Explicit sex drama finds humor, reality amid the fornication
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, PJ DeBoy, Lindsay Beamish
Have you ever been to the movies with your parents and had to squirm your way through an explicit sex scene? Inevitably, you’re greeted with an indignant, post-film rant along the lines of, “Why do they have to show that? I don’t want to see that. What’s the point of exposing all that skin?” Sound familiar? Well, then you probably don’t want to take mom and dad to see John Cameron Mitchell’s conspicuously unrated Shortbus.
Mitchell burst onto the scene a decade or so ago with his “anatomically incorrect rock odyssey” Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It was first a smash on/off-Broadway stage musical. I remember wandering through Manhattan in the mid-’90s and being vaguely creeped out by all the Midwestern retirees touring 42nd Street in their towering foam rubber “Hedwig” wigs. Mitchell later adapted the rock opera for film, creating the midnight movie sensation of the same name. Now, after years of milking his Hedwig success, Mitchell has returned with another film, this one guaranteed to raise even more eyebrows. If he couldn’t scare off the Midwesterners with a transsexual glam-rock musical, he might be able to with a pornographic ensemble drama.
Mitchell isn’t the first director to make a mainstream theatrical film with real (as opposed to “realistic”) acts of sexual congress. Virginie Despentes employed hardcore European sex stars in her alternately seedy and pretentious 2000 flick Baise-Moi. Vincent Gallo somehow talked Chloë Sevigny into giving him an on-camera hummer in his “please, god, don’t make me watch that again” film The Brown Bunny. Michael Winterbottom recruited two actors to engage in actual sex for his grindingly dull 2004 film 9 Songs.
So what has Mitchell’s gleeful pansexual cabaret got that those others haven’t--aside from the surprisingly diverse and robust array of straight, bisexual and gay intercourse? Well, for starters, Mitchell actually gets around to answering that question your mom’s been posing for years: “Why show that?” Sex, you see, is an important part of life. Though generally hidden from the public, it’s as revealing an activity as the job one chooses or the hobbies one has or the house one keeps. Sex actually says a lot about people. Rather than giving us a regular art house film punctuated by the occasional act of adult film intercourse, Mitchell has created a film that revolves, quite intimately, around the act of sex.
Built upon an interlocking series of comedic/dramatic stories, Shortbus plunges us into modern-day New York (gleefully recreated in a candy-colored, impressionist-painted cardboard model). There, we are introduced to various people, including a sex therapist named Sophia (Sook-Yin Lee) who, despite regular Olympic-level sex with her loving husband, seems incapable of having an orgasm. Next, we meet Sophia’s most intriguing clients, a former child star (PJ DeBoy) and a reformed street hustler (Paul Dawson), who are considering opening up their longtime homosexual relationship. After exasperatedly admitting her own sexual hang-up, Sophia’s clients suggest she check out an anything-goes sex/performance art club called Shortbus. There, amid the orgies and the freeform jazz, Sophia meets a grumpy dominatrix (Lindsay Beamish), who becomes determined to help Sophia with her predicament. Among the film’s more tangential, but no less crucial, characters are the club’s flamboyant ringmaster (Justin Bond from Kiki and Herb on the Rocks), an ex-NYC mayor-turned-gay philosopher and what could be the world’s friendliest stalker.
Everyone exposed here is on a quest to sort out their various problems. Though the film starts out in blunt sexual territory, the emotional drama soon kicks in, and it becomes apparent that these characters’ sexual problems are only mirroring their emotional ones. These post-9/11 New Yorkers are quite open to sex in all its forms; but they’re not so keen on emotional intimacy, keeping various crucial secrets from their friends and lovers.
Despite having recruited mostly unknown, nonprofessional actors, Mitchell draws fine performances from all involved. And, despite the heavy sexual content (you’ll pretty much know if you can handle it in the film’s eye-popping opening sequence), Shortbus manages to weave consistent light and humor amid the wickedness. (Witness a use for “The Star Spangled Banner” by which Mr. Francis Scott Key would be most appalled.)
Whether Mitchell provides his characters with deep, realistic and workable solutions to their problems is debatable--does sex clear things up, or make them cloudier?--it’s hard to tell, exactly. Nonetheless, despite some narrative haziness, Mitchell has created an entertaining, amusing and emotionally arresting portrait of a time and place that (to borrow the words of the titular club’s owner) is “just like the ’60s, only with less hope.”