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At 15, restored ‘Shortbus’ is still a movie ahead of its time

Depictions of real sex among actors raised eyebrows

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Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy in ‘Shortbus.’ (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

When it debuted in 2006, John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” – which this month receives a special 15th anniversary re-release in the form of a sumptuous new 4K restoration – was described by Variety as being “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry.”

That description arguably still holds true, and it was not hyperbole. Mitchell, fresh off the success of both the stage and film versions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” had deliberately set out to make a film exploring “the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of the characters’ lives.” He solicited videotaped submissions from would-be cast members – whether they were trained actors or not – who were open to the experience of performing in sexually explicit material, then collaborated with the chosen players over a two-and-a-half-year process of improvisational workshops to create the story and script. When the cameras finally started rolling, the cast had already developed a level of emotional and physical intimacy that allowed them to deliver unprecedented authenticity. Almost all the sex scenes were un-simulated – and indeed, according to Mitchell, all but one of the many orgasms that take place in the film are real.

It’s not surprising that “Shortbus” would garner a lot of attention 15 years ago for its bold approach to onscreen sex, considering that real sex on film is still largely considered a taboo in the mainstream. What’s surprising is that it generated relatively little outrage or backlash from the conservative crowd. There were detractors, of course, whose pearl-clutching reaction to the idea of such a film was simply to decry it as “pornography,” and it was banned in some foreign markets with draconian censorship laws regarding sexual content; nevertheless, thanks to Mitchell’s established reputation as an artist and the enthusiastic response it received at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie managed a reasonably widespread release across major markets in the United States without raising too many eyebrows, meeting with a mostly favorable response from both critics and audiences – at least the audiences who weren’t too squeamish to go and see it.

Those who did quickly found themselves drawn into the lives of a collection of young New Yorkers, all struggling to find meaning, connection, and gratification in a city still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11 and the frustrations of Bush-era politics. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, and her attentive but increasingly bewildered husband Rob (Raphael Barker), whose own sexual needs are not being met, either; there’s Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), a former child TV star and his ex-hustler boyfriend who are looking to open up their relationship to others, and Caleb (Peter Stickles), a voyeuristic neighbor who lives vicariously through stalking them and obsessively following their lives; and finally, there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix frustrated over her inability to make emotional connections. Along with other sexual pilgrims of the New York underground scene, they come together at Shortbus, a weekly “salon” dedicated to art, music, politics, and polysexual carnality.

At the time of its initial release, “Shortbus” felt for many – perhaps even most – like a glimpse into another world, an erotic utopia where sexual freedom and experimentation were not only “normal” but incorporated into a holistic view of life and used as a valid avenue for achieving personal growth. Seen today, what strikes the viewer most is just how far ahead of its time Mitchell’s purposefully transgressive movie really was. Though we haven’t quite reached a cultural place where the freewheeling and permissive sexuality it depicts has been fully embraced by all, many of the then-arcane sexual concepts it presents – polyamory, BDSM, “pegging” – no longer carry the same sense of transgressive danger they once did in the mainstream cultural imagination. More importantly, the attitude of sex-positivity it champions has become far more widespread in our modern world, thanks in no small part to the increased visibility and acceptance of “non-traditional” sexual practices in popular media.

There’s also an unexpected – indeed, almost eerie – resonance to be found in the underlying zeitgeist of the film’s post-9/11 New York, as reflected in the existential crises with which its characters resignedly grapple. This is particularly notable in the secretly depressed James (Dawson’s sensitive portrayal of his mental health struggles provides the emotional heart of the movie), but any of the characters could easily be transplanted into the COVID-exhausted world of 2022 and seem just as much at home.

For all that looming heaviness in the air, though, “Shortbus” remains as refreshingly upbeat and unexpectedly joyful as it was 15 years ago – and that’s not just because of the sex. Mitchell, in talking about making the film, says he did not “necessarily seek to be erotic.”

“In the years I was making ‘Hedwig,’ he says, “I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexual frankness again, as some had in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless. Sex seemed just as connected to negativity as it was for, say, Christian conservatives. I guess it’s understandable. I was brought up in a strict Catholic/military environment where sex was the scariest thing imaginable, which, of course, made it fascinating. I decided to make a New York-style, emotionally challenging comedy that would be sexually frank, thought-provoking, and, if possible, funny.”

True to that goal, “Shortbus” feels for most of its running time like a light-hearted romp. Justin Vivian Bond, playing themself as the host of the film’s titular salon, brings a buoyant sense of humor to the movie that pervades even when they’re not onscreen, and the colorful community of background characters – including an Ed Koch lookalike who confides in a young potential hook-up that he was “once the mayor of New York City” – provide a constant stream of memorable comedic moments throughout. There’s even an overtly farcical sequence involving a remote-control orgasmic egg, which would not seem at all out of place in a 1960s screwball comedy from Blake Edwards.

Still, to downplay the sexiness of “Shortbus” would be to ignore its most enduring legacy. After all, it’s a film that features graphic sex between various combinations of gender, including extended scenes of three-ways, orgies, rimming, cunnilingus, fellatio, self-sucking, and full-on penetration of multiple orifices. Yes, some of it may arouse you – but the real power of sex in this film has to do with the fact that, unlike porn or even most “tasteful” Hollywood sex scenes, the intention is not so much to turn us on but to help us get over it.

As Mitchell puts it, “In the current and important campaign to correct social wrongs, sometimes sex itself gets a bad name. To some today, any kind of sex on screen is exploitation… Let’s not let our need for safety and justice boomerang us back to our default American Puritanism. Sex between consenting respectful adults is one of the great joys and mysteries of our lives. No need to panic. 

“Let’s just lie back and think of each other.”

The new 4K restoration of “Shortbus” opens theatrically in New York City on January 26, followed by an expansion to other cities across the US. You can find information about theatres and dates at the Oscilloscope Laboratories Website.

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‘Wildhood’ explores queer Indigenous experience

An example of personal filmmaking at its most sublime

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Joshua Odjick and Phillip Lewitski star in ‘Wildhood.’ (Photo courtesy Hulu)

It’s hardly news to say that the movies have a less-than-ideal track record when it comes to authentic representation – or, really, any representation at all – of Indigenous people. For most of its history, Hollywood’s “dream machine” dutifully perpetuated the narrative that, with very few exceptions, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and even after the cultural tide began to turn, filmmakers who attempted to propagate a more compassionate viewpoint usually muted their efforts with stereotyped portrayals of Native Americans that presented them either as comic relief or tragic victims of oppression – when they weren’t being idealized as magical fonts of ancient wisdom, that is – and did little to convey the reality that they were really just human beings like the rest of us.

It goes without saying that the LGBTQ community can relate. But though things have gotten somewhat better for us in recent years, we are still hard pressed to think of many examples of films in which Indigenous people have not been essentially marginalized – and when we try to think of movies with Indigenous people who are also queer, the best most of us can do is “Little Big Man,” the 1970 Arthur Penn western in which Dustin Hoffman is raised by a Sioux Nation tribe and grows up with a Two Spirit character named Little Horse (played by Native actor Robert Little Star) as his friend. For the record, it’s a sympathetic portrayal, if not quite fully drawn. It was also nearly 60 years ago, and we’re still waiting for another mainstream movie to show us a more authentic vision of queer Native experience.

While Hollywood continues to drag its feet on correcting that gap, however, Canadian/L’nu Two Spirit/nonbinary filmmaker Bretten Hannam has been hard at work to bring their own perspective to the screen – and their debut feature film, “Wildhood,” which launches on Hulu June 24, is as much a breath of trope-free air as one could wish.

Disregarding expectations about Indigenous identity right out of the gate, it centers on Link (Phillip Lewitski), a half-Mi’kmaq teenager who lives with his younger half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony) in a rural trailer park on the coast of Nova Scotia. Their home life is toxic, with an abusive father (Joel Thomas Hynes) more interested in training them for a life of crime than in taking care of their basic needs; when Link learns that his Mi’kmaw mother may still be alive – despite what he had been told since early childhood – he abruptly decides to steal away with Travis and make a run for it, hoping to locate her and find a better life in the process.

Ill-prepared for a cross-country journey, an early encounter brings them quickly under the wing of Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a Two Spirit Mi’kaq pow wow dancer traveling from gig to gig. Though Link is hesitant to trust this interloper and the two are frequently at odds, he gradually warms to Pasmay, and an emotional bond begins to grow between them as the three young travelers make their way across the Canadian wilderness together.

It’s not hard to gather where things go between Link and Pasmay, and together with the quest to reconnect Link to his estranged mother and the Native heritage she represents, it should be obvious enough that this is a coming-of-age tale whose protagonist yearns to embrace more than one neglected facet of his identity. Yet though it might be easy to classify “Wildhood” as a teen “coming-out” movie, it would also be misleadingly dismissive.

Like its central character, it’s a movie with many questions to be asked and answered, and sexuality is only one of the many elements woven together in Hannam’s briskly paced yet intricately layered screenplay. No one in the movie needs to “come out,” exactly; it’s easily gleaned that Link knows from the start that he is gay, or at least someplace on the queer spectrum, even if he doesn’t know that getting comfortable with that fact might be tied up in the journey ahead of him. As for Pasmay, they’re fully comfortable with their Two Spirit nature, yet the past trauma of family rejection is something they have yet to fully overcome. As these two walk together – accompanied by the one-eyed but clear-sighted Travis, who is working through family issues of his own – their growing closeness requires them to grapple with these lingering fears, providing a framework through which Hannam can subtly illuminate the differences between the world views held by white and Indigenous cultures.

With an Indigenous queer filmmaker behind the camera, the takeaway from that contrast inevitably emphasizes the opposition between two different cultural conceptions of queerness itself, and rightly so. As for their direction, Hannam’s remarkably self-assured visual storytelling effortlessly complements the nuances of their screenplay to mesmerizing effect, making all these intellectual-sounding themes arise like thoughts in a meditation, to be noted as they pass and remembered later. No doubt it helped that “Wildhood” was expanded by Hannam from an award-winning 2019 short; in any case, the result is a film with an easy, natural flow that neither shies from emotion nor dwells in it, and culminates exactly where we hoped while taking us places we never expected to go. 

As for the acting – a crucial element in making any film rise to its highest aspirations – Hannam’s cast not only serves them well, but are so perfectly attuned to their movie’s delicate spirit that they seem not to be performing at all. The nonbinary Odjick, charismatic without being showy, exudes a confident compassion that makes a perfect complement to Lewitski’s awkward and angry teen rebel, and the easy chemistry between them helps to make the latter’s lowering of defenses all the more believable. Winters-Anthony gives a stunningly genuine performance as Travis, helping to bring full weight to the all-important theme of chosen family; and Michael Greyeyes (the film’s most recognizable face, thanks to TV roles in “True Detective” and “Fear the Walking Dead,” among other titles) gives a memorable turn as a helpful stranger who facilitates Link’s eventual reunion with his mother – in exchange for a favor, of course.

“Wildhood” comes to Hulu after becoming a hit on the Festival Circuit in 2021, where it was an official selection at both TIFF and AFI Fest and won awards at both the Canadian Screen Awards (for Odjick’s performance) and the Palm Springs International Film Festival. That provenance is a testament to the importance of such festivals in amplifying the voices of marginalized artists and allowing them to tell their stories – but it’s not the reason for putting the movie at the top of your must-stream list, nor is the fact that it’s an embarrassingly rare example of Indigenous queer inclusion on the screen. Ultimately, the reason for watching “Wildhood” is that it is an example of personal filmmaking at its most sublime, existing at the intersection of personal experience, public enlightenment, and popular entertainment.

That’s a big burden to bear, but “Wildhood” never feels weighed down. On the contrary, it leaves us with a sense of freedom and acceptance that is lighter than air. 

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Summer of 2022: a queer screen roundup

Kevin Bacon stars in queer horror flick ‘They/Them’

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Kevin Bacon stars in queer horror film ‘They/Them.’ (Photo courtesy Peacock)

Since the summer season starts with Pride month, we can always count on June bringing plenty of great LGBTQ entertainment options to our screens. This year has been particularly bountiful – we’ve already highlighted several standout titles for our readers, like the smart, sophisticated, and stingingly funny rom-com “Fire Island” (now streaming on Hulu) and the dazzlingly diverse re-imagination of the iconic series “Queer as Folk” (available to watch on Peacock), as well as the return of “Love, Victor,” Hulu/Disney’s popular coming out/coming of age series (beginning its third and final season on June 15) – so it’s understandable if viewers are still making their way through these and some of the other movies and shows on our must-see list.

If you’re one of those who are still catching up, however, you’d be well advised to do it quickly. June is not quite done rolling out its offerings, and that’s just the beginning. The rest of summer has more in store for queer viewers – and once again, the Blade is here to offer some suggested titles that we think are worth looking out for in the weeks to come.

Being BeBe (Now streaming, Apple TV/Prime Video/broadcast premiere June 21 on Fuse)

Director Emily Branham brings us this intimate documentary charting 15 years in the life of drag performer Marshall Ngwa (aka BeBe Zahara Benet), who immigrated to America from the homophobic environment of his native Cameroon before becoming the first champion on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and launching a career as one the leading artists celebrating Black Queer Excellence today. It’s an up-close look at a performer whose emotional journey raises timely concerns at the intersection of LGBTQ, BIPOC, and immigrant lives today.

The Umbrella Academy, Season 3 (June 22, Netflix)

The popular comic-book-inspired fantasy drama series comes back for a much-anticipated third installment after leaving its titular collection of superhero siblings stranded in a strange timeline at the end of the last one. Hip and irreverent, this violent, decidedly adult superhero saga had a huge cult following even before Netflix brought it to the screen, and show creator Steve Blackman’s slick, stylish adaptation of it has spawned a whole new army of fans – many of them queer, thanks to the material’s inclusion of two queer characters among the leads and an “outsider” vibe that gives it a generally queer sensibility. This season will surely be essential viewing for LGBTQ viewers, since it marks the return of Elliot Page to the character he originated before transitioning, in a storyline carefully crafted by Blackman (who consulted with GLAAD and brought in writer Thomas Page McBee to consult, alongside Page himself) in which the character (formerly Vanya) transitions to become Viktor and begins using he/him pronouns – a historic moment in television, whether you’re a fan of superhero shows or not. Besides Page, the series stars Tom Hopper, David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, Aidan Gallagher, Justin H. Min, Colm Feore, Ritu Arya, and Justin Cornwell.

Where the Crawdads Sing (July 15, in theaters)

Though Delia Owens’ best-selling novel does not tell a specifically queer story, it has drawn many queer fans. That’s probably because its lead character Kya, an abandoned girl who raised herself to adulthood in the dangerous marshlands of North Carolina, is relegated to the status of “other” when she is drawn into the nearby town community by two young men – and it doesn’t help matters when one of them turns up dead. Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr., and David Strathairn, this screen adaptation was written by “Beasts of the Southern Wild” scribe Lucy Alibar and directed by Olivia Newman.

Anything’s Possible (July 22, Prime Video)

We may have thought we had seen all multi-hyphenate performer Billy Porter’s many talents, but we were wrong. The Tony- and Emmy-winning Porter makes his debut as a feature film director with this “delightfully modern” Gen Z coming-of-age story about a confident trans high school girl named Kelsa who is busily navigating her way through senior year when she discovers that a shy classmate has developed a crush on her. Written by Ximena García Lecuona, the story is described as “a romance that showcases the joy, tenderness, and pain of young love,” and it stars Eva Reign, Abubakr Ali, and Renée Elise Goldsberry. And in case you’re wondering, Porter does not appear, himself – though he is credited as Executive Music Producer alongside Justin Tranter, which is yet another reason to look forward to this one.

Uncoupled (July 29, Netflix)

Neil Patrick Harris returns to the sitcom milieu that has brought him fame in a sitcom so perfect for him it’s shocking nobody ever thought to make it before – but perhaps we had to wait for him to be the right age to play Michael, a 40-something gay man who thinks he has a picture perfect life until his husband blindsides him by walking out the door and away from their marriage after 17 years together. He’s now confronted with the nightmare scenario of being middle-aged, queer, and single in New York City – but when he starts to recognize the possibilities of living a single life, he decides to make the most of it. From “Emily in Paris” creator Darren Star and longtime “Modern Family” producer Jeffrey Richman, it looks to be a prime opportunity to enjoy Harris at his comedic best in a sharp, sexy, and very queer eight episodes of television.

They/Them (August 5, Peacock)

From horror cinema heavy-hitters Blumhouse Productions comes this queer fright flick (pronounced “they-slash-them”) described as a “queer empowerment story set at a gay conversion camp” and starring Kevin Bacon as a counselor hoping to help his “guests” find “a new sense of freedom” by shedding their queerness. Unfortunately, a mysterious killer starts claiming victims, and the campers must work together to protect themselves from more than just heteronormative programming. Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (also responsible for the beloved horror series “Penny Dreadful”) created, wrote, and directs, bringing his vision as an out gay man to a classic genre with surprisingly few queer entries. Kevin Bacon, Anna Chlumsky, Theo Germaine, Carrie Preston, Quei Tann, Austin Crute, Monique Kim, Anna Lore, Cooper Koch, and Darwin del Fabro star.

Besides all these, don’t forget we also have new seasons of queer-inclusive sitcoms “Rutherford Falls” (June 16, Peacock) and “What We Do in the Shadows” (July 12, FX), so there will be more than enough strong LGBTQ content to hold us over until the release of Billy Eichner’s hotly anticipated gay rom-com “Bros” in September – but you’ll have to wait until our Fall Preview issue to find out more about that.

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Margaret Cho on ‘Fire Island’ and the state of stand-up

‘We laughed every day’ making new film

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Margaret Cho returns to film in ‘Fire Island’ out June 3. (Photo by Mary Taylor)

Could there be an Emmy Award in Margaret Cho’s future? In Hulu’s “Fire Island”(premiering June 3), as well as on HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant,” Cho’s uncharacteristic restraint gives her queer characters, Erin and Utada respectively, an admirable depth and humanity. Additionally, Cho has an upcoming appearance on the Emmy Award-winning “Hacks”(as herself), and ongoing guest-starring roles in a multitude of popular shows. Never one to sit idle, Cho will be taking her stage act on the road throughout the coming months. Busy as she is, Margaret was gracious enough to make time to answer a few questions.

BLADE: Margaret, in the new movie “Fire Island,” you play Erin, who’s described by one of the characters as a “career brunch server, age unknown, lesbian queen.” What was it about Erin that spoke to you and made you want to portray her?

MARGARET CHO: I just love the script. I’m a big fan of Joel Kim Booster, and his comedy and his writing, and as a person. I wanted to be a part of the film. I love Andrew Ahn’s direction. I love Bowen (Yang). It was really special to do this. The “career brunch server” was so appealing. Everything about this character is a lot of fun, and so it was just perfect. We had a blast doing it.

BLADE: It looks that way! Erin is the wise lesbian housemother to her gaggle of younger gays. Is this an aspect of your personality that also transfers to your off-screen life?

CHO: Absolutely! The elder gay. The crone. It’s also the old lesbian who’s burned all of her bridges with the current lesbians her age and has to mine the younger generation for friendship. It’s very fun, it’s really cold, and it’s very realistic to me.

BLADE: What was the best part for you about acting with rising comic actors such as Bowen and Joel, whom you mentioned, as well as Matt Rogers?

CHO: We laughed every day. We had such a good time. Outside of my dressing room, every day, there were full-on reenactments of entire “Real Housewives” episodes. Full Tiffany Pollard monologues from “I Love New York.” It was like Shakespeare in the Park, but it was “Real Housewives” by the trailer. It was exciting. I just love those guys.

BLADE: Erin was able to afford to purchase the Fire Island house following winning a settlement involving a piece of glass and a major Italian chain restaurant. Do you think our current culture is more litigious than necessary?

CHO: I don’t know. I think the character is just really savvy and knows where to make an opportunity for herself. I think that’s really more it. I don’t know if it was necessarily because of the culture or the time or whatever. But I think that she’s just smart about doing what she can to get something.

BLADE: Was your first trip to Fire Island as a performer or as a vacationing guest?

CHO: Every trip I’ve made there was as a performer and then I stayed for vacation. So, I made it work and pleasure, both at the same time. I’ve been going there since 2008. I love spending time there and just hanging out. I’m actually more of a Provincetown lady. I’ve been going to Provincetown since the 1980s to work and perform and just hang out. These are very much important areas for me. It’s the gay beach life that I really love.

BLADE: You mentioned Andrew Ahn, the gay filmmaker who directed “Fire Island,” and he also directed the lauded 2019 film “Driveways.” Is he a director you could see yourself working with again?

CHO: Absolutely! I love Andrew. I think he’s quite an incredible director. Not only is he so great with actors…the way that he creates films is so visually stunning and they’re so emotionally rich. I really admire him and his vision as an auteur. I would love to work with him again.

BLADE: You were one of the performers in the line-up for the LGBTQ comedy show “Stand Out,” which was part of Netflix is a Joke: The Festival. Stand-up comedy has received increased attention with Jerrod Carmichael coming out as gay in his HBO Max comedy special “Rothaniel,” as well as the controversy surrounding Dave Chappelle’s Netflix comedy special. As a performer whose roots are in stand-up comedy, do you think there’s the possibility of healing?

CHO: Yes, I think so. We need to hear from LGBTQIA voices in comedy. I think that queer comedy has always been a part of the larger comedy world. We’ve always had a very strong presence within comedy. I see so many more of us participating and out there in this conversation. I was glad to be part of the festival and I’m so grateful to be part of the queer comedy community.

BLADE: Finally, I live in Fort Lauderdale, and I noticed that Florida is not on your tour schedule. I know that I’ve seen you perform in West Palm Beach, Miami, and, more recently, in Fort Lauderdale. With the political climate being what it is under the current governor, do you foresee performing here at any point in the near future?

CHO: Yes, definitely. I think it’s important to be out there. I was actually just there a few weeks ago, so. I think that we need to be constantly out there and we definitely need to be heard. Yes, I’m sure I’ll be returning again soon. 

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