Americans are weird about sex, and our passionate ambivalence toward this most basic function manifests itself nowhere more clearly than in our movies. Over the past hundred years, movie theaters have served as an essential site of courtship and of more than a few surreptitious assignations, but more importantly, the movie screen is a billboard for our fantasies, the place where the most beautiful products of human evolution and cosmetic surgery strut, saunter, and — if we’re lucky — sprawl for our delectation. But our natural prurience is counterbalanced by our society’s compulsion to quash any healthy enjoyment of sexuality. From the beginning, films that dealt with sexual subject matter have been subject to protests, censorship, and outright bans. As the recent documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated demonstrated — confirming what we already knew — the MPAA ratings board is far more permissive about scenes of violence than of sexuality, particularly if those scenes depict homosexual acts or — God forbid — a woman experiencing pleasure.
Fortunately, our prudery has a new counterbalance of its own: John Cameron Mitchell. Those who know Mitchell at all know him as the writer/director/star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the play and, later, film, about a transsexual East German glam rocker. Hedwig embraces a complex web of sexual identities and desires, but it is essentially a romantic and — forgive me — “life-affirming” allegory about someone who sets out to find the person who will make him whole and ultimately finds himself. After Hedwig, Mitchell wanted to go in another, bolder direction — a film that examined several sexual relationships between young people in New York and depicted explicit, unsimulated sex acts. Without a script or any specific agenda, he assembled a cast of attractive, uninhibited performers and began a two-year process of developing their characters and improvising scenes, from which he developed a final screenplay. The result, first shown last spring at Cannes to raves from audiences and critics alike, is Shortbus.
So let’s get this out of the way: It ain’t porn. Yes, you can see countless acts of fornication, bondage and domination, a gay three-way, cunnilingus, analingus, and any other lingus you might like, but these are the garnish, not the meal. Mitchell is after the ways that young people today use sex — as a way to connect, or to feel a fleeting illusion of connection, or to simply feel something in a world benumbed by terrorism, war, and rampant political corruption. When moral watchdogs and elected officials seek to tell us what we can do with our bodies, when our options for sexual fulfillment and even our access to basic information about contraception and abortion may be dictated by partisan gamesmanship, sex becomes a political act. And in this sense as well as others, Shortbus is a political film.
The title is the name of a sex-club-cum-artists’-salon where the characters gather to talk about art and politics, to listen to music and poetry, and to engage in enormous, polymorphously industrious orgies. The characters consist of three “couples” and others who become entangled in their relationships: There are Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson) a gay couple slowly disintegrating as James succumbs to depression; they pick up Ceth (pronounced “Seth,” played by Jay Brannan) and take him home hoping he can reinvigorate their unfulfilling sex life. James and Jamie are seeing a couples’ counselor named Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) who is drawn into the Shortbus by her own sexual problem: She and her husband Rob (Raphael Barker) have elaborate, acrobatic sex, but she has never had an orgasm. She discusses her frustration with the hostess of the club, Justin Bond (his real name, though he’s better known as Kiki of the New York cabaret act Kiki and Herb) and also with a bitter dominatrix named Severin (Lindsay Beamish), who’s trailed everywhere by her needy new client Jesse (Adam Hardman).
The several narrative threads interweave through loosely structured sequences that are more about character than plot. Though a few scenes are slow or seem unessential, the ratio of hits to misses is better than two to one, and the insights, when they come, are worth the wait. Shortbus is a corrective to typical movie sex, in which two people are possessed by a powerful mutual passion that vanquishes any embarrassment or clumsiness and the parts snap together like Legos. Mitchell’s sexual frankness allows for a rare depiction of the awkwardness of trying to adapt to another person’s desires or preferences. Sex comes cheaply in this world, but actual understanding of someone else’s needs, or even one’s own, is a rare commodity.
The issues Mitchell addresses aren’t new — Antonioni and Godard were dealing with many of the same ones 40 years ago — but he has a rare eye for the unease, obsessiveness, loneliness, and desperation that can often characterize our romantic relationships in this millennium. And the film is very particularly addressed to the current age, with terrorism and war on everyone’s minds. Every period of violence and uncertainty awakens our basic human need to connect with another person, but the alienation of a post-industrial society — where so many interactions are virtual, and sex doesn’t even require a partner in the same room — makes such connections more than usually fraught with uncertainty: How can we be sure if another person’s feelings are real, or even if our own are? And as a generation that largely views feeling as synonymous with hurting, are we even sure we want them to be? Mitchell doesn’t have any simple answers, but he goes farther than anyone yet has in asking these questions. Breaking the taboos of movie sex allows him to set them aside and get at a deeper understanding of the ways that sex can connect us and the ways that, no matter how we might wish otherwise, it never can.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Shortbus / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | October 15, 2006 | Comments ()