If you go into John Cameron Mitchell's much-talked-about Shortbus expecting to see oodles of actual on-screen sex, you won't be disappointed. But this isn't the sterile, voyeuristic porn action that's all too aware of its audience; this is the alternately vulnerable, awkward, and silly coupling (as well as... um... singling, let's say) of real life. Mitchell delves into the relationships between New Yorkers desperate for connections both emotional and genital, but the most shocking thing about Shortbus isn't its graphic sexuality; it's how traditional and sentimental the film truly is.
After swooping initial shots highlighting a cartoony cityscape, Shortbus gets right down to it, and during the opening montage of penetration we're introduced to what will be our three main characters. First there's Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist --- sorry; "couples' counselor" who enjoys acrobatic intercourse with her husband but has never experienced an orgasm. There's the sad-eyed James (Paul Dawson), quietly suicidal despite the loving efforts of his perky lookalike boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy). And then there's Severin (Lindsay Beamish), an introverted dominatrix longing to hang up her whip and find a companion but too terrified to try. They come together and fall apart at the titular club, a salon of sex, music, and ideas so named because it's "for the gifted and challenged" and described by its host as being "just like the '60s, only with less hope."
Shortbus' execution doesn't reach the lofty standards established by its ambitious setup, with the viewer basically reduced to wondering whether Sofia will ever suffer le petit mort. The intermittent brownouts remind us that this is post-9/11 New York and, consequently, all you need is love, a naïve stance in light of our complicated world. But anyone who's seen Mitchell's debut feature Hedwig and the Angry Inch won't be surprised by the clever screenplay, the standout scenes being the revelation of Severin's real name and the three-way between James, Jamie, and a new friend that would probably cause Francis Scott Key to rotate in his coffin.
Mitchell developed Shortbus with the help of his ultra-game (and flexible!) actors, their participation no doubt necessary to ensure that his uniformly talented cast be made as comfortable as possible. The task at hand was largely unheard of in an American feature, though a few Europeans (i.e., Breillat, von Trier, and the Dardennes) have begun testing this boundary (the final frontier probably being a studio-financed snuff film). The question, though, is whether Shortbus could have conveyed its harmless message of togetherness without calling upon its stars to wrap their legs and lips around one another. The answer is yes; even though that kind of intimate candor is difficult to fake, I'm pretty sure faking is an actor's one and only job. The other question is would anyone be talking about Shortbus otherwise? As they say, sex sells.
This weekend at the Dryden Theatre finds writer-director-actor Paul Mazursky in attendance to present a sampling of his work. On Friday Mazursky will introduce Stanley Kubrick's 1953 filmmaking debut Fear and Desire, in which Mazursky made his first on-screen appearance, and Saturday is 1976's Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Mazursky's semi-autobiographical portrait of an aspiring actor escaping his 1950s Brooklyn roots in search of "fame and fortune." A standout bunch of performers --- including a very young Christopher Walken, the underrated Ellen Greene (Little Shop of Horrors), and a remarkable Shelley Winters --- helped Mazursky stage this beautifully scripted love letter to one young man's coming of age in a time brimming with rapture, heartbreak, and, above all, promise.
Chris Marker, while not a household name, is one of the world's foremost filmmakers --- he's revered for 1962's cult short La Jetée --- and his 2004 work The Case of the Grinning Cat, offered at the Dryden Thursday and Sunday, juxtaposes the mysterious 2001 manifestations of a toothy yellow feline on buildings and sidewalks against a look at 21st-century French politics and protests. No one knows who was responsible for the paintings and drawings of the cat, but it somehow became a symbol for peace following 9/11, and then the cat vanished as quickly as it appeared. Knowledge of Gallic affairs of state may aid in the appreciation of Grinning Cat, but anyone who values guerrilla art and grassroots activism will dig it thoroughly.
Shortbus (NR), written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, is playing at Little Theatres | Next Stop, Greenwich Village (R), written and directed by visiting guest artist Paul Mazursky, screens Saturday, November 4, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre, 8 p.m. | The Case of the Grinning Cat (NR) and The Bestiary (NR), written and directed by Chris Marker, show Thursday, November 2, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, November 5, at 7 p.m., at the Dryden Theatre.