From the director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch comes Shortbus, an exploration into the lives of several characters living in present-day New York as they navigate the comic and tragic intersections between love and sex. Male and female, straight and gay, the characters find one another – and eventually find themselves – when they all converge at a weekly underground salon called “Shortbus,” a mad world of art, music, politics, and polysexual carnality.
eyelights: Justin Bond. the main cast’s boldness.
eyesores: the main cast’s performances.
“It’s just like the 60’s. Only with less hope.”
‘Shortbus’ is a 2006 film by John Cameron Mitchell, of ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ fame. It takes place in New York City, and follows the lives of a half dozen 30-somethings as they try to get a handle on their inner lives. It’s particularly notable because the characters express themselves sexually in very graphic ways, with the actors having actual sex on screen.
Needless to say, it drew a certain amount of controversy.
The most notable incident is when lead actress Sook-Yin Lee was to be fired from her hosting duties at the CBC for participating in this picture. A minor Canadian celebrity (she’s been in the public eye as a MuchMusic VJ, musician and actress since the mid-’90s), this created enough of a public outcry that she was eventually able to retain her show – which she hosts to this day.
I was always drawn to Sook-Yin Lee. Even though I found her a bit too alternative for my taste when she was on MuchMusic, I nonetheless had a weak spot for her. So, when I heard that she was in this film (I had no idea she was an actress, truth be told), it firmly put the picture on my radar. It also helped that I knew it was going to be a little bit racy.
But I never expected it to be as graphic as it is. I’m no prude, obviously, as made abundantly clear by the many sexy films I’ve commented on, but I simply had no idea I would watch men and women openly masturbate (and ejaculate), gay daisy chains, analingus, massive group orgies, and so forth. I didn’t even know it was possible to make a picture like this in North America.
Mitchell’s concept was to make a film that was sexually graphic but that was not pornographic, per say, that was “naturalistic and thoughtful”. Whether one agrees or not that he succeeded is certainly a matter for debate. Was seeing someone come into his own mouth naturalistic and thoughtful? I’m not so sure. I wasn’t offended, but I wonder if provoking us was really the intention.
The title refers to a club that all of the key players find themselves at. As its host, Justin Bond, says, it’s a place for “the gifted and challenged” and its focal point is a large room filled with a spectacular group orgy. What impressed me in this room was that it was populated with all sorts of people and configurations; there didn’t seem to be any imposed boundaries.
If one believes that this was gratuitous, this is easily countered by the fact that Mitchell, who’s gay, joined in, going down on a woman for the first time in his life. Clearly, his intention was something other than to just titillate the audience – it was also to move forward a concept of sexuality that wasn’t limited by societal and/or self-imposed guidelines. Not even ageism.
It didn’t stop him from trying to make the sex visually stimulating by shooting his cast in beautiful ways or even by selecting attractive people for his cast. The most notable example of this is that he made Shanti Carson and her partner central in the orgy sequence – he didn’t focus on the obese people, for instance (although he did show them too).
Having said this, he had good taste: Carson is breathtaking. Watching her is a highlight of the picture for me.
Another highlight, for me, were the dialogues, which discussed serious issues with intelligence and wit. The humour was terrific because it is part and parcel with the topics being discussed – they weren’t one liners. The most memorable moments were all delivered by Justin Bond, who was a delight every single time that he was on screen. I know nothing about him, but I’d watch more of him.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn’t nearly of the same calibre. While no one stunk up the screen, not even close, I felt that none of them fully expressed their characters’ inner turmoil and fragility in an entirely convincing way. If anything, I felt like I was watching a decent group of C-listers or amateurs more so than being involved in the lives of real people.
And that’s the chief weakness in ‘Shortbus’. Although I quite enjoy the various stories and characters, the acting doesn’t quite support the material. Granted, it would likely have been difficult to find a phenomenal cast that was also game enough to have real sex on screen. For that reason, I can hardly criticize the picture. But it remains that it was hobbled to some degree because of this.
Still, ‘Shortbus’, is an interesting exploration of modern relationships and the complexities of big city life in the new millenium. And, although it soberly tackles many challenging topics, it also offers amusing commentary on generational change, sexuality, and societal mores. While it might be extremely shocking to some audiences, it’s a well worth seeing and discussing.
Date of viewing: June 11, 2014