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October 18th, 2006 Byron Beck | Queer Window
 

All That Jizz

Getting on a Shortbus with director John Cameron Mitchell.

     
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Sitting in a downtown hotel with the diminutive queer director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, talking about his new film, Shortbus, I kept thinking John Cameron Mitchell reminded me of someone else. At first it was Gus Van Sant, a director Mitchell describes as more "intuitive" than he is. And then I thought of Todd Haynes, a director Mitchell calls "a super-smart geek." And, even though both of these PDX-based directors are Mitchell's friends, I knew I wasn't quite there—yet. But once he started talking about NYC, and that he wasn't sure how his super-explicit romp, Shortbus, would be received, I thought he sounded like Woody Allen. The figure didn't appear to me, though, until Mitchell said his Hedwig was inspired by All That Jazz. "That's it," I said, "you're our generation's Bob Fosse."

Another Fosse classic, Cabaret, leads me to believe Mitchell is a rightful heir to the choreographer/filmmaker's inventive way of using music and sex to make a political statement. As invasive as both Cabaret and Shortbus are for their peeks into "sordid" subcultures, more than anything else they're social commentaries on the times in which their characters live. For Cabaret, it's Nazi Germany. For Shortbus, it's post-9/11 New York. Instead of Hitler, jazz hands and Liza singing show tunes, you get the "Mayor of New York," cocksuckers and men singing the national anthem into each other's asses. And instead of the voyeuristic Kit Kat Club, you get the anything-goes Shortbus, a participatory playpen where much of Mitchell's action takes place.

Sex is the sticky point where Fosse and Mitchell connect. A lot of folks will say Shortbus is porn. Yes, people have a lot of sex in this film—especially in the first five minutes. But whereas Fosse used metaphors for sex, Mitchell uses sex as his metaphor. And it's his use of metaphor as a visual language, touching on the issues of love, death and the stuff in between, that turns a salacious film into a revealing peek at how we much we are—and are not—connecting with each other in the modern world.

"It's not about sex," said JCM. "It's what sex is about. That's why, right away, I want the audience to know this film happens within a context that is America right now."

That's why we get an early scene overlooking the former World Trade Center, where a dominatrix is beating the crap out of her john. It isn't played here for cheap titillation or even cheaper laughs, but more for the absurdity of the situation. And, really, it's the absurdity of sex—and life—that makes this film sing, alongside cool songs from rocker friends like Yo La Tengo and Kiki & Herb's Justin Bond, who plays the "mistress" of the Shortbus.

"You know, there are different kinds of great sex," said Mitchell. "It's just like the last pure dynamic of getting to know someone."

A reach-around never felt so revolutionary.


Shortbus plays at Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st. Ave., 223-4515. Call theater for showtimes, Friday-Thursday, Oct. 20-Nov. 2. Adults only. 18+.
 
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