REVIEW: Shortbus (Mitchell, 2006)
Shortbus proudly occupies that empty space where sexual frankness exists in real life but not in cinema. The first four minutes makes as much clear. The opening montage includes: multiple shots of a nude man trying to perform autofellatio before ejaculating into his mouth; a dominatrix whipping a spoiled rich boy to orgasm in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero; and an adventurous heterosexual couple basically acting out the Kama Sutra. The female doesn’t orgasm during her romp — has never had an orgasm, in fact — and thus sets in motion the plot of the film as the lives of these disparate couples intersect in the New York sex club whose name is the title of the film. She’s in search of the illusive orgasm; the dominatrix in search of normalcy; the nude man in search of his long lost emotional core.
If it isn’t already clear Shortbus is unusual. There’s a great line early on that, when recast, provides a good cap to my thoughts about the film. While receiving a tour of the Shortbus club the female lead is shown a room in which a bunch of people are sitting watching an experimental film. Her tour guide remarks in a telling moment, “The more boring [the movie is] the more intelligent they think they are for watching it.” This great line captures so much of what makes this artsy/alternative lifestyle completely foreign and utterly baffling to many people. It’s a wonderful moment of honesty and reflection in Shortbus, a film that is essentially the ultimate manifestation of the pretension fueling the attitude of the people watching the experimental film in the club. Shortbus dares you to blink, the implicit conceit being that in-your-face honesty should always be approached (and appreciated) on its own terms. The more graphic and unequivocal the more honest and therefore the more real and more intelligent/unassailable/artistic/worthy.
Shortbus takes itself too seriously for its own good. The frankness and explicitness of the sex, at once wildly over the top while remaining undeniably grounded in the reality of the sexual acts themselves — that’s actual ejaculate, that’s actual penetration — grows tiresome. The same is true of the characters, many of whom come off as either manifestly exaggerated or emotionally one-dimensional. Working in tandem these two elements provide an unrelenting onslaught of performed honesty. Shortbus is too interested in this over the top candor and frankness to notice that it’s choking any shred of genuineness it contains.
And there is genuineness. The tired trope of suicide, so often used as a simplistic means for infusing a character with something resembling depth and substance, is rescued from such a fate by Paul Dawson’s admirable performance as James, half of the struggling gay couple at the heart of the film. For a while Dawson teeters on that brink, but there are remarkably confident and poignant moments in the second half of the film that owe much of their emotional thrust to Dawson salvaging his character from the fate of cliché-dom.
The sexual explicitness of the film is also admirable, if occasionally unnecessary and eventually monotonous. Part of what makes sex on the screen uncomfortable for audiences is that the act of sex is something that cannot easily be faked, particularly for men. It’s as close to a pure moment as there is in cinema. However contrived pornography is — and the majority of it is quite contrived — each male orgasm is a real physical response to an undeniable and easily identifiable stimulus. A man can’t “act” an orgasm and it’s that blurred border between the acted and the sincere that can provide a potent dose of reality. When done well or with good intentions this is a good thing. Shortbus, while not exactly flawless, at least operates with good intentions and ultimately serves as an example of how we might begin to integrate real(istic) sex into non-pornographic cinema.