By Jeff Walsh
"Shortbus" is a movie that I have a hard time getting my head around. On one hand, it is best known as the movie where the actors all have actual sex and orgasms, which is why it is clearly and defiantly unrated. On the other, it is about what lengths people go through to find intimacy and connection in a world that seems orchestrated against it.
So, I love the themes it explores and what it is trying to achieve, but I just didn't think the combination worked for me. The movie starts with nearly every character in the movie engaged in some form of sexual activity, so there is no crescendo where it builds up to the nudity, it all starts immediately. So, if you're not ready for a lot of gay activity and frontal male nudity, they get you out of the theater or pressing STOP on your DVD player pretty quickly.
For the people that stick around, there are a few intertwined narratives where the characters search for connectedness. Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a married couples counselor who is pre-orgasmic. She fakes them for her husband, but wants to explore that issue. Her clients are a gay couple, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), who are debating whether to switch from a monogamous to an open relationship, for reasons that are initially unclear. They recommend a club named Shortbus to her, which is a weekly party run by the fabulous Justin Bond (best known for his amazing work as Kiki in the group Kiki & Herb), which is basically a sexual free-for-all with one room with a huge orgy, spoken word and performance artists, and various nooks and crannies where people can talk, make out, or have sex. The Jamies meet a third person, Ceth (Jay Brannan), and are also trailed unknowingly by their across-the-street neighbor/voyeur Caleb (Peter Stickles).
The movie cuts between their exploration of their emotional issues with their sexual acts, and, personally, I found their dialogue so much more exciting than their sex. The sex always seemed gratuitous, like it was there to be bold and to make a point. But it always made the movie seem uneven to me. I like looking at naked guys having sex, but it seemed like the emotional arc of the movie stopped quickly, and it wasn't going to start up again until they all got off (except, of course, for Sofia, since she can't).
So, I guess my hesitation about this review is that I don't know how to write it without sounding like a total prude. But there is also the examination why there is a line between pornography and higher art in my mind. I don't think of Shortbus as being pornographic, since there is character motivation behind every sex scene (which you can say about porno, too. I mean, that pizza didn't deliver itself!), but I guess that filmed sex doesn't convey all that much information to keep the plot moving, so after you see what happens and make the connections with the characters and the story and whatever implications it has, the longer the scene goes on, you're just watching them have sex.
That said, I love the yearning of the characters, and what John Cameron Mitchell (of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame, who wrote, based on workshops with the actors, and directed this movie), is trying to do.
I'm definitely someone who stands back, looking at other people and how easy they make connecting seem, and how quickly and easily they fall into communion of whatever sort with other people, and wonder what I lack in that regard, and how to "fix" it. And, I'm someone who would have made a quick U-Turn after walking into the actual Shortbus club, so there's that element as well. I live directly between two major sex clubs in San Francisco, and have never been in either for any sort of sexual exploration.
I guess I would say that my experience with "Shortbus" would be like someone who (unlike me) dislikes musicals, whereby a story is moving along and then suddenly it stops dead while everyone sings a song about what is happening, and then after they sing and dance around, the story picks up again.
Of course, this is the first gay-themed movie to feature such candid, upfront sexuality (there have been other independent movies where the actors are having actual onscreen, albeit heterosexual sex), so I guess it is just a matter of finding the balance between onscreen sex and story that needs refining. And, I did see one or two of those and also found that the sex just seemed to go on long past any narrative necessity. Shortbus was first pitched online as The Sex Film Project, so they clearly had a sense going in that they wanted to push these boundaries.
I think all of the actors did a great job, and brought a real humanity to their roles. None of their character arcs lacked authenticity, and to say they all committed to their roles in a film like this would be an understatement. And I always wait to see what John Cameron Mitchell will do next.
But, despite all my misgivings, I did enjoy the movie and think some of the older site members might enjoy it. It plays on some huge themes going on in society that need a lot more exploration. Oddly enough, for a movie about people wanting to get past meaningless sex and trying to find true emotional connections, that seemed to be my own battle watching the movie itself.