I'm on a bit of a jag against IFC lately. Shortly, I will post a brief rant against their programming in general, as well as what will be a likely separate and somewhat longer consideration of their documentary Indie Sex. Today, I want to say a couple things about one of the movies promoted by that documentary, John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus. Interested parties should consult my other blog, Movies for People Who Hate Movies, for my thoughts about a movie, and a filmmaker, that deals with analogous subject matter with greater sensitivity, depth and profundity, Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs.
Don't believe the hype, most of which you will hear in that unintentionally comical IFC documentary, Indie Sex. This is an astonishingly mediocre movie, you know the kind that gets called Indie because it wasn't shot on a Universal back lot and has no known stars in it and it's kind of quirky in one or two hackneyed ways. There are gay guys in it! The plot centers around a woman who is searching for her elusive first orgasm! They all hang out at a sex club! Filmmaker, John Cameron Mitchell, ups the ante and gives his Indie cred a shot in the arm by showing real sex: penetration, cumshots. But as I say, if you are used to porn, there's nothing surprising here, just a run-of-the-mill parade of cliches.
For starters the acting in what is supposed to be an ensemble, actor's piece is pretty dreadful. They are all more or less one-note stereotypes. Utterly perplexing in this “honest, unflinching exploration of sexuality” is the fact that these one-dimensional characters hang on to their single dimension during sex! We never see different facets to these personalities. We never see unexpected reactions. The only interesting actor for me was the brief appearance by an old man at Shortbus who introduces himself as a “former mayor of NYC” (I think he's supposed to be Ed Koch! Am I hip because I get the reference?) He has a nice little speech and old people are interesting to watch and hear, but beyond that the performances in this movie are pretty lame. Maybe it takes so much out of you to reconcile yourself to the fact that you are fucking on camera that you have nothing left to give to actual acting? I don't know; I'm just speculating. Just thinking out loud.
I suppose I should be more forgiving of the story as a stylization, but the fact that all these people do is talk about sex and have sex is pretty obnoxious, it becomes grating after awhile. This is what I don't understand about movies like this that claim to be realistic. The most truthful part of Shortbus is when James tells Jamie he can't have sex right now because he just jerked off. As opposed to the next scene, in which Sofia, a professional therapist, slaps her client, Jamie, and then confesses to the couple that she's sorry she lost control, but she's a bit on edge because she's never had an orgasm. I don't know. Is that supposed to be funny? I can appreciate the absurdity of it, I suppose. I have been telling people this movie is like John Waters film without jokes, but maybe I'm missing the jokes. Some of the “top critics” at Rotten Tomatoes certainly talk about it as if it were a comedy.
Maybe I misconstrue it because of Mitchell's serous tone in the aforementioned Indie Sex. To hear him talk about it, you would think this is the most serious film ever made. I would add that the comments of the other talking heads confirm the importance of his film, so it is fair to say that the film itself endorses Shortbus as an important, crucial moment in cultural history. So I took it as such. The thing is I don't think this mission of releasing us from our sexual shackles is a pertinent crusade. I'm pretty sure sex is all over the place. Porn is mainstream enough that I can watch the AVN awards and specials about the most recent adult entertainment industry expo on basic cable. Every show on MTV and VH1 entails finding a mate for Brett Michaels, or a C-level model, or a D-level R&B artist. Every beer commercial, soda commercial, deodorant commercial and shampoo commercial hinges on sexual innuendo or various levels of exposure. I don't understand. Who is uptight? Where is it that our society needs to loosen up? Are you telling me Shortbus is reaching out to the Tea Baggers? Cause they ain't gonna be converted by a movie that shows three guys blowing each other.
The time has passed for shocking content. Everything is permissible now. Don't be taken in by Fox News and the Tea Baggers. Nothing is shocking, remember that Perry Ferrell said that when Reagan was president. Does anyone honestly believe that as a whole the culture has become more puritanical in the past twenty years? We don't need shocking content. We need now what we have always needed: shocking style; unique, profound, naked modes of expression. Grafting Hollywood style on to a couple of explicit scene won't get the job done. One need look no further than than the scene in which “a former mayor of NYC” talks to Ceth. Their in the middle of a party; there's a live band, and they are practically whispering to one another in the middle of it all. The background, which is not background at all, but all around them is conveniently mic-ed down so all we here is their conversation clear as a bell. Sorry, but I will not suspend this particular disbelief. Moreover, as they talk they are being watched across a crowded, noisy room by James and Jamie who can obviously tell what they are talking about. They even nod to Ceth in approval after he gives the old man a hug. This is classic look-think-feel as Ray Carney describes it in his essay “Two Forms of Cinematic Modernism:
Notes Towards a Pragmatic Aesthetic.” (http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/acad/forms.shtml) As Carney explains, these characters can read the thoughts and feelings of one another from across the room. In mainstream cinema its a perfectly acceptable device, but if we are asking for new modes of expression, and I am, it will not do.