Last year John Cameron Mitchell, the director of a flawed, 2001 adaptation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, made a controversial film called Shortbus, and yes, controversial is the modifier that the filmmaker and friends spent balloonfuls of hot air renouncing for the plain purpose of getting it appended to every note and review. You can't hold that against them, though. That's the way you market the arts. The controversy, such as it was, around Shortbus was its use of, or indulgence in, explicit, unsimulated sex. Unsimulated is another word that deserves some scrutiny for its over-appearance in ad copy. Sure, cocks go into pussies--and so on and so forth down (or up) the ladder of sexual ordinariness--but that's hardly germane to judgments about authenticity or simulation. Is regular, old-fashion, moan-and-squeal porn "simulated"? If so, then?
For so controversial a film, Shortbus hits every major and minor chord of so-called independent film, from the semi-improvisory nature of its script to the persistence of the Wise Drag Queen. All small-town gay boys discover sex through hustling and move to the city. Asian chicks have trouble with orgasms, played for both laughs and tears. Melancholy indie-rock peppers the soundtrack. There is a dream sequence. There are brownouts and, at last, the big Eastern blackout, mysteriously corresponding to moments of high emotional drama. There's AIDS, of course, and some intimations of 9/11, and suicide, and a whole lot of sadness. It's the sadness that really gets me.
It says something about our art that everyone is so fucking sad. It's prevalent in "serious" film, and prevalent in contemporary poetry, and certainly abundant in current fiction. It's a vast, insatiable sadness--directionless, sourceless, a state of nature, practically. Of course, I'm happy to admit sadness to the pantheon of human emotion, and it has its place in art--a great, important, respectable, remarkable place. But Robert Pinsky, a poet of whom I'm no especial fan, once wrote something very wise about "Sadness and Happiness" in his long-ish poem of that name:
That they have no earthly measureWhich is, I think, a sentiment that escapes John Cameron Mitchell and his ex-gay-hustler, HIV-infected, post-9/11, "happiness stops at my skin," suicidal, filmmaking main character; or his anorgasmic, sex-therapist, father-suffocated, mother-abused, husband-despising, spiritually-empty main charachter; or any of his characters, who exist in a disturbingly gleeful realm of malcontented, passive, anomic paralysis--gleeful to the auteur of that environment, who delights in abusing his thinly-drawn characters because Abuse is true, until at last the cute Chinese girl gets her big O, the lights go back on in Manhattan, and we go spinning up into space to the tunes of Yo La Tenga, without the slightest ironical nod to the fact that this very same psychiatrical character was the one who, in a hastily executed therapy scene early in the film, berated one half of a queer couple for his indulgence in false epiphany. Ummm-hah, as Myron Cope used to say.
is well known--the surprise is
how often it becomes impossible
to tell one from the other in memory . . .
I suppose it's possible that New York really is a repository for whiners, though my not-insubstantial experience with that city is that its residents are made of hardier material, and not just on the outside. Personally, I live in Pittsburgh, and count among my friends in these here provinces plenty of assorted fags, dykes, misfits, miscreants, and hopeful artists, and it's my experience that even the whackos living intentionally hardscrabble in squats in the ghetto have more fortitude and a greater capacity for joy than all these loft-living complainers. All of this is to say that pathos and bathos are separated by a lot more than a single consonant.