This shouldn't be news. As I've been yammering for ages in TIME's hallowed pages and on its spiffy web pages, a genuinely mature film culture should allow for the explicit expression of love (sex) as least as much as it does the explicit expression of death (violence). And once upon a more adventurous time in movies, such a freedom of expression seemed imminent. In the late '60s and early '70s, as American directors like Arthur Penn (in Bonnie and Clyde) and Sam Peckinpah (in everything) pioneered the use of gaudy, picturesque images of violence, European directors like Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) and Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses) made the screen a place where the intimacies of adult couples could be dramatized.
The thought back then, when porno was chic and directors cinematically rambunctious, was not that movie theaters should be awash in closeups of rutting sex workers. It was that films should be able to explore the emotional vectors of activities people engage in every day of their lives, especially when movies endlessly and graphically depicted the moment people die. There was simply more human drama to be found in the spectacle of two folks sporting in bed than of a guy shooting or carving another guy up. And as art-house auteurs were getting pornier, porn directors were getting artier. They brought hard-core to nearly every genre, from science fiction (Flesh Gordon, with FX by Jim Danforth and Dennis Muren) to Bergmanesque melodrama (Devil in Miss Jones). There was even a porno musical, the lavish Alice in Wonderland.
But just when this sexual liberality looked imminent, or at least plausible, cinema boomeranged from a medium where adults could examine their passions to one where kids could get their thrills. Jaws, Star Warsand their countless progeny made the movie house a glorified baby sitter; and not just film sex but film romance came close to disappearing on the big screen. In mainstream movies, words got gamier, pictures more inhibited. A comedy called Meet the Fockerscould get a PG-13 rating (and clean up at the box office), but a comedy in which you would meet actual... fockers... was impossible to find.
In the last decade, some European directors (Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noe) have made serious dramas with explicit sexual elements; but these forays could be pretty dour. Nobody I'm aware of had tried a light-hearted X-rated social comedy. All hail, then, to writer-director John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote and starred in the off-Broadway musical hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for pretending the last 30 years didn't make hard-core romance obsolete. Shortbus is so retro, it seems sparkling new.
The movie opens and climaxes, so to speak, with the cross-cutting of several scenes of vigorous sexual activity. One heterosexual couple rushes through a dozen permutations in a wham-bam-Kama-Sutra fashion. A young man photographs his genitals in his bathtub. Another fellow performs acrobatic onanistic sex; he could start his own Cirque de Solo. A dominatrix whups her client, while he tries to pursue the kind of conversational line other people might have on a first date. (He: "Are you a top or a bottom in real life?" She: "This is real life." He: "Let me put it another way: Do you think we should get out of Iraq?")
Having met these seekers in their most intimate moments, we soon get to know them better. Severin (Lindsay Beamish), the dominatrix, can't get past the idea of sex as a power struggle expressed in theatrical terms. The bathtub guy, Jamie (PJ DeBoy), and the contortionist, James (Paul Dawson), have been a couple for a few years. Now they want to expand and experiment. As James observes dismissively, "Monogamy is for straight people."
As for Sofia (Soon-yin Lee), half of the heterosexual pair, she feels constrained both in her marriage to Rob (Raphael Barker) and in her job. She's a sex therapist who gets no ultimate kick from sex. When James and Jamie come to her as patients, she turns the tables by confessing to them: "I'm pre-orgasmic." "Does that mean you're about to have one?" "No. It means I've never had one."
For short-term solutions to their problems, they all go to a sex cabaret called Shortbus. (Explanation of the title: back in grammar school the "normal" kids got to ride the regular-length schoolbus, while "the gifted and challenged" rode the short bus.) Among the denizens are a courtly older gent, who bears a passing resemblance to a former bachelor mayor of New York, and the cabaret's host, real-life male diva Justin Bond (aka Kiki of the Broadway duo Kiki & Herb). "It's just like the '60s," he says of the entanglement of bodies in the orgy room, "only with less hope." The search for connection might seem exclusively sexual, but to Justin it's all about style. He quotes one Lotus Weinstein as saying, "I used to want to change the world. Now I just want to leave the room with a little dignity."
There's more sex in the movie, including a three-way gay routine that features a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" sung in very close quarters. (It still sounds better than Roseanne's version.) But Mitchell has little interest in being the avatar of '70s porn directors. His structuring of the material is less like a hard-core film, more like a musical. There are songs throughout, and even the sex scenes have the geometrical elegance and absurdity of classic movie production numbers, making Mitchell a porno Busby Berkeley. When the movie finally ends (it has more tie-up-the-plot scenes than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), everybody's back at the salon, singing the anthemic "We All Get It in the End."
I'm not saying Shortbus is up there with Citizen Kane or Drunken Master II; it's mostly clever, sometimes meandering. And I have to say I didn't get all that jazzed by the many gay exertions (or the straight ones). But I was, critically speaking, excited to see the coherent integration of explicit sex scenes into a naturalistic story film. Mitchell said that in press interviews here, he was asked over and over, "Why sex?" I wonder: What took so long? Most people laugh and cry; most people have sex, occasionally at the same time. Sex isn't divorced from our own emotional biographies; it's an inextricable part of it.
So I applaud Mitchell. And I say to other intrepid filmmakers: Just do it.