Shortbus (2006, John Cameron Mitchell)
Novelist Karen Healey, back when she blogged at Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed), often used a phrase I’ve found comes in handy frequently to describe what she called the “look, a monkey!” phenomenon. That’s where if someone does something that makes them look like a total shit, a defender will spring up with, essentially, a “look, a monkey!” distraction: some example that proves the person who did this totally shitty thing is, in fact, a great and wonderful human being. The fallacy is the notion that someone being capable of doing different things of varying quality and value — which is, duh, pretty obvious — somehow dilutes the awfulness of the shitty thing. Or conversely, the greatness of the lovely thing. Some high-stakes examples: Phil Spector being a murderer doesn’t change his being the best rock & roll producer of all time, but he’s still a murderer. Roman Polanski being a great director doesn’t change the fact that he’s also a rapist, but we still watch and review his movies here.
But let’s return to lower stakes, now. Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, occupied a lot of column inches at the time of its release for being one of the first relatively mainstream films (though released by the rather diminutive Thinkfilm) to feature unsimulated sex, a good deal of it gay sex. Not only are the sex scenes well-acted and beautifully shot (though, for the most part, defiantly uneroticized), the film’s nonchalant attitude toward the sex is not just refreshing but liberating, and allows for a decidedly different kind of story about lust, relationships, and happiness to be told; there’s no reason to mince words or compromise in a film that features ejaculation and penetration and doesn’t pretend to be shocked or little-boy leery about it.
Yet while the film is admirable and deeply affecting in spots, I don’t feel Mitchell harnessed this opportunity as well as he should’ve, and the window may have closed now that he’s off to shooting conventional dramas starring Nicole Kidman. The sex got all the attention, and is indeed far tamer than most reports suggested (or maybe I’m just not easily shocked?), but underneath it what we really have is a traditional romantic comedy, albeit one with an unusual eye for atypical relationships, with a few fleeting but crushing insights, and a finale that explodes with touching joy. “Look, a monkey!” indeed — the crime is not that Mitchell addresses non-neutered homosexuality, open relationships, dominatrix subculture, group sex, and female desire with nonjudgmental ease and directness. The problem is that other movies don’t, that other movies are afraid, and the number of interesting stories we miss because of that. Mitchell himself is expected to take the entire burden of all this, to represent every aspect of kink for the entirety of American cinema, and he just can’t. He crafts a halfway-great ensemble piece instead of the brilliant, focused character study he could’ve, because there’s so much to say to adults about adult matters that perpetually adolescent movie studios refuse to. It’s not Mitchell’s fault, but he does shoulder too much responsibility here, and the film suffers a bit for it. I want to praise to the skies for its lack of fear, and let’s not mince words: my criticisms don’t change that.
The quality of the three central stories, which don’t coalesce as smoothly as one might prefer, varies broadly; given that Mitchell developed the characters and their plots with his cast then went off and wrote the script, it’s hard to know where specifically to source the problem of the male characters being given by far the most vivid plot except that perhaps it was just a question of constrained time. Lindsay Beamish, as the dominatrix Severin, and Sook-Yin Lee, as “pre-orgasmic” Sofia, are perfectly realized characters given superb performances, but their narrative cycles are underdeveloped. Beamish has some of the film’s funniest moments, but her quest for a “normal” relationship rings hollow without elaboration. Lee, meanwhile, conquers the slightly mannered and reductive reading by Mitchell of her orgasm problem with a rather splendid and enormously good-natured performance, which helps her segments eventually become full-color empathetic and lifelike. In a sly commentary on new-age philosophies, she’s confronted with all sorts of chortle-worthy ideas on attaining and feeling out an orgasm (some far-flung tripe about feeling infinite or whatnot) and even has a self help book-worthy moment of picturing himself in some peaceful spot and there’s a Light. But it’s finally a good and tentative, experimental fuck that she needs, a threesome with a giggly young couple rather than a blank-faced lay with her frightened husband, and that’s the sort of twist that a typical movie would balk at. This one doesn’t.
Even if Lee is almost entirely the reason they work, her scenes are only a rough counterpoint to what’s arguably Shortbus‘s actual central concern: the grudgingly opened relationship of two men, one in love with the other, one who wants to feel something but doesn’t, fearful of letting people in — literally and otherwise. Real-life couple PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson bring a sense of actual heartbreak and complication here, and though the suicidal near-tragedy their narrative hinges on is approached with a slightly heavy hand, the expression and resolution are both cathartic and pulse with something that seems actively real.
None of this should suggest that Mitchell is at sea on the comedy setpieces here, which mostly work well enough and are periodically revealing. The obstacles haunting Sofia’s attempts at sexual release are embodied so strongly and heartbreakingly by Lee it’s a bit hard to enjoy laughing at them, but they’re still absurdly funny — especially the telling sequence in which her attempt to inject excitement with a remote control vibrating egg in her panties is thoroughly collapsed by her inattentive husband, who sits on the thing and through a freewheeling mishap ends up making the wrong woman (Severin) come. And is there anything more brilliantly patriotic than three guys singing the national anthem as they engage in a circular rimming session? Mostly though, the tone changes starkly when the two Jamies become the focus, and it’s clear that the film’s heart lies with them, even if Lee gives the strongest performance of all. It’s this strange collision of bravery and traditionalism that gives Shortbus both its bite and its hint of disappointment.
Mitchell does buy into his own legend a little, by injecting a bit too much philosophical mumbo jumbo that’s rather localized, much ado about “people come to New York… [dramatic pause]… to forget,” spoken by an obvious Ed Koch caricature to boot! The resolution of the Jamies’ saga has a bit of this elevated overseriousness as well; Mitchell’s sociological concerns are better and more concisely expressed by the wondrous Justin Bond, the great real-life drag queen who acts as a metrosexual Greek chorus, showing folks around his erotic Shortbus nightclub — where the characters all converge — and eventually singing us through the blackout in a finale that’s both a subtly political act (all this redemption through fucking) and an openly expressive moment of reveling in humanity. The film’s optimism is contagious, and honestly, for all the complications and problems it displays, it makes you want to go and get off with someone, in the best way. And if the lights don’t come back on, who cares?