If this is the bus "special" kids get to ride to school, Judge Jennifer Malkowski will try hard to be a little more "special" herself.
You've got to get on to get off.
As the first American director to realize the forgotten dream of merging real sex with real art in the movies, John Cameron Mitchell breaks cinematic ground with his surprisingly touching, near-masterpiece Shortbus. Without a doubt, it's the sweetest li'l hardcore sex film that you ever did see.
Facts of the Case
In Shortbus, a hodge-podge of lonely, sexy New Yorkers gathers at the title club looking for sex and human connections. There, a fabulous gender-queer MC named Justin Bond (Justin Bond) presides over performances, film screenings, political discussions, and veritable puddles of fun-loving naked people.
Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, an absence that is damaging her marriage to Rob (Raphael Barker) and her general sanity. She finds her way to Shortbus when she counsels club regulars Jamie (PJ Deboy) and James (Paul Dawson), a gay couple about to open up their relationship sexually. Mysterious neighbor Caleb (Peter Stickles), who is stalking them, becomes upset when James and Jamie become involved with a goofy little model named Ceth (Jay Brannan). On a mission to get off, Sofia forms a bond with Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix fed up with her boring johns and her own jaded worldview.
As tensions, libidos, and erections rise in the summer heat, these characters careen toward a climax of electricity, intimacy, and…well, climaxes.
Confronted about his severe depression, the melancholy James hints at a kind of Shortbus mission statement when he acknowledges that his boyfriend Jamie loves him: "I know. I see it all around me. But it stops at my skin." James needs someone or something to penetrate him, to get past the skin. Appropriately, this need for penetration is what Shortbus's story and the larger filmic project are all about. It's all about trying to go deeper: sexually, emotionally, and artistically—all at once and each dependent on the others.
Perhaps a little bit of history will help explain the uniqueness of Shortbus's multiple penetrations. Back in the 1970s, America experienced a period of "porno chic." The Production Code had been abolished, replaced by the more permissive MPAA rating system, and more and more sex was making its way into Hollywood releases. X-rated Midnight Cowboy was winning Oscars and hardcore pornos like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones were raking in millions at the box office and attracting mainstream audiences. For a moment, it looked as if real sex and real art would merge into a cinema of "hardcore eroticism." With only one exception, they didn't. Instead, Hollywood and the porn industry continued along their separate paths, and now there is even less explicit sex in mainstream American movies than there was in the 1970s. The one exception was Japanese director Oshima Nagisa's languidly beautiful In the Realm of the Senses, a hardcore 1976 meditation on pleasure, oblivion, and the point at which they intersect (and note the shout-out from Mitchell to Oshima in Shortbus with Sofia's vibrating egg). Mitchell taps into the forgotten promise of 1970s porno chic and creates a real "hardcore erotica" art film, one that is markedly more joyful than the dour and less daring ones coming out of Europe these days. Yes, it is the most sexually explicit American movie ever made outside the porn industry. But if you're hoping for mindless titillation, then, honey, you've boarded the wrong damn bus. In more ways than one, Shortbus doesn't stop at the skin.
However, showing skin is a valuable tool for Mitchell, the driving force behind his controversial project. He and his cast find lots of ways to use sex for purposes other than arousing the audience, integrating it fully into the lives of the characters. Sex can be metaphorical. James's need for penetration, for example, can play out both figuratively and literally—a sexual hang-up that mirrors an existential crisis. Sex can be clever. When Severin's rich-boy client Jesse shoots cum over his head, it lands on a Jackson Pollock-esque splatter painting hung above the bed: a little splotch that integrates itself with all the others. Sex can be political. While Jamie rims Ceth in a very creative threesome position, he ends up singing "The Star Spangled Banner" into his ass. Now if that's not a statement about glorious American freedom and ingenuity, I don't know what is. Sex can be spiritual and can be about something bigger than oneself, in whatever form that takes. While searching for her own orgasm, Sofia asks several characters to describe their best ones. One says that she "felt like [she] was finally not alone." In a different scene, Severin has an opposite, but equally powerful, answer:
Jesse: "Can you describe your last orgasm?"
Orgasms mean something different to everyone, Sofia learns, and she desperately wants to find out what they'll mean to her. She is helped on her quest by several of the club's colorful characters, with Justin acting as a kind of fairy godmother (pun intended). Sparkling with glitter and makeup, he intones in a throaty, sing-song voice:
"Think of it as some sort of magical circuit board, a motherboard, filled with desire that travels all over the world—that touches you, that touches me, that connects everybody. You just have to find the right connection, the right circuitry. Look at all these people out there! They're trying to find the right connection. I personally expect a few blown fuses before the night is over, and maybe one of them will be yours."
The devil to Justin's angel, Severin is more skeptical of Sofia's mission. She questions, "Why is it so important for you to have an orgasm? I mean, it feels good, but it's not going to save your life or anything." Here, Severin touches on one of the few real problems I have with Shortbus: its quest-for-orgasm structure. Between Shortbus and The O in Ohio, it seems like searching for the female orgasm is becoming a quintessential American sex story. The problem is that if a film's main plotline is about trying to reach orgasm, then it's climax or anticlimax has to be about whether the character orgasms or not. Orgasm becomes the be-all and end-all of the movie, thus legitimating its frequent framing as the be-all and end-all of sex. But not all films have happy endings, and not all women have orgasms. I wish that Shortbus gave more credence to the possibility of pleasurable sex without climax, but instead Sofia discredits that notion in an admittedly hilarious rant about what sex feels like to her:
"Sex is really awesome. I love sex!…Sex feels terrific. I love it, a lot. It's a great workout, it feels good. I love loving my husband. It's just, there comes a point sometimes where it just gets really a lot of pressure and it feels a little bit, uh, a little bit like somebody's gonna kill me and I just have to, you know, smile and pretend to enjoy it. You know, that way I can survive."
Though sex is certainly the centerpiece in Shortbus, Mitchell's film has a lot to offer beyond its money shots. Visually, it is stunning—particularly for a low-budget, shot-in-friends'-apartments kind of feature. Mitchell has a real eye for color and mood, and he deftly switches formats to capture different tones: grainy, documentary-style Super 8 footage of the orgies transport us back to the feel of the 1960s; James's Tarnation-style video for Jamie uses digital formats to achieve realism and intimacy; Sofia's beach masturbation fantasy bursts of the screen in brilliant 35mm. Mitchell also discovers an elegant visual metaphor for sex and connection through electricity. As Justin talks about sexual circuit boards and blown fuses, brownouts are rolling over New York, culminating in the massive blackout that really hit the city in the summer of 2003. But the visual highlight of the film is its charming CGI mini-New York that the camera glides over to transition between locations and characters. There is something obscurely heartwarming about its little colored boxes with glowing windows—something sensory that gets at the human connection all the characters are trying to find.
Mitchell complements these rich visuals with one of the best soundtracks in recent memory. From tinkling jazz by Anita O'Day to a sweet and silly acoustic ballad sung on-screen by Brannan to a closing marching band extravaganza that assures "We All Get It in the End," the music is varied and perfect.
Outside the audio-visual realm, Shortbus also has a wonderful script, created largely through improvisation and input from the actors about their own characters. With its verbal sharpness, bouts of slapstick humor, and shameless New-York-centrism, it's no wonder Shortbus has drawn a few comparisons to Woody Allen's work from the 1970s. Every other line from the film feels quotable. A few of the highlights include:
Sofia: "I'm pre-orgasmic."
Jesse: "If you could have any superpower, what would it be?"
Former Mayor: "[New York] is where everyone comes to get fucked…[and] to be forgiven."
Perhaps the quintessential Shortbus line is Justin's description of the orgy room of his club (the Sex Not Bombs room): "It's like the Sixties, but with less hope." This sardonic line, with Justin's perfect drag-queen delivery, gets a good laugh, but it is also the most difficult line in the film—the one that reveals Shortbus's real sexual and existential crisis. For all the sex these characters have, precious little of it makes them any less lonely or sad. Unlike Severin, Mitchell does seem to hold out hope that an orgasm can change your life, and maybe even the world. In its closing crescendo of pleasure, Shortbus feels like a post-9/11 rewriting of the old "make love, not war" sentiment—like the 1960s, with hope. As power is restored and twinkling lights spread over the little model New York City, we are left with the sense that maybe good sex—sex that is about human connection and does get past the skin—can spread like electricity and make the world a better place.
Along with a faithful transfer of the film's aforementioned visual and auditory pleasures, Th!nkfilm provides an array of substantive special features. The commentary with Mitchell, Bond, Lee, Dawson, and Deboy is one of the liveliest I've heard in a long while. Mitchell provides some rather poetic insights into the writing of the film, as in this comment on the opening montage of graphic sex: "we wanted to break the audience's hymen here, let them know what language we're using, but with jokes." Lee cringes at her sex scenes and talks about what she didn't learn from researching with straight porn. Bond throws in witty barbs about a woman who wears only Burberry: "She probably had Burberry tampons!" We learn neat little tidbits, like the fact that the Chinese character paintings in Sofia's office spell "Help Me," and the commentators point out the film's many, many cameos—one could probably write a "How Big a Hipster Are You?" test based on how many of these a viewer could identify. The half-hour making-of documentary sheds light on Mitchell's unique casting and writing process: main roles were cast partly based on the actors' sexual attraction to each other (adorably diagrammed on a big chart). Thirty minutes of deleted and extended scenes with optional commentary contain a lot of great material that didn't make the final cut, including lines like "God, you must have some major blue clit" and "Who wants to have sex with their soulmate? You want to have sex with someone hot!" The only part I was really glad got left on the cutting-room floor was a very confusing and stiff subplot about Caleb being a personal assistant for the Bush twins. The inaccurately titled How to Shoot Sex: A Docu-Primer is less an instructional video than an eight-minute outtake from the orgy scenes. Functioning as the latter, though, it is enlightening and enjoyable. The greatest irony of all the special features is a particular linguistic anxiety that becomes a motif: in the bonus material for a hardcore sex film, contributors are consistently worried about using the word "fuck."
Since I highly doubt any hardcore Republicans have soldiered through my review of this uberliberal romp of a movie, I'll risk offending and end with a suggestion from Mitchell for the best possible use of your Shortbus DVD:
"It's everything you need to get through the next two years of George Bush."
Guilty of all kinds of penetration.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director John Cameron Mitchell and cast
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