Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a favorite of mine because I love the way Hedwig defeats sadness; she forges for herself a cartoonish superhero alter-ego who is tart, funny, and sexy, and who refuses to let life get the best of her. She also writes and performs kick-ass rock music. Watching the film one is continuously reminded that Hedwig's life is terribly sad, but everybody knows Hedwig has an indomitable strength of will, and that her powerful persona will ensure she'll always be ok.
Now John Cameron Mitchell has a new film, and I fought my way through an enormous throng of Borat patrons to catch the Shortbus matinee today at The Charles. It's pretty potent stuff, thematically related to Hedwig but much darker. Whereas Hedwig creates a cartoonish persona to combat a painfully real world, the characters in Shortbus are real people who inhabit a cartoonish NYC, rendered by Mitchell as a sort of quaintly ironic Mr. Roger's Neighborhood model. The camera moves around the adorable model buildings and in through the windows where people suffer the most miserable afflictions, and suffer them in terrible isolation despite the presence of friends and lovers and spouses and 10 million other people in similar circumstances. There's a lot of un-simulated fucking, much of it sexy and funny and sad. There are bodily fluids shooting through the air and the camera is unafraid of any het/homo/dom/tranny combo you can imagine. A sex therapist unable to have orgasms, a gay man in a wonderful relationship who is planning his suicide, a dominatrix with severe emotional issues--these are the sorts of people who end up at Shortbus, a kind of sex-club for the emotionally amiss. The film ends with the possibility of rescue for its main characters, but unlike in Hedwig I wasn't at all sure any of them would be ok after the credits began rolling. As a result, Shortbus made me exquisitely sad. There are awkward moments, but a film which relied on a collaborative process between the writer/director and his performers--and one which takes enormous risks to boot--will of course suffer some of these. They're not common. The leads are all believable and achieve believable people and believable fucking. I'd recommend it with the inevitable caveat that you can't be squeamish about frank portrayals of sex.
There are a couple good musical numbers, including the most rousing rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner I've ever seen on film.