The 2006 Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival opens with John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, a sweet, raunchy, expressionistic love letter to New York City. "It's one of the few places where people are still willing to bend over to let in the new," says one of the characters. In swooping exterior shots, which Mitchell uses to get us from one scene to the next, Manhattan looks like a ceramic village, its windows like glowing lozenges, the Hudson and East Rivers like blue frosting, although the cartoonish landscape is marked by that certain tragedy you can't not think of when you think of New York City: the footprints of the former World Trade Center, two whorls in the gummy earth. I'm not sure exactly what Mitchell is getting at—and the end of the movie makes me unsure if Mitchell himself is clear what he's getting at—but the movie's prevailing theme is the relationship between interiors and exteriors, and it's filled with characters stuck somewhere in the middle.
By "interiors," what I mean is "people's sex lives." Within the first minutes of Shortbus, there is: a guy playing with his soft penis in a bathtub; a straight couple having very aerobic sex on a piano (duuh, daah, dee!); a woman in bondage accoutrements flogging and pegging a guy who won't stop asking questions (he says, "If you had a superpower, what would it be?" and she replies, as she thwacks his ass, "The power to make you interesting!"); and the guy from the bathtub going out into his living room, lying on his back, lifting his legs above his head, and ejaculating into his own mouth. By putting all this stuff within the opening shots of the movie, Mitchell is saying: Look, I'm going to show you a bunch of stuff a lot of people do that you never see. The people who can't deal with a guy coming in his own mouth should get up and leave, because later there's a scene in which a guy sings our national anthem into another guy's ass while rimming him. The guy getting rimmed is singing along, pretending that a third guy's dick is a microphone.
Shortbus takes its title from the name of a sybaritic underground salon where all of the characters converge—including the aforementioned national-anthem singers, the aforementioned woman in bondage accoutrements, and a sex therapist who's never had an orgasm in spite of how much she loves her husband. The salon is presided over by a wry ringleader in semi-drag named Justin Bond, who is a real person, playing himself. (He's best known as Kiki of the infamous lounge act Kiki & Herb.) Bond looks into a room where a huge orgy is taking place, men and women all jumbled together, and explains to a newcomer: "It's just like the '60s, only with less hope."
It's wonderful news for the audience that Mitchell's brilliance for one-liners remains undiminished since Hedwig and the Angry Inch, although I was sort of hoping the movie would end with, well, no hope. What actually comes about is a serious case of it-will-all-be-okay, live-every-day-to-the-fullest warmness. It's as if Mitchell invited the cast of Rent to decide how this thing should end. Come to think of it, there are a lot of things Shortbus has in common with Rent: New York City, gay people, power outages, candles, a guy who's constantly looking through the lens of his video camera, and a drag queen as the numinous center who reminds everyone to love themselves and one another and so on. But the power outage is not just symbolism. The power really did go out not too long ago in New York. And the guys who play lovers in the movie are, as far as I understand, lovers in real life. And Justin Bond really does occupy a position of influence in New York's avant garde. Mitchell's movie pretends to be unreal, but its unrealness is just makeup and lights. At its center it's practically journalism. It's the most original portrait of New York City that I've seen in a long time.
Elsewhere in the festival, I can't recommend much. If you are crazy for Hedwig, there is a not-terrible documentary that intersperses the story of the recording of a Hedwig tribute album (with Sleater-Kinney, Rufus Wainwright, and others) with interviews of gay teenagers who've been through rough stuff. If you're simply crazy for blond wigs, there's a movie about Dolly Parton fans called For the Love of Dolly, which will make you ashamed to be a human being. And there is a Kiki & Herb movie called Kiki & Herb Reloaded that does them no justice whatsoever and isn't funny in the least. For a full festival schedule, visit firstname.lastname@example.org