I love John Cameron Mitchell. I think Hedwig and the Angry Inch is quite possibly the most revolutionarily fantastic play/film of my generation. This is not news. It would seem, then, that I'd be very anxious to run out and see JCM's next project. But I wasn't.
Why? Because all I heard about Shortbus for a long time after it came out was that it was "pornographic." And I'm really not much into porn. However, recently a couple of friends saw it and told me they really liked it, so I decided to give it a go.
First, I don't think it's pornographic. It's explicit, definitely, but it's also realistic, with none of the whitewash or instant orgasms that makes pornography less about sex and more about sales. Shortbus isn't a fantasy. It is mostly about sex, both for its own sake and as a window into people's loneliness and confusion, and a lot of sex is shown, but it isn't erotic.
The truth, much as many would like to deny it, is that a lot of great art is about sex. And a lot of art in general is really about sex while we try to pretend it is about something else. Sex is one of our essential driving forces as human beings. It bleeds over into and colors most of the rest of our lives. And it shouldn't be taboo to talk about that, to write about it, or to make a film about it. Nor should it be expected that sex in a film (or book or whatever) should be limited to "good clean fun." Because sex is so important in our lives, people are bound to be fucked up about it in all kinds of ways, and if you are going to talk about it, you need to talk about that too.
Shortbus has several intertwining plot lines, all featuring people for whom sex is some type of problem or focus. Canadian video disc jockey Soon-Yin Lee plays Sofia, a couple's counselor/sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, though she's been faking them with her husband for quite some time. Paul Dawson plays James, a suicidal former hustler trying to find a way to make sure his lover (played by PJ DeBoy) understands and is taken care of before he kills himself, but unwilling to have sex with him. Lindsay Beamish plays Severin, a dominatrix and photographer who is unable to connect with people on any sort of personal level. All of these characters, as well as supporting characters including Justin Bond, J.D. Samson and Bitch, hang out at Shortbus, an underground sex/music/politics club. Through their interactions there and with each other outside the club, we learn about their lives, their problems, and how they are addressing them. And, of course, we watch them have sex.
Probably my favorite thing about the film is that Sofia, the woman who has never come, still hasn't come when it ends. She has definitely broadened her sexual horizons (the last scene shows her making out with a male-female couple while her husband sits not far away making out with another woman), let out some of her anger, and made some realizations, but everything is not solved. James and Severin are in the last scene too, and they are both happy, at least momentarily, but you don't get the feeling that all is magically resolved from them, either.
Shortbus shows life, and sex, to be messy, humiliating, tragic, damaging, and ultimately worthwhile. The characters are scarred, imperfect human beings who are afraid and alone and unsure of who they are much of the time. It ends not with a resolution, but with a feeling of hope. In these things, it greatly resembles Hedwig. Though it's a strange and startling movie, it left me ultimately glad I'd watched it and accepting of it as the sophomore venture for my favorite writer/director.