John Cameron Mitchell
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 22 September 2006
Source ThinkFilm 35mm print
With the provocative and widely contested releases of United Flight 93 and World Trade Center behind us, films pertaining to 9/11 have apparently disappeared from the media radar. However, buzz remains on the seemingly unrelated Shortbus, director John Cameron Mitchell’s sophomore effort. Understandably, talk focuses on the film’s visually honest (and genuine) depictions of a wondrous variety of sexual acts, including self-inflicted fellatio, masturbation, more than one ménage a trois, bondage, a repeating orgy, and much cocksucking. I don’t list these for gratuitous reason, but rather to satisfy curiosity, as Mitchell’s film seems to have gained notoriety on tired ground, namely the Puritan sensibility of the American media. Shortbus is absolutely explicit, but it is also quite fluffy, a sweet (at times, slightly syrupy) foray into sex on emotional and social levels; for Mitchell, sex is connective energy, cosmic karma mixed with 60’s free love (but without the hope, as once character notes), and he explores this theme in post-9/11 New York City.
Shortbus focuses on the intersecting lives of several New Yorkers: primarily a gay couple, Jamie and James, whose relationship has gone lukewarm; Sofia, a married sex therapist who cannot achieve orgasm; and Severin, an artist working temporarily and rather unhappily as a dominatrix for hire. Eventually, all parties meet at Shortbus, an underground arts salon in Brooklyn that also functions as the site of group orgy. With his characters, Mitchell centers on the dysfunctions and fears of those who find themselves on the “short bus,” the vehicle the Madame of the Shortbus salon, Justin Bond, defines as a school bus necessary for those who might be “impaired” or challenged in some way.
Although the sexual situations are real, Shortbus is bright and whimsical rather than hardcore. The film certainly aims to demystify sex, showing it often and openly, and between a large array of characters. An animated map of the city repeats throughout, moving between boroughs, interspersing scenes and situating the audience as the film rapidly moves from one character to the next (the map also seems to imply that like affordable housing, good sex can only be found in Brooklyn these days). Sofia, our preorgasmic therapist, emerges as the main character — the link between the other visitors to Shortbus — but also due to her somewhat virginal sexual status. Despite her degree, Sofia is in deep denial of the existence of female orgasm, as well as her entitlement to pleasure, a kind of Alice who unintentionally falls into a wonderland where she finds acceptance for her dysfunctional nature, as others share their own sexual hang ups and preoccupations, but also encouragement, not only to seek out the orgasm but to explore every possible angle, position, or person in attaining it.
The film clearly defines this explosion of sex as New York specific; Mitchell is interested in examining the emotional connection not only between specific characters, but an entire city left distressed and detached after September 11th. There are moments that reference the date, and Severin meets her client in his apartment overlooking Ground Zero, clearly visible from the window. There is also an encounter at Shortbus with an elderly man claiming to be a former New York City Mayor, who engages both the viewer and a young gay man with a monologue involving regret, mainly for not doing enough during the early AIDS crisis, and also impassioned devotion for a city he deems permeable, a quality enabling survival and acceptance. Although it is clear that Mitchell intended for Shortbus to be a kind of Fuck You to the current US administration (one particular moment, involving a male ménage a trois performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” into various orifices is pointed and extremely funny), the Mayor’s small speech sews the film’s heart on its sleeve. Perhaps what Mitchell is suggesting is not so much an endless argument over past events, but instead an invitation to heal, to let go of wounds, whether personal or political, and to simply move on. Aside from appreciating the film’s love for Gotham, Shortbus is one of the most optimistic films discussing — not simply depicting — sex and relationships that I have seen in some time.