Friday, December 08, 2006


Why...oh, why...must there always be a happy ending - or, at least, a relatively happy ending? Not all stories lend themselves to happy endings, or even relatively happy endings. A tragedy is called a tragedy for a reason, and the reason is not that everything is wrapped up in a nice little bow at the end. Just ask Romeo, Juliet, Keaton, McManus, Fenster, Hockney, or any of the characters in Requiem For A Dream. There is not always a pound of pure at the end of the rainbow.

Shortbus succeeds in a number of ways - not the least of which is obliterating whatever taboos there are surrounding sex between two or more human beings - but it fails almost spectacularly at its attempt to write a worthy conclusion. It is also more than a little heavy-handed with the electricity symbolism, but that’s a minor quibble and not nearly as much of a distraction as the impotent ending.

Other than those two things, though, Shortbus is a splendid film, one that challenges the viewer to accept the fact that life is not always lived in the ways that most people expect it to be lived. If you have heard of this movie at all, then you have heard about what goes on in the first five minutes, and I won’t ruin it for anyone who hasn’t heard of the movie by going into it here, except to say that it pretty much lives up to the hype. John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote and directed the picture, clearly does not want the average moviegoer to sit through this movie, and so throws enough at you in the first couple of minutes to make sure that the only ones who remain to see the rest of the movie are those who have an outside chance of being able to appreciate the story he wants to tell.

What goes on in those first couple of minutes is all real, and that is not so much shocking as it is quite brave - both for Mitchell to have conceived and for the players (perhaps more so) to have delivered. Why go to such extremes to tell a story, extremes that are sure to be misconstrued by not a few of the people who are going to pony up the dough to see this picture?

Because the central theme of the film is that to fake it is to deny one’s right to life. And by it, I am not here referring to what you probably first thought of when I used the phrase “fake it.” Rather, I mean to say that faking life is to deny one’s right to it. Thus, to have simulated the sex that is shown in the opening montage would have been to sweep the legs out from under the film - by doing immediately the one thing the film wants to say should never be done.

The tragedy of it all is that such lengths are required by the characters; they go to these lengths because they long for something so fundamental in the human condition that to recognize its absence in one’s life is to, in a sense, lose one’s mind, lose one’s grip on reality - and to grasp desperately at anything that offers the faintest hope that what is missing might be found.

To connect intimately with another person - not sexually, not physically, but intimately, in that difficult to demarcate space where the body, mind, and soul meet - is as much a fundamental human instinct as is the instinct to survive and the instinct to procreate, and I suspect that the necessity of it for a human being lies somewhere between those other two instincts. The instinct to survive is paramount among all living species, and the instinct to procreate is innate in all living beings, complicated in human beings only by the fact that we can apply reason to the situation - I do want kids, or I do not want kids. Animlas in the wild rarely have to decide whether family or career is more important to their well-being; such a consideration can, by contrast, drive a human being quietly mad.

The characters in the movie descend upon Shortbus, which is a club, in order to come to terms with what is lacking in their lives and to seek that fundamental connection that is missing in the lives that they have built for themselves. The results are mixed, and the only dishonesty in the movie is that it tries to convince you, in the end, that those characters found their connections. One of the denizens of the club, upon showing a new person a room full of naked people in various throes of what may or may not be passion, describes the scene as “like the 60s, but with less hope.” True. Also a good way to describe the theme, not only of the film, but of life in America in the 21st century. The end of the movie, in concluding properly, should reinforce the notion that all is not as well as it seems. Unfortunately, the ending does not do this; it’s a fake.

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