Friday, 12 October 2007

Shortbus (USA, 2006)

Director: John Cameron Mitchell.
Principal cast: Sook-Yin Li, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy.

John Cameron Mitchell’s second feature film was awaited with a great deal of anticipation and quite a few raised eyebrows. It isn’t difficult to see why. The working title of the film which we now know as „Shortbus” was in fact „The Sex Film Project”. In a country where sex usually (or at least, if we believe the mainstream American cinema) takes place under silk sheets with nothing but feet visible, this film must have required some courage on the part of the actors involved, probably even the „sextras” as they are so cheerfully referred to here. It definitely wasn’t an easy ride even for the Canadian lead Sook-Yin Lee, host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's 'Radio One' Saturday afternoon show, "Definitely Not The Opera”. Upon learning that their star host was going to participate in unsimulated sex scenes in “Shortbus”, the CBC’s management decided to sack her from her radio job. Only an active petition from such prominent people as Gus Van Sant, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Julianne Moore made her bosses change their mind. But the irony of it all is that although the explicit sex scenes are instrumental to the way in which the characters are portrayed, this is definitely not a sex film. It strips them naked, but clearly in more than one sense.

This is also not a universally applicable film. The problems of not achieving an orgasm and/or finding a boyfriend/girlfriend may be universal, but the characters we find in “Shortbus” are fairly specific. They are urban and postmodern. The ways in which they choose to deal with their problems are also fairly urban and postmodern: going to a couples’ counselor over the question of a possible open relationship, making a pre-suicide camcord diary, publicly discussing one’s best orgasms and what they felt like etc. In addition to that, as the film is set in New York, the characters on display are even post 9/11 – “the biggest thing that ever happened to them”, according to a fictional former mayor of New York who also features in the film.

James and Jamie, a gay couple, pay a visit to Sofia, a Chinese-Canadian couples’ counselor, to talk about problems in their relationship. The session doesn’t go quite according to the plan and soon enough Sofia feels compelled to explain that she is pre-orgasmic, which means that she has never experienced an actual orgasm. The troubled couple invite Sofia to their little bohemian haunt which is called just that – “Shortbus” – a place for the gifted and challenged (which is a reference to a particular type of schoolbuses in the US). Our protagonist enters a world of unsurpressed sexual exploration where she soon befriends the club’s “mistress” – Justin Bond who, in fact, is a known figure in the underground cabaret world of New York (and under that very same name) and Severin, a dominatrix who can’t cope with her real name and lives in a “tuck away” storage room full of polaroids of the people she encounters. Also Rob, Sofia’s husband is soon involved in the club’s activities when she discovers that he actually knows that he’s never given her an orgasm. The plot thickens when we learn that James and Jamie are constantly being filmed and followed by their neighbour from across the street who doesn’t shy away from even observing them at the club while James tries to introduce a third part to their relationship. Not surprisingly, the whole thing goes awry and requires a great deal of mending in the end.

In many ways, this is a film of despair and hope, confusion and forgiveness. At one point, Justin Bond exlaims while watching a sex orgy in front of him – “this is much like the 60s, only less hope”. In an urban and postmodern environment there are many people who will not hesitate to explore their sexuality, but very often the lack of shyness will be substituted by a lack of feelings and willingness to commit oneself. Sofia who thinks she has a clog between her brain and her clitoris is in this respect a diametral opposite of Severin who wears a mental shell around her which has so far made it impossible for her to have a relationship, although she finds it easy to reach an orgasm. James knows that he has the most loving and caring boyfriend in the world but feels that all this love and care stops just before his skin, thus never actually penetrating him. Symbolically, he has also never allowed anyone to penetrate him. And lo and behold, we have the despair. Every time it gets the better of hope, the electric lights start to flicker until in one moment of collective despair they go out in the whole city and force people to come together and - surprise, surprise – there is light again.

The former mayor of New York whom I’ve mentioned here earlier says in the same scene that “New York is where everyone comes to be forgiven”. And amidst all this confusion our heroes find just that – forgiveness. “Shortbus” is in some ways a continuation of Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation” – an autobiographical account of the director’s troubled life compiled from the footage he himself made from the age of 11. In many ways, he also came to New York “to be forgiven” and there are clearly many parallells between Caouette and the people we encounter in “Shortbus”, not to mention his own little cameo appearance at the club. But just like “Tarnation”, this film is not aspiring to be therapy material handed out by the likes of Dr. Phil, nor does it try to provide any clear-cut solutions. If there is a message, it must be to let go of one’s inner inhibitions to be able to reach that metaphorical orgasm, very much in line with the film’s own explicitness.

Here is Justin Bond's adorable song "In the End" performed at the club and accompanied by Hungry March Band. What a gem!


Amy said...

I had great hopes for this film, but was unfortunately disappointed. True, if we judge by mainstream American film and television, the film and its concept can be seen as groundbreaking in that it could be as a step toward chipping away at American puritanism and shedding some of the taboos about sex in American popular culture. In fact I think if one looks at actual real life in America one will find that it is not nearly as puritanical as portrayed in mass media. Therefore I think it is an exaggeration to say that the sex scenes required "courage" on the part of the actors/sextras involved, since if there is one place that does not retain these Puritan attitudes it is art schools in America.

I also disagree that this is "not a universally applicable film." While the specific storyline of a woman who has never had an orgasm in her life may not be relatable to all, the issue of female sexuality and attaining orgasm for women is definitely something that many could identify with. Furthermore, although not all of us may have made a pre-suicide video, the relationship issues that both of these couples are going through are definitely universally applicable - issues of intimacy, trust, depression, etc. We may not identify with the specific situations, but I think that many can relate to the overriding themes in contemporary culture that these stories represent.

While I do agree that this is a story of hope, despair and confusion, I would disagree that it is a film about forgiveness. As far as the main characters are concerned, there is not much to forgive. Rob is is not responsible for not "giving" Sofia an orgasm; in fact, he appears to be a loving and devoted husband, and should have won an Olympic medal for his decathlon sex romp in the beginning of the film. Nor is Jamie responsible for James' depression, and neither James nor Sophia blame their partners for their troubles. In fact, both couples seem to be very caring and devoted to one another. It's simply that James and Sofia have some very deep personal issues that only they themselves can solve. It seemed to me that their partners were rather understanding about the fact that they had to work them out themselves. Even Sophia and James don't seem to be asking themselves for forgiveness for their flaws - they try to deal with them, and seem to accept the fact that such problems are a natural part of life - we all have issues that we need to deal with and work through. I see neither how they seek nor find forgiveness in New York City.

If anything I think this is a film about the despair and loneliness of the human condition in a postmodern, post-postmodern, and post-9/11 world. In the cyber-age we have less and less human contact than ever, making human relationships and intimacy a relic of the past. James makes a suicide video to tell his partner in digital format what he cannot express in person. Their neighbour views them from afar, but can't have a personal interaction with them. This is most likely why Justin Bond says that the Shortbus Club is like the sixties, with less hope. What happens on the inside cannot be carried through to the outside world.

In many ways the way the film was made reflects the shallowness of everyday existence. Instead of really addressing these issues the story-line stopped short and did, in a Dr. Phil way, offer quick-fix solutions. Have anal sex, and then you will be able to allow someone to emotionally penetrate you. Participate in a threesome, and you'll lose your inhibitions and have an orgasm. Instead of developing these ideas in an intelligent manner, they were simply swept aside with superficial solutions. And then you have the happy Hollywood ending where everyone is singing and swaying together in unison, everyone smiling at each other - cue Jamie and James' entrance holding hands, cue Sophia and Rob's smile at each other, etc. I found it incredibly weak and actually rather cheesy, especially for a film that should be expected to go above and beyond a mainstream, Hollywood blockbuster ending.

Unfortunately the only thing this film does manage to strip bare is the characters' physical bodies; the character and plot development doesn't go much further than that. I suppose in this way the film is an accurate reflection of the superficiality of post-modern, post-9/11 society. I agree that Justin Bond's performance of "In the End" is a total gem, and to my mind the lyrics of the song perfectly sum up the sentiments of the film. The pressure to be what others want of you and to perform comes from the knowledge that people are simply "waiting for a fall, for a flaw." But no matter how hard we try to live up to the impossible standards of modern society, "we all get it in the end." The song was a perfect ending to a very tragic film about the hopelessness of human existence, and the loss of any kind of humanity in present-day human relationships. You can have the best boyfriend in the world but despite all the love you are given it's still not enough, and thus the closest person to you is actually the most distant.

Amy said...

For an excellent film that does a much better job of dealing with similar subjects of sexuality, relationships and intimacy, a better choice than this one would be "Boy Culture" (2006) (

Having just viewed the film, I couldn't help but compare it to Short Bus. Boy Culture is a film about similar issues, but by contrast the characters and plot are much better developed, and the film actually deals with the issues, instead of glossing over them and hiding behind gratuitous group sex scenes as Short Bus did.