Shortbus (2006)

Shortbus first published by musicOMH, 1 December 2006

Ever since Woody Allen came along with his Annie Hall (1977) and his Manhattan (1979), his Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and his Husbands and Wives (1992), New York has been established as the American city of the ensemble romantic dramedy, where different characters come together to discuss love, life and politics.

Witness Edward Burns’ The Brothers McMullen (1995), She’s the One (1996) and Sidewalks of New York (2001), Jill Sprecher’s 13 Conversations About One Thing (2001), Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), or just about anything directed by the unofficial chronicler of black Yonkers, Spike Lee. Television too has got into the action, with sit-com Friends leading the way, followed by the raunchier Sex and the City and the gayer Will and Grace.

Such lineage proves to be both a blessing and a curse for Shortbus. In one of its funniest scenes, professional dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish) reveals with painful embarrassment that her birth name is none other than Jennifer Aniston. How awful, for this tough-as-nails fetishist to have to share her name with the actress who plays wholesome girl-next-door Rachel in Friends – but then again, later Severin will tearfully reveal that what she really wants is “a house and a cat, you know, that I can pat”, i.e. the conventional, picket-fenced American Dream.

And there’s the rub. Strip away all the vibrators and dildoes, orgies and fisting, and Shortbus is not really so very different from Friends, which in its day was also criticised for being too liberal, and too sexually daring. Shortbus may include some hardcore, but at heart it is as soft, warm and fuzzy as the kind of pussy that you can both pat and feed from a tin.

Sofia (Sook-yin Lee) is a sex therapist (or, as she prefers to call it, couples’ counsellor) who has never herself managed to have an orgasm, despite marathon sex sessions with her unemployed husband Rob (Raphael Barker). So on the advice of her clients James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), Sofia visits Shortbus, a sophisticated salon where intercourse of every kind – social, political, and of course sexual – is on the menu. There she turns to lonely Severin for help and some egging on.

Meanwhile ex-hustler James and former TV star Jamie are having their own problems. An increasingly aloof and secretive James spends more time working on a mysterious video than with his long-time partner. They both turn to young model Ceth (Jay Brannan), hoping that a ménage à trois might add the missing spark to their relationship – but Ceth’s appearance on the scene hardly pleases the couple’s stalker, Caleb (Peter Stickles).

One night during a blackout they all converge on a candle-lit Shortbus, where crises are averted, togetherness is affirmed, pleasure is had, and everyone joins in a good old-fashioned singalong (“we all get it in the end”).

Named after the vehicle that transports American schoolchildren with ‘special needs’, Shortbus is director John Cameron Mitchell’s second feature after his debut with Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), and it bursts with similar over-the-top camp. In a sense this is the film’s problem, because the flamboyant superficiality of key characters like Jamie and Ceth, though entertaining enough, makes them difficult to take seriously when emotions start running high.

Likewise the protagonist Sofia, with her endless (and endlessly shallow) supply of therapy-speak at the ready, is just too ridiculous to engage, even if her outsider status (she is a Chinese-Canadian) makes her the perfect wide-eyed guide for the uninitiated through New York’s metrosexual underworld. Only the dramas of troubled James and Severin carry any real weight, with one scene in particular that they share together ‘in the closet’ proving to be the film’s most affecting – but it is not quite enough to cater to the film’s ‘special need’ for substance. There may be a variety of erotic practices on parade here, but the film leaves viewers with few real insights into either human nature or sexuality.

Shortbus is far more interesting for its Bush-era, post-9/11 politics. John Bair’s 3-D cardboard cutout models of New York City, used to link one scene to the next, may be bright and impressionistic, but that does not stop them prominently featuring two hand-drawn holes where the Twin Towers ought to be. One character, having asked Severin if she is ‘top’ or ‘bottom’ sexually, paraphrases himself by asking whether she is for or against the War in Iraq, or indeed whether she smiles when photographed at Ground Zero. Another character describes her first orgasm as a feeling that “there was no war, there was peace”.

Jamie hums America’s national anthem while rimming Ceth. An elderly gay man, claiming to be an ex-mayor, describes how the ‘permeable’ people of New York are natural targets for the impermeable and the insane. Here there is no easy delineation between sex and politics, and sexual liberation masks a broader ideology of open-mindedness, pacifism and the love of freedom. Or as Shortbus’ ‘Mistress’ of Ceremonies Justin Bond (far and away the best thing in the movie) puts it: “It’s just like the Sixties, only with less hope.”

For while the Shortbus salon evokes Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), here the rise of the Nazis has been replaced by the increasing threat from, on the one hand, foreign terror, and on the other, the neo-conservative Christian Right. New York City and its leftfield denizens are portrayed as a last bastion of enlightened liberalism in a country otherwise being enveloped in darkness. This message, however, is not exactly helped by the political apathy, not to mention abject stupidity, of so many of the characters, or by the film’s apparent equation of openness (in a general sense) with a willingness to take it up the arse.

In one scene near the beginning of Shortbus, James is shown naked and hunched over like a yogi in order to fellate himself. Perhaps this should be taken as an emblem for the film as a whole: surprising, explicit, athletic, mildly shocking – and absurdly self-indulgent.

strap: John Cameron Mitchell’s film offers a sex-positive space as an oasis from the neo-con oppressions of post-9/11 America

© Anton Bitel