Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shortbus... To Recognizing Your Saints

"ShortBus" (dir. John Cameron Mitchell, US, 2006, 101 mins.) This is the highly anticipated (in MY circles, anyway!) and discussed film that has been making quite a stir on the BIG festival circuit. It received a 'thunderous standing ovation' at Cannes, and prompted press walkouts at Toronto. Tonight, with Graham Leggett (Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society) introducing director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the room was pretty buzzed to see what all the commotion has been about. (They would both be available for a Q&A after the film, however I did not stay for that, as he began late and was rehashing most of what he has answered in interviews.) Leggett said that we would know what we were in for within the first 5 minutes.

He was mostly right.

Yes, the film is E X P L I C I T. If you are bothered by a penis, a close up of a penis, in a bathtub, buoyed by a fart-bubble, then you might as well walk out. That is at the 90 second mark. However, you would be missing out on something unique, ribald, touching and extraordinary. Mitchell and his company of actors (all of whom developed the script in workshops) have created what one might have hoped Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" would have been. Its sensuality is driven by the characters' motivations.The company of players have obviously been living with these characters for a great deal of time, and watching Justin Bond (aka "Kiki" of Kiki and Herb)

is a no lose proposition! He lends a theatrical air that buffers us from the explicit realities that slam into the rest of the company. There is also a brilliantly performed monologue by a character who is the ex-mayor of New York. (Unfortunately, I did not catch the actor's name in the credits and he is not credited in any press online.) The monologue is a piece of poetry in the midst of the film's first, major orgy scene, which takes place at a 'salon' hosted by Justin Bond. The salon is called "Shortbus" which is where our diverse cast of characters cross paths.

Since this is 'art', it is not without flawed brushstrokes. The cathartic climax (as it were) is muddy, if not a bit forced. It is at that point that Mitchell takes the film into an expressionistic bent without having established the proper groundwork for it. The resolutions that follow also do not ring as true as the conflicts that led up to the 'happy ending' that the film provides. However, it was generous, if not necessary, to leave the film with a feeling of relief!

Of course, the BIG question is "Did he need to go to explicit extremes to accomplish this?" I think, yes, he did. Had he stopped short, it would have been titillating at best and distracting, at worst. By photographing the scenes of actual intercourse, the process of imagination of the act is removed and we are faced with the emotional nakedness of the characters as they relate to each other sexually. Yes, I know that sounds a bit trite, but it is the only way I can think of putting it. There is no 'guess work' left after the initial shock of watching penetration during those first few minutes of film. The sex that follows is truly part of the storyline and not at all distracting. Of course there is the soon-to-be-infamous "National Anthem" scene, however I found it to be hysterical, though probably extraneous to the plot. There is also an extended 'bit' with a vibrating egg that borders on 'schtick', but a little levity didn't harm the film, but provided some comic relief.

"A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints" (dir. Dito Montiel, US, 2006, 98 mins.) desperately NEEDED some comic relief! The performances are all outstanding! Chazz Palminteri gives an award worthy performance as the overly strict and possessive father of 'Dito' played by Shia LaBeouf (younger) and Robert Downey, Jr. (older). Dianne Weist also appears, playing Dito's mother. Channing Tatum also delivers a powerful performance as Dito's best friend, 'Antonio', who is played by Eric Roberts as an adult.

Given the exceptional group of performances, I found it sort of disappointing not to have enjoyed the film. Dito Montiel has crafted what is assumably an autobiographic record of his post-adolescence, which he had to face in dealing with the hospitalization of his father. He did not have a happy childhood. The film opens with Robert Downey, Jr. telling us that this is going to be a recollection of tragedies. Though there is humor within the script, I found it to be really harsh. These boys are basically thugs, living what appears to be a dead end life. So, whatever levity they find is tinged with the bitterness of their surroundings.

Beyond the bleak script, I found the editing to be over stylized. The cutting between present to past, and then the 'hip-hop cuts' within some of the scenes themselves was distracting. It did serve something of a dramatic purpose at the climax, however it was disengaging when used during the early part of the film. The cinematography is gritty, however a bit sloppy as the boom is caught in more than a few scenes.

Though wonderfully performed, I can only recommend this if you are in the mood for family drama along the lines of something by Arthur Miller.


Maxxxxx said...

re "Shortbus": "Whooooo! Time for shower!"
re "Guide to Recognizing Your Saint": "Cranky bird!"

JimmyD said...

Justin was almost like Z-Man in the first act of 'BTVOTD'!!