2006 TIFF Update #3: "The Missing Thumb"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Saturday, September 9, 2006

Change happens gradually at a film festival. If you asked me today, I would say that Toronto (the festival, not necessarily the city) is pretty much the same this year as it was last year. Yet it's a lot different than it was in 1997, the first year I ventured here. Venues have changed, the festival has become bigger, and the level organization has increased dramatically. Yet there are many of the same faces. Often I don't know the names that go with those faces, and I only see the people once a year, but we nod and smile at one another like old friends, and exchange a few pleasantries will standing in line. This year, however, there is a noticeable absence.

I first met Roger Ebert in person here in 1997 after we had been exchanging e-mails for a number of months. In fact, he was the main reason I came to Toronto in the first place. He wrote that if I was interested in exploring world-class festivals, the only place I could do better than at Cannes was in Toronto. The day we met, we grabbed a bite to eat then walked the city streets for a while before heading to a screening of The Edge. I was amazed at how patient he was with those who interrupted our dinner or stopped him on the street wanting to take a picture or obtain an autograph. Every year since then, I have spent some time with Roger at the TIFF. He has always been easy to find and accessible. This year, however, his preferred seats are empty or occupied by someone else. It's impossible not to feel a twinge.

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that my hopes and prayers are with Roger for him to make a full recovery from the health problems that have stricken him. Experiences with both my grandmothers (now deceased) have taught me to be more empathetic than I might have been ten years ago. Roger is said to be in good spirits. If this is the case, then there's no better medicine. He has a strong constitution and if there's anyone who can beat this and return to full form, it's him. Nothing would gladden my heart more than to see him back in his regular seats again next year.

Of course, we all live on tightrope, and I am drawn to think about the fragility of life every year as we get close to September 11. I speak of returning to Toronto next year as if it is fait accompli. I'm sure Roger thought the same thing last year. It's not. We can plan things, but events, both good and bad, conspire against us. If, a year from now, I am experiencing financial difficulties, or am in the process of moving house, or am caring for a pregnant wife, Toronto will not be high on my list of things to-do. I love the festival, but it takes a second place to more important things. For me, movies enhance life, but are not necessary to it.

Everyone I know respects Roger, even if they don't agree with him. He has been a boon to the movie industry in ways that even he probably doesn't realize. Many of the younger film critics at Toronto are in their profession because of him. Others, like me, have seen him as a stabilizing force for decades. I recall watching Siskel & Ebert at age nine on PBS before going to a drive-in showing Star Wars. If Roger never writes another review - if he recovers and decides to remove himself from the public view and enjoy his family for the rest of what will hopefully be a long life - he will have left a larger and more lasting mark on film criticism that anyone before him, and perhaps anyone who will follow after. I don't mean for this to sound like a eulogy, because it's not. Every indication is that, after a lengthy period of rest and rehabilitation, Roger will be back to doing what he loves to do - reviewing movies. Instead, consider this an appreciation and an admission of my feelings every time I go into a Toronto screening and realize that one seat in particular will not be occupied by a familiar face.

On that note, I come to today's first movie - the controversial Shortbus. You can never tell about a film based on word-of-mouth. I talked to a few people about this film before seeing it, and there was no consensus. Some think it's a masterpiece (or nearly so). Others think it's an abomination. Such a division of opinion is expected when a filmmaker crosses the daring line of combining narrative with hard-core sex scenes. Although Shortbus doesn't work as porn (and I don't believe it's intended to), it also doesn't work as a serious drama. The storyline is juvenile and the characters reamain poorly developed and incomplete.

There are four main characters, and we're introduced to all of them in an opening scene that features urination in a bathtub, domination, sex toys, auto-fellatio, and hard-core heterosexual action (with penetration). There are two "money shots" and lots of positions. Technology plays a big part in these scenes and others. Cameras and camcorders abound. Nearly everything in the movie is either being photographed or recorded. This is probably intended to say something about society's penchant for voyerism, although if director John Cameron Mitchell Hedwig and the Angry Inch is trying to make a more specific point, he doesn't achieve it.

Sonia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a sex therapist/couples counselor who has never achieved an orgasm. For her, Shortbus becomes the quest for one, much like in dozens of porn films. Two of her clients are Jamie and James (P J DeBoy and Paul Dawson), a gay pair who are considering opening up their five-year old relationship to give it some spice. After all, as one of them remarks, "Monogamy is for straight people." The fourth participant in these proceedings is dominatrix Severin (Linday Beamish), who hides her real identity and loneliness behind a facade that includes whips and leather outfits. Her apartment overlooks the former World Trade Center site, which leads to the following question: When you're taking a picture at Ground Zero, do you smile?

The problem with Shortbus is that it is dramatically uninteresting and thinks it's more profound than it actually is. There are some promising moments early on, as when everyone sheds a tear of sadness after orgasming (or, in Sonia's case, not orgasming). However, Mitchell's big point is that sex does not necessarily equate with intimacy, and one can still be lonely despite having a constant bed-partner. This isn't exactly a surprising or interesting insight, and Shortbus doesn't do much with it besides state the obvious and belabor the point.

The title refers to an offbeat sex club where anything goes. A former mayor of New York spends his time there, philsophizing and looking for a kiss or two. The club is run by "drag lengend" Justin Bond. There are orgies, raunchy games of truth & dare, and all varieties of kinks and perversions. Mitchell does a good job of documenting the scene inside one of these places (where few Americans dare to tread), including showing that not all naked people are pretty to look at. However, this would be better suited to a documentary than a narrative project. The movie also contains a good portion of humor, which to an extent defuses its ponderous and self-important tone (this becomes almost unbearable during the climax). Most memorable is a gay threesome that includes the most hilarious and off-color rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" ever likely to be committed to celluloid.

The acting is a cut above what it is in porn movies, but no one in Shortbus is going to receive an Oscar nomination. Sook-Yin Lee is the best of an adequate bunch - there are times when we care about her character despite the writing deficiencies. There isn't anything she doesn't do for the sake of her art. She is shown graphically masturbating, engaging in heterosexual and lesbian sex, and showing pretty much everything to the camera. The rest of the cast tends to be either stiff or over-the-top.

Mitchell has stated that his goal with Shortbus was to make a serious film that incorporated hardcore material. To an extent, he has done that. The problem is that it's not a good movie. The single unique characteristic of Shortbus and the reason it is receiving praise as being edgy and groundbreaking is because there's a lot of graphic sex and none of it is erotic or arousing. On the other hand, delete the sex scenes and you're left with a limp, arty misfire of a movie that has too little of interest to say.

Moving away from the covert world of New York sex clubs, let's shift the time period back a half-century and look at the other end of the social spectrum: Manhattan's high society. This is the world occupied by Truman Capote, although one could make an argument that Capote would have been more at home in the Shortbus club than anywhere else.

Another year, another movie about the late, great American writer. However, despite covering much the same ground as last year's Capote, Douglas McGrath's Infamous doesn't feel like a remake. The events are the same, but the tone and perspective are different. Capote is at times cool and antiseptic, but Infamous is warmer and more emotionally satisfying. The deep-rooted cynicism that characterizes Capote isn't missing here, but it has been muted. It's fair to argue that, while Capote may have the better lead acting performance, Infamous may be a slightly better motion picture overall.

In the autumn of 1959, Truman Capote (Toby Jones) reads a newspaper article about a quadruple murder on a Kansas farm. Intrigued and thinking it might make a good topic for a magazine article or a non-fiction novel, he enlists his good friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), to accompany him on the journey to Kansas. Once there, he contents with a dour prosecutor, Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels), who initially rebuffs Capote's request for "special access" until the eccentric New Yorker regales him with stories of his interaction with Humphrey Bogart and John Huston.

Once the killers, Perry Smith (Daniel Craig) and Dick Hickock (Lee Pace), are found, Capote visits them in jail. It takes little effort for the author to coax Hickcock into talking, but the more intellectual Smith is reticent. Eventually, he and Capote bond, and this leads to an unconsummated love affair. Following the execution of Smith and Hickcock, Capote has an ending to his book, In Cold Blood. Its publication represents both Capote's triumph and his ruin. He will never complete another novel and, although he will live until 1984, the final two decades of his life will be unhappy ones.

Infamous illustrates how Capote becomes caught in his own trap. In order for his book to have the balance that will make it unique, Smith's viewpoint has to be represented. To get that, Capote must give the convict what Lee describes as "what he wants" - a kindred spirit. To do that, Capote opens up to Smith. He achieves what he desires, but at a price. He comes to care deeply for Smith, to the point where they both wonder if they are doomed soul mates. In the end, Capote becomes deeply conflicted. For his book to have the "proper" ending, the man he loves must die by the hangman's noose.

Since Capote and Infamous were in production at the same time, it's unfair to label either as the work of a copycat. Superficially, they are so similar, it's almost eerie (and a testament to how fascinating this era of Capote's life is for current filmmakers). It's the difference in approach that makes both movies worth watching on their own terms. Capote is the more intellectual of the two films; Infamous is more emotional. They exist to complement, not eclipse, one another.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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