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Bus to New York 

The controversial film Shortbus is the latest to utilize New York as a character rather than a backdrop, says Tara Thorne.

If you stick the words “New York” into the Internet Movie Database’s search engine, you get 6,025 results (the first one it spits out at you, disappointingly, is Friends). If you modify New York with “City” you’ll get 8,495 results. More than 8,000 films, television shows and video games either set, shot in or featuring New York in some way.

It’s one of those cities—try to think of another one. Paris, maybe—whose imagery is so ingrained in us as a result of our entertainment consumption that when we go there for the first time it’s like walking onto a studio lot. There’s the flash of Times Square, the rink at Rockefeller, the Statue of Liberty.

This perspective, however, is generally not the one delivered by natives, any more than Haligonians make movies about romance between Citadel Hill guards. We’ve all seen a Woody Allen film (and an Edward Burns film, probably. Unfortunately). Nora Ephron put Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan at the top of the Empire State Building at the end of Sleepless in Seattle, an old-school romantic comedy, let’s remember, but in between she had them missing each other on city streets, in the airport, in their movie-sized fabulous New York apartments (she applied a similar tableau, and the same stars, to the lesser You’ve Got Mail a few years later). In Working Girl, Mike Nichols stuck us in the smoky, Aqua-Netted bathroom of the Staten Island Ferry amongst big-haired secretaries wearing white sneakers over their pantyhose. Helen Hunt’s character did the sneaker thing in the NYC-set Mad About You as well. And there are at least 8,490 other examples.

The 2001 comedy Kissing Jessica Stein is one of the best recent examples of a relationship comedy set in New York. Written by and starring Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, it’s about a neurotic journalist who can’t find a man and decides to try a woman. There are lots of discussions about making it “out there” in the rough NYC dating world, plenty of street-level scenes and taxicab phone calls, jogs along the Hudson and a dramatic, upper-class Jewish mother. It makes you feel like these people actually live in New York, rather than that they just set themselves near famous landmarks to deliver monologues and then caught planes back to LA.

John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus is the latest film to spin its story against a New York backdrop, but this isn’t like any Big Apple you’ve seen before. It features a gorgeous CGI model version of the city, which acts as a conduit to get us from story to story, mood to mood, act to act. Its central set piece is the titular Shortbus, based on a real monthly event Mitchell himself used to host, where New Yorkers of all stripes come to watch and participate in every sex act under the sun. “New York,” says a character Mitchell won’t say is based on former mayor Ed Koch, “is where everyone comes to be forgiven.”

In Shortbus, the movie, people film each other across alleyways, have life discussions in sensory depravation tanks, participate in affirming singalongs in sketchy warehouses. The characters are gay and straight, variously depressed and hopeless, struggling for identity and purpose and art and connection. They try to find it all through sex, but that method fails most of them—until they talk to each other, they don’t change. And the point of Shortbus, the party, is less about a sex buffet than it is about opening oneself to the possibility of everything in life, allowing for salvation to appear in the most unlikely form and being able to accept the result in the harsh light of day, outside of the safety of the party’s cocoon.

Shortbus is about bravery, on many fronts. In its story. In its actors’ openness (you may have heard about the real sex). In Mitchell’s casting—a roster of unknowns results in uneven performances that border on bad sometimes, yet he manages to keep it all on track. And in its setting, a jittery, confused New York just after 9/11, where forgiveness was not being encouraged, but offered just the same.

Shortbus is playing now. See movie times for info

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