Warning: The motion picture under discussion here contains actual and unsimulated sexual activity of a type usually only found in outright pornographic movies. Nothing is left to the imagination. Everything is shown. (There’s even one shot that makes a rather pointed comment on the splatter form of art associated with Jackson Pollock’s paintings.) It’s all there and the film is up front about it.
Having once been taken to task for recommending a film, Bad Education, that a reader considered to be nothing but “nonstop sex between two men,” I want it distinctly understood that John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus frankly shows sex (not nonstop, but frequent enough) with two men and even three men, men and women, women and women, solo and even orgiastic. If you’ve ever seen a pornographic movie (though I would stop short of calling this pornographic), there’s not much here you haven’t seen before — except that it’s in focus and has bearing on plot and characterization. By its very nature it is guaranteed to offend a lot of viewers. If you are among them, do not see this movie.
Having settled that point, I will say that Shortbus is simply a terrific movie — the most courageous (not just because of the sex), inventive, moving and captivating film I’ve seen this year. Those expecting John Cameron Mitchell to have delivered another Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) may be disappointed in the film. I would urge them to look at Shortbus again and rethink that. No, it’s not a musical exactly (though it does have a killer soundtrack) and, yes, it is an ensemble piece rather than one focused on a single character.
However, the concerns expressed in this film are the same as in Mitchell’s earlier offering. Hedwig’s (Mitchell) search for acceptance and connection is the same one faced by the characters here. Shortbus takes this concept and expands on it to make a broader statement. Hedwig’s attitude of “deny me and be doomed” (that is deny him and his reality), which ultimately turns back on itself when Hedwig confronts those he has denied, goes a step further here — a positive step further, one that doesn’t end on an isolated naked walk down a dark street. Indeed, Shortbus is a journey into the light.
Further, it uses the same playful spirit and a similar cinematic vocabulary. Its climax, in fact, utilizes almost the identical structure of Hedwig’s final scenes — an increasingly frenzied sequence followed by a powerful moment of self-realization in a different key, followed by a sense of acceptance. The difference is that Shortbus is, if anything, more assured in both its aims and its execution. It’s an extension of Hedwig, not a duplication. Mitchell isn’t repeating himself; he’s refining himself.
His new film covers a specific period of time — perched in between 9/11 and the New York blackout of 2003 — and links the two events in a symbolic manner with the impending blackout lurking in the background of the story with a series of brownouts over the course of the story until it finally happens. It’s the same with the characters, who are referred to at one point as New Yorkers obsessed with 9/11 because it’s “the only real thing that’s ever happened to them.” They, like the city, manage to keep going through the motions of some kind of normalcy until they hit bottom (the blackout), at which point they can finally start to find their way out of the darkness into a light of their own making. I don’t believe that any film this year has tackled any theme that’s any more pertinent than this — and I don’t believe any film has so completely pulled off its aim.
Taken as a story, Shortbus essentially follows two couples, sex therapist (she prefers the term “couples counselor”) Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee, who had the small role of Kwahng-Yi in Hedwig), and her husband Rob (newcomer Raphael Barker), and former child star Jamie (newcomer PJ DeBoy) and his clinically depressed boyfriend, James (Paul Dawson, Boys to Men). Their lives connect when James and Jamie visit Sofia professionally — a session that reveals as much (or more) about Sofia as it does either of them, and which leads her to visit the underground club known as Shortbus.
Shortbus (lorded over by iconic New York gay performer Justin Bond as himself) is a wild, anything goes establishment for “the special and the gifted” (hence the name in reference to the short school buses used for the out-of-the-mainstream students). There one finds sex on a surprisingly large scale. Looking out over an orgy, Bond remarks that it reminds him of the ’60s “with less hope,” an expression which colors the increasingly desperation-driven actions of the characters in their attempts to actually make real and meaningful connections to other people — or in some cases to simply be able to feel anything at all.
This sounds like heavy stuff, and it is. There are moments of absolutely heartbreaking humanity in this film, which serves to prove that the film has a heart — a huge one. And the heartbreak is always tempered by a sense of hopefulness and the possibility of human connection, and as Tobias (TV actor Alan Mandell), the self-proclaimed ex-mayor of New York notes, forgiveness. Moreover, the film is blessed with a wicked sense of humor — its targets many and varied, including its own celluloid inhabitants. It even takes a poke at the denizens of art-house movies. “This is the movie room,” Bond explains at one point, noting that the movies are “boring as hell, but I find the more boring they are, the more intelligent people think they are.” Being called “boring” is one of the few things Shortbus needn’t concern itself about too much.
As far as the movie’s overt sex is concerned, Mitchell is clearly approaching the use of it with respect and affection — and no little sense of humor. He’s commented that Hollywood “often shies away from it or makes adolescent jokes about it,” and he does neither. He may find sex more funny than solemn (we’re talking about a movie in which someone sings “The Star Spangled Banner” into another person’s backside), but there’s nothing frat-boy or leering about it. It’s simply allowed to be, and he also uses it in an attempt to break down barriers — not just between his characters, but with the viewer, as becomes quickly evident when he intercuts straight and gay sex scenes.
Again, I cannot overstress the graphic sexual nature of Shortbus, but I also can’t overstress what a joyously warm and human film it is at the same time. Not Rated, but contains scenes of graphic sex, adult themes and strong language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke