citizenry as much as outside ones, and Mitchell seems to be suggesting that anything that can cheer us and unite us should be wholeheartedly embraced. It's an open invitation that should reach all states Blue, Red and Zebra-Striped, though, admittedly, I'm still freaked out that this is opening this Friday at, of all theaters, the Manor. (Let's just hope the bluehairs don't accidentally wander into this auditorium at the moment when James is ejaculating on his own face, or Manor management, like Lucy to Ricky, will have some 'splainin' to do to the medics subsequently called to the scene to revive the victims.)
The cast is mostly comprised of screen novices and newcomers -- no surprise, since it's hard to imagine A-listers like Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson going this far for the sake of their art (though, Lord knows, their fans wouldn't object!). Their collective lack of screen polish provides the characters with a natural demeanor that works well for this setting. Sook-Yin Lee, however, is the breakthrough in the cast: Her performance -- by turns fearless, funny, frustrated and frenzied -- surely ranks as one of the year's best.
Mitchell isn't so Pollyanna that he's suggesting everyone's difficulties will be solved by one good bout of sexual acrobatics. Indeed, many of the characters' problems and hang-ups are directly hardwired into their own opinions on the subject. But what makes Shortbus unusual for an American movie is that it isn't frightened of sex, it doesn't reduce the act to insensitive frat boy gyrations, and it doesn't employ it as a bludgeoning weapon (on that latter point, see this year's execrable Basic Instinct sequel as Exhibit A). As a movie, Shortbus is a turn-on, but not in the sense readers might imagine. The picture isn't physically stimulating so much as it's mentally and emotionally arousing -- it considers the brain and the heart the true erogenous zones, a viewpoint that ultimately turns out to be the movie's most startling aspect.