In ``Shortbus," the impish writer-director John Cameron Mitchell does the unthinkable: He puts the joy back in movie sex.
We live in a world where the pornification of popular culture is nearly complete -- where the satisfaction of every kink is an Internet click away and where a celebrity isn't really a celebrity unless an unauthorized sex tape is in circulation. We're a society of licentious prudes who freak out over a bared breast on the Super Bowl while stocking up on ``Barely Legal" DVDs. The result is a nation obsessed with sex as plumbing, with the mechanics of carnality divorced from the soul-nourishing pleasures of desire.
A handful of recent movies have tried to jump-start audiences out of this predicament, placing unsimulated sex in a ``real movie" context. Michael Winterbottom's ``9 Songs" insisted its characters were their sex lives, leaving us high and dry. The omnibus film ``Destricted" -- a festival favorite that has a U S distributor but no release plans at this time -- lets several directors try to find the place where art meets porn, with varying results.
With ``Shortbus," Mitchell (``Hedwig and the Angry Inch") reminds us that sex is what people do, especially when they're trying to connect with other people -- with anything beyond the imprisonment of their own skins. The many characters who wander through this playful, heartfelt dramatic comedy are seeking contact, and they know the micro of physical release is related to the macro of shared human experience -- if only they could connect the dots. They treat sex the way we do in our lives as opposed to in our browsers: with yearning, guilt, humor, delight, horniness, shallowness, profundity. They just do it where we can see it.
Fine; if you have a problem with that, stay away. (The film is being released unrated, but it's easily the equivalent of an NC-17.) Mitchell frontloads ``Shortbus" with sex scenes, as if to give the pervs and the bluenoses what they crave before moving on to the business at hand. This is also his way of introducing us to his characters: Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm (despite a healthy sex life with boyfriend Raphael Barker); James (Paul Dawson), a glum auto-fellatio expert who's videotaping what may be a suicide note; his worried lover Jamie (PJ DeBoy); a dominatrix named Severin (Lindsay Beamish) who services everyone's needs but her own; a neatly pressed voyeur (Peter Stickles); an angelic gay innocent (Jay Brannan).
We're in Manhattan, obviously, that land where self-invention, self-absorption, and self-pleasure are forever entwined. Mitchell posits post-9/11 New York as a twinkly wonderland on the verge of burnout: His camera swoops over an immense dollhouse replica of the island, peeking into this window and that. Lights flicker constantly, as though the wiring holding everyone together had become irreparably frayed.
Eventually the characters converge on the sex club/cultural salon of the title, a cheerfully transgressive dive where anything goes and where the talk is as impassioned as the action in the back rooms. The presiding Madame is played by Justin Bond (known to fans of deranged cabaret as Kiki of Kiki and Herb ), whose cynicism is leavened with sympathy and an enduring, pan-sexual curiosity.
The sex therapist wonders whether she even needs an orgasm and is immediately advised by busybodies of all genders. The innocent befriends an aging man who says he was the mayor of New York in the 1980s and who agonizes over the AIDS crisis that pushed him further into the closet. Sadness and a sense of missed chances hang in the air -- ``It's like the ' 60s, only with less hope," observes Bond -- but so does an embattled wit that results in the most blissfully obscene rendition of the national anthem ever committed to film. These people are holding on to the edge of America, and to each other, by their fingernails.
``Shortbus" has a messy, let's-put-on-a-show vibe that both invigorates it and keeps it from greatness. The actors are amateurs, and for good and ill their naivete shows. The emotional dilemmas are naked in every sense , and the talk turns earnest and sodden at times, the way parties do around 3 in the morning. Yet the score by indie-rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo girds the film with a dreamy loveliness that sends you out on a cloud, and Mitchell builds to a climax (you should pardon the expression) that hardwires the whole thing together.
Above all, he reclaims sex -- filming it, watching it, talking about it, doing it -- as something both deeply funny and transcendently human: a revolving door that leads to the senses and to the heart. ``Shortbus" is a very dirty movie that can make you feel oddly clean.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.