Pressing the flesh

Explicit 'Shortbus' tests mainstream limits

Has porn gone mainstream?

In the past, sexually explicit pics ranging from “Last Tango in Paris” to “The Brown Bunny” and the doc “Inside Deep Throat” have gotten only very narrow releases in the U.S., and they’ve stirred both critical angst and public outcry.

But “Shortbus,” which Variety’s Todd McCarthy described in his review as “the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry,” is drawing attention for the attention it’s not getting. It’s been quietly embraced by mainstream exhibs and so far escaped controversy.

Pic – which explores various New Yorkers’ sex lives and depicts graphic homosexual group sex as well as images of a man contort-ing to orally finish the job after he begins mastur-bating – bowed in limited release Oct. 5.

It’s booked in a healthy 78 engagements and is even getting a run on arthouse screens from the nation’s largest exhib chain, Regal, owned by Denver billionaire conservative Philip Anschutz. Regal accepted the pic on screens that are not in multiplexes.

The acceptance by exhibs may have surprised even distrib ThinkFilm, which has studiously steered its promotion of the pic away from the film’s salacious aspects and deliberately sought bookings at theaters where auds might be receptive.

“We can’t be needlessly provocative,” says Think distrib head Mark Urman of the distrib’s choice to keep the pic out of circles that could cause controversy. “We have only screened it in an embracing climate.”

Even at Toronto, where the film debuted last month, helmer-scribe John Cameron Mitchell downplayed the sex, emphasizing instead the pic’s character insights.

“We’re not pointing up anything salacious,” Mitchell said at the fest. “We’re not trying to say this is a hot movie.”

The film’s trailer is more matter-of-fact than tantalizing. Mitchell appears throughout and talks about the film, documentary-style. Even its poster has a good-clean-fun vibe more along the lines of an ensemble dating pic; it features the characters flopping on a bed, mostly clothed.

So far, the softer-side campaign seems to be working.

Most reviews have made a point of noting that the film’s depictions of sex are seamlessly integrated and not exploitative. The New York Times called the film “an ode to the joy and sweet release of sex.” The film has tallied a 70% favorable rating on critics’ complilation site Rottentomatoes.com.

Urman says he expects the pic to expand past 100 prints, and that the positive media re-sponse so far has been spurring additional exhibitor interest.

“There are some chains that said they’d never play (the film),” he says. “But then they have been checking in with us.”

Still, while exhibs may be ready to book the film, it remains to be seen whether auds will embrace the pic.

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