Shortbus

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Screenplay by John Cameron Mitchell, with contributions from the cast
With Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy, Raphael Barker, Peter Stickles, Jay Brannan, Justin Bond, Jesse Hardman.
Not rated; 101 minutes. Features nudity and graphic sex.

It’s been almost a week since I saw Shortbus, the new film from John Cameron Mitchell, who starred in and wrote Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. So following are some random thoughts and, as usual with my reviews, more questions than answers.

1) I’ve been anticipating this movie since I read articles about it in Salon.com — it must be three or four years ago. It was called The Sex Film Project because it was going to feature actors actually having sex with each other onscreen, but it was not going to be pornographic — at least not in the accepted sense. The idea was that it would integrate the sex that is part of both gay and straight people’s everyday lives into the story, but wouldn’t shy away from the hard core stuff — full frontal nudity, erect penises, actual penetration, oral and anal sex, etc. Mitchell was going to make all this clear to auditioners to make sure they would be comfortable (or as comfortable as possible) both playing characters and having sex on screen.

2) Mitchell certainly doesn’t waste time letting you know this is going to be a different kind of movie. The first few minutes show James (Paul Dawson) peeing in the bath, masturbating and even attempting to orally pleasure himself (he must do a lot of yoga), while videotaping himself and unknowingly being observed by his obsessive neighbor across the way, Caleb (Peter Stickles). There’s also the ferocious fucking of married couple Rob (Raphael Barker) and Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), in multiple positions and in several rooms of their apartment, plus a dominatrix session between Severin (Lindsay Beamish) and her yuppie trust fund client Jess (Jesse Hardman). I guess Mitchell wants the people who are freaked out by this, or who wandered into the theater by mistake, to walk out right at the beginning.

3) The between-scenes animation — of Manhattan and the boroughs around it — is really cool. It’s as if the entire island’s buildings are done in miniature, complete with lights on the bridges, water flowing in the rivers, etc., as the camera swoops and flies from Ground Zero to Brooklyn to the Upper East Side. It has the same spirit, if not the exact same style, as the animation in Finding Neverland (which would also be a good title for this movie).

4) Oh, it’s not just about sex, it’s about all these lost characters trying to find themselves and each other — sometimes using sex, sometimes being used by it. That’s kind of interesting. And there are definitely a lot of funny throwaway lines.

5) I usually hate to reveal the funny lines in a movie but “rules are made to be broken” seems to be one of the messages of this movie. Sofia is a sex therapist (though she calls herself a “couples counselor”) who is advising James and his long-time boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy — he and Dawson are a real-life couple). Sofia has a freak-out during their session and slaps Jamie, who is annoying in the way that only former child stars are. Then she apologizes and admits that she’s “pre-orgasmic.” Jamie: “Does that mean you’re going to have one right now?” Actually no, she can’t (or hasn’t yet) had one, ever, and her search for the elusive “O” is one of the many plot threads Shortbus follows.

6) New York Times film reviewer A.O. Scott said there’s not a name yet for these movies on the Crash model, with multiple characters and story lines that intersect in expected/unexpected ways. Pretzel movies? Spaghetti movies? Or in this case, Ronde-a-lays?

7) The scene between the young cutie Ceth (pronounced Seth, played by Jay Brannan) and the guy who claims to be the Mayor of New York (sort-of-Ed-Koch-looking Alan Mandell) goes on way too long, as do a lot of the scenes at Shortbus, the sex club where the characters meet up. But Justin Bond as the “Madame” is hysterical; he makes every line he says sound funnier than it should be. I wish I’d seen Kiki and Herb when it was on Broadway recently. “Shortbus” is for the little bus that the “special needs” kids took to school. We’re all bozos on this Shortbus.

8) So the movie’s also about voyeurism. On her first visit to the Shortbus club, Creamy (Stephen Kent Jusick) says to Sofia, “voyeurism is participation.” This sounds like Mitchell’s comment on, and to, the audience for this film. Does he mean it as a criticism, i.e. have we all become voyeurs who need ever-more-shocking things on screen (sex, violence, etc.) to be titillated? Or is voyeurism a step towards understanding? Discuss.

9) I’m getting a little tired of the dominatrix-who-can’t-connect and the former-street-hustler-who-can’t-feel-anything type of characters. Do you have to be a sex worker or have a traumatic past to have these kinds of problems? Doesn’t that distance audience members who may have similar issues from these characters, allowing us to make them more comfortably “other”?

10) Does Sofia ever have an orgasm? It sure looks like she does. How can she and Rob afford such a great apartment if he’s not working?

11) The three-way relationship with James, Jamie and Ceth looks like fun, and the sex scenes are both funny and hot, but I’ll bet these things never work out well in real life.

12) For all the nakedness and sex I didn’t find this movie really erotic, exactly, but it was interesting. Would the characters be as interesting if we didn’t see them having sex? Are they defined solely by their sexual issues or are these issues really a window into who they are? I’d like to see Shortbus again to see if these people are really more than their penises and vaginas. I’d also like directions to the club.

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POSTSCRIPT: I received the following e-mail after this review had been posted. The review has been changed to indicate the correct speaker of the line “voyeurism is participation.” – Adam Blair

I liked your writing about Shortbus because you asked questions and raised points, rather than taking an up or down approach.

One thing you asked about was the line “Voyeurism is Participation,” which my character, Creamy, (not Justin Bond) speaks to Sofia. It’s actually something I said to JCM [John Cameron Mitchell] years ago, at one of my salons or parties, on which he based parts of the film. I certainly don’t mean it as a critique. And I’m not sure that I meant it as a means to understanding, although that’s part of it.

In a community, there’s a bit of happy symbiosis. Exhibitionists need someone to watch them, and voyeurs need a subject. So that can be a good match, and the thrill of the subject is enhanced by the presence of the voyeur. So watching isn’t strictly passive. And we all know from cinema studies that the act of watching has a power dynamic and implied sexual positioning.

The line sometimes sounds a little glib to me in the film, which is not how I want the sentiment to come off. But I think the context is key. We are talking about a new shy person at an art sex party, and she needs encouragement, as do many people. The first sex party I went to had a mandatory clothes check, and I found that intimidating rather than, um, equalizing. So my parties were always structured with more activity and freedom, but also encouraging.

Anyway, thanks for making room for this little discussion.

Take care,
Stephen Kent Jusick

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