Friday, 12 October 2007
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!