Everybody Cum! Good Sex in Shortbus, Bad Africa in Last King of Scotland
By Fernando F. Croce

In addition to supplying those hideous green screens before trailers, the MPAA skunks are, at least as posited by the muckraking of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, constantly sweating about sex on the American screen -- as if more proof of the lunacy were needed, just check out the PG-13 that The Marine's tidy bulletfests got versus the no-rating of the life-affirming sex in Shortbus. Not that John Cameron Mitchell's pansexual romp doesn't earn its Xs. The camera leaps off the top of a paper mâché Statue of Liberty to zip through a New York City maquette, pausing to peep into windows and introduce each character in a spotlight of sexual slapstick: Paul Dawson's difficulty sucking his own dick, Sook-Yin Lee's pounding acrobatics on a piano with her hubby, Lindsay Beamish's dominatrix session with a rich twerp who insists on yakking during the whipping ("Do you think we should get out of Iraq?"). That the sex is real is no breakthrough, for Chéreau, Breillat, Gallo, and Winterbottom, among others, got there first; yet this is the first time I remember seeing hardcore fucking in a mainstream work portrayed as joyous. Or is it that simple? Following the crescendo of climaxes... sadness. Dawson, who got his inspiration for hustling from My Own Private Idaho, tries comforting a vague but potent unhappiness with his lookalike beau (Paul DeBoy) by bringing a third party (Jay Brannan) into the relationship; Chinese-Canadian therapist Lee has never had an orgasm; and Beamish, for all the clomping boots and shaved-eyebrow snark, just "wanna, like, have a house... and a cat."

That's Shortbus, and, indeed, Mitchell's previous Hedwig and the Angry Inch: human vulnerability underneath blithely transgressive snap. The title refers to the anything-goes Brooklyn club ("for the gifted and challenged") where the gender-blurring emcee (Justin Bond) holds court over arty films and group gropes, and where all the characters mingle in a raunchy roundelay. When it sticks to omnivorous sexuality, the movie is a whirling comedy -- Mitchell works, Renoir-style, with the cast to add curves to the characters, and, Warhol-style, peoples the corners of the narrative with amiably depraved East Village kooks playing themselves. It's only when he strains to fuse it all into a post-9/11 statement that the airiness of the DV-photography congeals into triteness; the melancholic undertone (the brown-outs of the illuminating sexual force) is very thin when compared to the toughness of Araki's Mysterious Skin. Yet the messiness remains inseparable from the generosity, and in the end part of the director's view of art as emotional projects, be they a mosaic of snapshots, a video suicide-note, cum going splat! on a Pollock canvas, relationships, an orgasm. In that sense, this flimsy, uneven and genuinely enlivening film has the exact opposite effect from the numbness experienced in so much of today's porn, with its cultivated breach between sex and emotion. When "The Star-Spangled Banner" is playfully sung into someone's asshole in the middle of the Dawson-DeBoy-Brannan suckoff, it's a hopeful reversal of the tragic climax of The Doom Generation, just as the ending, with Bond warbling "We All Get It in the End," turns around Allison Anders' wry comment in This Film Is Not Yet Rated: "Nobody gets to cum."

*

In The Last King of Scotland, young Scottish doctor Nicholas (James McAvoy) decides where to head for excitement by closing his eyes and plunking his finger on a spinning globe -- Uganda is the chosen spot, no surprise since Africa, after Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener, is still earmarked as contemporary cinema's main pit stop for white liberal guilt and neocolonial pillaging. The smug lil' bugger sets up camp at a local mission, but he's less interested in caring for the poor and sick than trying to bang the married medic (Gillian Anderson) tutoring him; since the year is 1971, the nation is under the control of President Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), who over the course of his eight-year regime would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but emerges as a pretty fun fella when Nicholas goes to fix his sprained hand. Amin has pool parties and rock-star revelries, Nicholas has the Scottish blood that in the dictator's mind links them as buds against British imperialism, and in no time the scrawny youngster has been catapulted into Amin's orbit, enjoying new cars and women as his "closest adviser." But the ruler's chamber is filled with stuffed predators with bared fangs, so you know it's not long for psychotic cracks to appear in Amin's gaseous, prank-pulling ebullience -- people in whom he sees betrayal have a tendency to end up in pieces on underground slabs, which worries Nicholas, especially since he's been sleeping with one of the dictator's many wives (Kerry Washington).

Like Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland operates on continuous anxiety, though it lacks even that picture's basic decency to view a country's upheavals through African eyes -- as in Cry Freedom, A Dry White Season and The Constant Gardener, the filmmakers are too scared or racist to think that viewers could identify with the black people directly experiencing the horrors, so a pasty stand-in, no matter how unlikable, has to be offensively parachuted in. With a sinister monarch swaying the crowds and galvanizing everybody around him, the film also brings to mind the recent, stilted All the King's Men remake, where another actor sweated through a dozen shirts for Oscar recognition. Where Sean Penn suggested an apoplectic parade float, Whitaker turns into a swollen tiger, dropping in hints of the humanizing gentleness of Ghost Dog and The Shield before embodying the blowfish-boogeyman of Nicholas's "aberration of nature" diagnosis -- his Amin is a deranged buffoon writ large, and at one point, as he fills the screen inspecting a miniature building, the connection to Godzilla (or, considering the film's racism, King Kong) is inescapable. In fact, director Kevin Macdonald is very fond of looming closeups of faces and mosquitoes and buzzards, all of them dripping with sweat and cut together with high-pressure editing; shifting the colors from orange-toned light to fragmented darks means to mirror the main character's growing awareness, though it all comes out splotchy anyway. African doctors turn sacrificial lambs to get the truth about Uganda into the world, but by then the picture's disinterest in anybody besides the pale hero has long aligned it with the forces of oppression. No wonder critics love it.

*

I knew I liked Infamous better than Capote as soon as the gnomish writer (here played by Toby Jones) found himself unexpectedly moved by Gwyneth Paltrow's slick-then-raw nightclub rendition of "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Doug McGrath's gabbier film spells out what Bennett Miller's earlier picture hinted at ("at what cost" art, Capote's relationship with death-row inmate Perry Smith, the Faustian effect of In Cold Blood), yet it's a warmer, more emotional work than the arid 2005 hit. A funnier movie, as well, just as McGrath emphasized Dickens' humor in Nicholas Nickleby; in fact, from the trailer I had deduced that the latest Scary Movie installment was already in the can. Jones' Capote, sleekly froggy and cutting, isn't a spoof, but a performance of impish humor, manipulation and vulnerability, using scarves like wings as the bubbly mood darkens and the character suddenly falls prey to emotion -- a fuller portrayal than Philip Seymour Hoffman's pedantic brooder. Capote leaves you gasping for air, Infamous sparkles in the perilous no-man's-land bridging comedy and tragedy.


Reviewed October 19, 2006.

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