Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Shortbus at Světozor

Jesse and I had been meaning to get to some of the offerings at this year’s Mezipatro festival. As usually happens to us with film festivals, we almost failed to get to anything at all. I never even got around to looking at the schedule, which was particularly bad of me. However, Jesse did have plans to come to Prague and interview a couple of musicians, and this resulted in our going, with Ilya, to Shortbus, the last film of the festival. (We tried to persuade Hubert to join us, but he was not in the mood. I believe he wanted to stay home and watch Superstar, of which he is a great devotee.)
Before hopping on the bus, Jesse sent a link so that I could read about the film. It sounded sufficiently intriguing, especially considering that the last films I had managed to see were about Central Asian music. I figured that anything with a tagline like “Voyeurism is participation” ought to be at least moderately entertaining, whether or not it proved to be any good.
Since it is so easy to confuse oneself over whether something is at 17:30 or 7:30, I arrived at Světozor shortly before 17:30, where I encountered a vast crowd that included Andrea of the Fulbright office. Since Ilya was supposed to have gotten our tickets in advance (Prague premiere), I stood around chatting with Andrea and wondering where Ilya and Jesse were. Of course, as it turned out, Andrea was there for the 17:30 film while the Shortbus premiere was at 7:30. (Life would be easier if the 24-hour clock were used consistently, or not at all, rather than merely frequently.)
The crowd for the Shortbus premiere was enormous. I’m not sure whether this was due to good press for the film (Jesse tells me that there is much written on the Web) or to the fact that the director was to be there. When we finally made our way into Světozor’s large hall, I was sure that they had oversold the seats and that we would have to sit on the floor. Fortunately, Ilya spotted three empty seats which were actually contiguous and not directly behind anyone with massive dreadlocks or other barriers to sight. We were mildly puzzled, however, to see a black couch onstage with a woman seated in its center. We knew that there was to be a short film first, but the woman on the couch did not look as if she were impersonating a short film.
The house lights went down, the spotlight went up. Two (mostly) naked couples entered and planted themselves on either side of the woman on the couch, who looked disconcerted and began to talk earnestly about the festival. After about twenty minutes of talk about the festival and its donors and supporters, the female member of the couple on the left was still partly, if minimally, clothed and everyone’s attention was, I assume, fixed on the rather more energetic pair on the right. The announcer had abandoned the couch and presented prizes to several directors, all of whom were doubtless wondering how long the two couples would remain on opposite ends of the couch. They were illumined by a spot of an abstract film that suggested to me something you might see under an electron microscope, and which made them appear to be heavily tattooed. No doubt they actually did have tattoos, but they could not have had as many tattoos as it appeared or I would have noticed when they first entered. It was a remarkable performance and entertained the audience greatly.
The subsequent animated short film was amusing and lighthearted, and reminded me that one of these days I would like to learn computer animation so that I can come up with strange films of my own. I have had one project in mind for some time now, which was inspired by a conference panel I was on with my friend Annie. Annie’s paper was on Sorb nationalist art, so it had lots of images of imposing Slavic gods; mine was on Toyen and gender boundaries; and the third paper was on Austro-Hungarian postal representations of Balkan peasants. I think that an animated film involving Slavic deities, Czech surrealist erotica, and Balkan peasants could be quite humorous, especially with the right music. The animated film that we saw was enlivened by portions of Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals.” (Of course, my imagined film might also make viewers wonder whether they had taken the wrong drugs.)
At long last, Shortbus was shown. I must confess that I prefer its working title of “The Sex Film Project,” as apparently I am the only person alive who had to have the title explained. It does get explained in the film, but I never imagined that anyone who hadn’t seen the film would grasp it. However, both Shawn and Štěpanka immediately connected short buses with children who have to go to special schools. It’s true that when I was in grade school there was a short bus for that purpose, but it never occurred to me that this was a universal practice. I’m surprised enough that I even knew of the bus in the first place.
In any case, the characters in the film are not exactly candidates for a short bus. They are not mainstream Americans, but you could hardly argue that they are defective or disabled in any of the ways that get one put on a short schoolbus. Each character has some sort of quirk or problem, and they all end up going to a New York sex club (“salon,” according to the director, since it is not a commercial enterprise) called Shortbus.
Without going into detail about the various characters and their difficulties, which perhaps Jesse will do, I will say that so long as the viewer is not offended by the basic premise and by scenes that have doubtless gotten the film an X rating in the US, one is likely to find this a funny, sad, and enchanting tale. While it occasionally involved some suspension of disbelief (how does Caleb the voyeur afford his apartment on a proofreader’s pay? How do any of the characters, especially Sophie and Rob, afford their apartments?), one is rapidly drawn in to the stories of Sophie and Rob, Jamie and James, and the people they get to know at the club. This movie was first cast and then written collaboratively, and this collaboration shows. The characters come across as very real people with believable situations and developments. There’s an element of caricature at times, but who hasn’t seen real people lapse into that? Sophie’s lines as a couples counselor are parodic, but a lot of therapists talk that way. We laugh at the way she talks, but we sympathize with her situation and want her to succeed in her quest.
While I had no particular expectations of this film beyond that it might prove amusing, all three of us were pleasantly surprised at how much we liked it. Despite some grim developments, ultimately the film comes to a happy end and, while we know that the characters haven’t solved all their problems, there’s that satisfying feeling that at least for the moment everyone has come to a moment of shared happiness and contentment. The film gives plenty to think about on a variety of levels, and for at least awhile we get to share its fantasy of companionable acceptance.


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