Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why I Love Shortbus

I can count off on one hand the movies that I don’t just love but credit with changing the way I look at my life:

Word Is Out, the 1977 documentary that assured me there were any number of ways to be gay in the world, most of them interesting, many of them desirable;

Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, which helped me find the courage to walk away from spiritual abuse at the hands of a dogmatic, life-denying religious hierarchy;

Babette’s Feast, which goes on reminding me that the only way to find the deepest joy is to give joy lavishly away;

And Shortbus : John Cameron Mitchell’s sexy, sad, funny, compassionate vision of a queer utopia, set in and around a Brooklyn salon/sex club hosted by the outrageous and divine Mx. Justin Vivian Bond (then still pre-Mx. and pre-Vivian).

When the movie came out in 2006, I was raw from a long, obsessive breakup with plenty of confusion, grief, anger, and blame to go around. Mitchell’s film showed me people trying hard, fucking up, struggling against shame, longing to connect, fleeing from connection, hurting those they loved, forgiving themselves and each other. I found myself in more or less every scene.

I had a chance this weekend to take part in a conversation about the movie with twenty other gay men--some of us newcomers to the film, some fanatic fans for the six years since it came out. At the end of the evening, one man who came observed that if the leader had screened the end of the film as one of the clips to prompt discussion, he would likely have cried through it, as he had before. I expect I would have too.

In candlelight during a blackout, Mx. Bond sings "In the End," more or less summing up the vision of the film. Songwriter Scott Matthew's lyrics are anything but upbeat: "We all bear the scars," they begin. "We all feign a life." But it's the tenderness and affection that Bond brings to the song, and that Mitchell and his cinematographer bring to the shooting and editing of the scene, that convey what matters here: that the participants in this "salon for the gifted and challenged" have touched what a Buddhist teacher like Pema Chödrön would call "the genuine sadness at the heart of things": bodhichitta.

This is the realization that our lives are infinitely precious because they are infinitely vulnerable. The end of the song erupts, with the incursion of a marching band--I'm not making this up--into a riot of musical and erotic carousal. In the end, the characters celebrate their humanity not despite but in and through their flaws. They find community, but only because they accept the aloneness that we can't overcome.

Some less than appreciative responses to the film, including Bruce Diones' snyde notice for The New Yorker, objected to the utopianism of the final scene. But the inbreaking of what isn't expected and can't be foreseen, until we let go of our attachment to the illusion of perfection, is the whole point. "I never saw that one coming," Bond observes through a bullhorn in the last line of the film. "You never know what's gonna happen in this neighborhood."

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