– Summary –
Director : John Cameron Mitchell
Year Of Release : 2006
Principal Cast : Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy, Rachel Barker, Peter Stickles, Jay Brannan, Alan Mendell, Jan Hilmer, Shanti Carson, Justin Vivian Bond.
Approx Running Time : 101 Minutes
Synopsis: An ensemble of young people, all with differing sexual desires and needs, gather in a sexual nightclub known as “Shortbus” in New York City.
What we think : I kinda see what John Mitchell was trying to do, but the amateurish performances and somewhat lack of polish on the entire production – regardless of the explicit sexual footage – give this verite film a raw, unfiltered glaze that doesn’t quite work like it should. It’s almost documentary style at times, in a way a little voyeuristic, which might make some viewers uncomfortable. Did I like Shortbus? Not really, but then, I’m sure there’s people out there who can appreciate the problems and feelings the people involved are going through.
I wrote an article some time ago, over at Front Room Cinema, regarding the fine line between pornography and art, specifically to do with films depicting the intimate act of sex. Film-makers pushing the boundaries of sexual explicitness, including non-simulated intercourse, have long been the poster-children for the moral police of society, decrying the fall of human civilization to the proliferation of a sexual society at the expense of privacy, respect and innocence. However, the counter-argument has always been that sex is a basic human facet, a primary driver in our lives, and is often a vastly misunderstood one that makes people do all manner of crazy things – shouldn’t such a drive be explored? Whether it’s with literature, art or cinema, the use of sex has been to both educate and titillate, although often those lines and boundaries blur with every passing year. More brazen film-makers, such as Ken Park co-director Larry Clark, or 9 Songs helmer Michael Winterbottom, have dared to push the envelope on what is acceptable in a mainstream, “legitimate” film, while French cineaste Catherine Brelliat (Romance) has long been a proponent of charged, explicit sexualised films. Nominally, sexually explicit films have been the domain of pornography, although that line is again being blurred as more exploitative and explicit film-makers make a charge to examine relationships – through sex – into the mainstream cinema industry. So what of Shortbus, the controversially explicit sex-drama from Hedwig & The Angry Inch director John Cameron Mitchell? It presents us with actual, non-simulated sex sequences, graphic scenes of nudity and what some might term pornography. How does it fit into the argument that this kind of film is best served being sold in a brown paper bag or banned alto0gether?
Sofie (Sook-Yin Lee) is a relationship counselor, who has never achieved orgasm. She is married to Rob (Raphael Barker), and the pair have a dysfunctional sexual relationship. Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is a sometimes-dominatrix who meets up with Sofia at a Brooklyn-based saloon bar known as “Shortbus”, where folks meet to hook up, run by drag queen Justin Bond (as himself). Two lovers, Jamie (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy) are having issues with their relationship, leading them to visit Sofie, where they tell her to come visit Shortbus and see if she can rectify her orgasmic issues. The Jamies are being stalked by another man, Caleb (Peter Strickles), who believes the inclusion of fellow gay man Ceth (Jay Brannan) into their relationship will be to its detriment. Through their interactions, they learn more about themselves and experience a sexual journey of awakening.
Shortbus fits into that category of film whereby the merits of the story and characters must outweigh the seemingly gratuitous sexual nature of the visuals. In order to be considered a worthy film that isn’t tacit porn, the story and characters must elevate the film beyond mere titillation. After all, the definition of pornography is to stimulate the viewer sexually, while art seeks to enlighten the mind intellectually. Shortbus is driven by a trio of stories created by the both Mitchell and his cast. The film’s casting led to a series of creative workshops allowing the diverse sexually charged stories to merge, divide and ultimately create some semblance of a coherent plot, yet the film does lack the polish of a created script. The semi-documentary feel of the film, derived from the amateurish performances from unseasoned actors, brings a squeamish sense of intimacy between viewer and film, as if we’re peeking into the private lives of those we’re watching. It’s an interesting visual dynamic (regardless of the sexual content), and it provides the film’s lack of warmth with a backdrop of insouciant realism.
The stories in the film are, by and large, probably not the kind of thing I’d understand or relate to; a woman who has yet to experience an orgasm smacks somewhat of Deep Throat’s clitorally-challenged central character’s journey, while a duo of gay men seeking a greater bond between each other by trying a threesome seems a little contentious as a way of doing just that (but hey, who am I to argue). The third major plot device is with dominatrix Severin, who is as isolated emotionally as the rest of the cast. Admittedly, the problems of a pre-orgasmic woman, a trio of gay men, and a dominatrix with attachment issues aren’t the kinds of things I have to face on a day-to-day basis, but as an emotional arc, neither the first or the second story really “got” me. Severin’s emotional distance was about as moving a story as I found in Shortbus, and even that was a stretch. All this taken into consideration, there’s a kind of verite feeling about the film that was still enjoyable to watch.
Sook-Yin Lee, as the central female lead, Sofia, lacks camera presence; she’s often wooden, clunky with her delivery and feels unsure of herself in front of the camera. Sofia’s motivations throughout the film waver between sympathetic and almost arrogant, as she searches for a way to achieve orgasm (how about the simple act of masturbation, which most of us don’t find too difficult?). Lindsay Beamish, playing Severin, is stoically reluctant to express herself, again lacking screen confidence and giving her character a somewhat cliched portrayal of angsty, ridden-with-guilt sadness. The two Jamies, Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy, work well as a screen couple, although the chemistry really ignites when Peter Stickles’ Caleb enters the frame; they’re still not completely convincing as actors, although they do a solid job with their limited material. Justin Bond, as the owner and Mistress of Shortbus, is great in the role, with his salacious delivery of even the most ordinary dialogue just lighting up the screen whenever he appears.
The sex – that’s why you’re here, right? – is both artistic and uncomfortable. Depictions of heterosexual and homosexual lovemaking, masturbation, bondage, a gay threesome, and a group orgy involving actual non-simulated sex on the screen, all might make those uncomfortable with such viewing wince and look away. Does the sex service the story? Yes, most of the time. The use of this in-your-face style, with penises, breasts and a certain amount of bodily fluids, serves to elicit a strong response in the viewer, rather than casual titillation. With the exception of the graphic orgy, all the sequences highlight characters and emotions which we need to feel to bring the relevant character’s story into sharp focus.While I doubt you could justify the need for the use of actual sex in many of these circumstances, there’s a certain beneath-the-skin frisson of energy in seeing these people engaging in this activity. It’s hardly “sexy” in the true sense of the word – Sofie’s opening love-making session with her husband is raunchy, ribald and randy, although it’s barely arousing – more like watching people exercise. The graphic masturbation sequence Jamie (PJ DeBoy) performs as the films opener is extreme in both explicitness and intent – while the motivations for it are mysterious at first, by the time the film explores Jamie’s relationship with the other Jamie, you get the sense it’s a moment borne of frustration.
Of particular note is a key orgy sequence early in the film; some might see it as gratuitous, and to a certain degree I agree with those people, especially with regards to the showing of actual sex, but the sequence serves as a background for the movements and experiences of the rest of the characters in the film – this is a liberated, albeit segregated, community of people, free to express themselves sexually if they so choose, although the key characters in this story seem to be inhibited at first. The fact that the Shortbus setting allows those of an alternative sexual proclivity to engage with others of similar feelings to do so without fear of persecution, makes everything happening there feel safe and secure; Shortbus is a “nice” place to visit. Also worth noting is the skin-crawling tension in the threesome performed by the trio of young gays seeking further emotional connection. It’s an awkwardly staged (on purpose) sequence, designed to catch the viewer off-guard and put them ill-at-ease, and in this sense, it works.
Shortbus works as a film only to the limits of your acceptance of the material presented – it’s confronting, sure, and probably a little too over-the-top for my tastes, but then, not every film is designed to suit my tastes. Thankfully, I’m able to recognize this. Shortbus’s message is hard to make out amongst the angst and pseudo-intellectual pontificating that takes place throughout the film, although I think it’s something about finding oneself through sexual exploration (and if I’m wrong, please correct me!). Whether the use of explicit sex to see this message is warranted is a matter of your own opinion. There’s a hint of sweetness and fun sprinkled throughout the film, bringing Shortbus’s potentially confronting visuals into a more comedic, almost farcical-esque light. Shortbus isn’t the most amazing film I’ve ever seen, and as far as the sex goes I’ve seen far worse on the internet in my life, but for what it is and does there’s something here that might just tickle a bit of your brain. Recommended for those with more liberal mindsets.