A noteworthy aspect of John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus is that it contains explicit sex. Only a handful of serious films (films that, unlike pornography, attempt more than sexual excitation) have included explicit sex. The most noteworthy aspect of Shortbus is that it gives us explicit, realistic sex in which the participants benefit sexually and psychologically from the sex.
There is a gathering place called Shortbus inside the movie Shortbus. The characters gather there to explore themselves (their sexuality, their psyches), to express themselves artistically, to socialize, and to do all of this openly. The story is set in New York sometime between September 11th, 2001 and the Northeast Blackout of 2003.
A variety of characters (of various genders, sexual preferences, races, body types, etc.) ends up at Shortbus. One of them is Sofia. Sofia is a couples counselor and she feels that her inability to achieve orgasm may be an insurmountable obstacle between her and happiness with her husband, Rob. After a consultation, one of Sofia’s couples suggests that one of the sexually liberated Shortbus passengers might solve her orgasm problem. Severin could be such a passenger. Severin is a dominatrix-for-hire who goes to Shortbus to try to make a significant connection with another human being. She admits at one point that the longest relationship she’s had has been with her current masochistic john. Another passenger is James. James is no stranger to johns. As a young man, he began accepting money for sex after getting ideas from My Own Private Idaho. James has mostly put that behind him, though. His problem is that he has a deep depression that he feels incapable of overcoming. This is dismaying to his long-time boyfriend, Jamie. Jamie accompanies James to Shortbus in hopes of raising James’s spirits. Caleb lives across the street from the two men and spies on them in his free time. Caleb isn’t sure that the Shortbus folk are right for James and Jamie.
“Sex is messy. It’s messy physically and it’s messy psychologically. Mitchell and company are able to show us the reality of some of this messiness, this complexity, and they’re able to do so without vilifying the act.”
There is a scene in Shortbus where Caleb, having saved James from suicide, attempts to break through James’s sadness with a consoling gesture. James refuses this consolation. He tells Caleb that he (James) is incapable of really feeling Caleb’s or anyone else’s touch: he has a numbness beneath his skin. This inner numbness seems also to be the most basic problem that many of the characters in Shortbus have. The numbness may stem from their closeness, physically and temporally, to the catastrophe of 9/11. The numbness may also stem from the fact that they live in a time and place where they are discouraged from openly expressing their sexuality and from openly pursuing their sexual happiness.
In what I feel may be the film’s most significant segment, James, Jamie, and Ceth meet outside of Shortbus. After taking a bit of time to warm to each other, they have sex. The arrangement of characters in this scene is as follows: James is on his back on a roughly two-foot-high bed. Jamie kneels on the floor at the end of the bed where James’s head is (Jamie’s pelvis is roughly at the same vertical level as James’s head). This allows James to masturbate Jamie with his left hand. Ceth is bent over James so that he (Ceth) is able to fellate James. Ceth’s position also allows Jamie to perform anilingus on him (Ceth) and for James to use his free hand—his right hand—to masturbate Ceth. Put this way, the scene may seem complex and a mess of limbs and actions. However, it is much less complicated to watch than to describe in detail. Early in the scene, Ceth asks James if he (James) could use his (James’s) other hand to masturbate him (Ceth). James obliges after considering how best to switch his grips on the two phalluses he’s stroking. While performing anilingus on Ceth, Jamie makes a noise that Ceth finds stimulating. Ceth asks Jamie if he can continue making noises. The film establishes earlier that Jamie is in the habit of introducing himself as having acted, when he was a child, in a television series where he portrayed a white child adopted by black parents. His catchphrase in the series: “I’m an albino!” This is the first phrase that Jamie manages to offer the nervous tissue of Ceth’s anus. His next thought is to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Ceth laughs and begins singing along into James’s penis. James eventually joins in and the group, smiling and laughing between lines, finishes the song together.
“The sex is a flag of resistance and unification that the characters can still fly despite being crippled or numbed to some degree by the events on September 11, 2001 and by arbitrary and suffocating standards of bodily and sexual acceptance.”
The men are shown to have fun and openly communicate. I imagine this will be the first thing that many viewers respond to. However, there is also a metaphorical layer that we can access without, I think, excessive digging. We can argue that, in this sub-layer, the sex is a metaphor for the ability of people to unify in order to resist being oppressed and to resist having our humanity (or aspects of our humanity) suppressed. We can make this connection because “The Star-Spangled Banner” celebrates resistance to oppression. The American flag that Francis Scott Key calls the “the star-spangled banner” is itself a symbol of unification. In Key’s poem, the flag stands in for American resistance against British oppression. In a way, the sex in this scene and in the rest of the film functions as a flag for Shortbus. The sex is a flag of resistance and unification that the characters can still fly despite being crippled or numbed to some degree by the events on September 11, 2001 and by arbitrary and suffocating standards of bodily and sexual acceptance.
In another scene, Ceth speaks to Tobias, a retired mayor of New York. Tobias shares the following with Ceth:
…but you know what’s the most wonderful thing about New York? It’s where everyone comes to get fucked. It’s one of the last places where people are still willing to bend over—to let in the new…New Yorkers are…permeable. Therefore, we’re sane. Therefore, we’re the target of the impermeable…and the insane….
Jamie, in the end, seems to achieve this permeability, this sanity. He does finally allow Caleb in and we feel that he may come to terms with his troubles in a way that may allow him to overcome them. Sophia discovers she may not be sexually compatible with her husband. She and Rob accept this and Sophia is able to overcome her orgasm problem. The other characters, by remaining open to being touched (physically, emotionally, and psychologically), display their own permeability and show how this keeps them sane. By the film’s end, Mitchell and crew prove, among other things, that their characters have reason to believe they will overcome their problems. Because the filmmakers accomplish this, the marching band tromping through Shortbus at the end-of-film blackout doesn’t seem like a deus ex machina—it doesn’t create a forced or artificial sense of reconciliation. Instead, it reinforces the idea so prevalent throughout the film, that human beings have the ability to create hope and joy out of tragedy.
“The Shortbus team….give[s] us something more substantial than just a film that uses explicit sex. They give us something that allows us to make the case that future films should include explicit sex.”
The fact that Shortbus manages to make realistic sex look deeply beneficial is, I feel, what makes it all the more significant. Characters are shown to be enjoying the sex they have, and, in the end, everyone is shown to have benefited from it. People who have sex must know that it’s not all ideally-lit, perfectly-executed, musically-accompanied ecstasy. This is what the thing we widely accept as porn has given us. This is what Hollywood movies have given us. The reality is that our bodies make noises and smells. Limbs and appendages end up where they weren’t intended to end up. Sex is messy. It’s messy physically and it’s messy psychologically. Mitchell and company are able to show us the reality of some of this messiness, this complexity, and they’re able to do so without vilifying the act. To my knowledge, this has never happened before in a film that attempts to use explicit sex non-pornographically (see, among a very few others, In the Realm of the Senses, Caligula, Brown Bunny, and 9 Songs).
Relative to the number of movies made in the history of filmmaking, the number of serious movies that contain explicit sex is extremely small. I imagine that it takes a brave team of filmmakers to attempt to make a film that uses explicit sex. The Shortbus team obviously has this bravery. More importantly, though, they give us something more substantial than just a film that uses explicit sex. They give us something that allows us to make the case that future films should include explicit sex. I’m convinced they make a strong case. My hope is that they make a case so strong that other filmmakers will want to exercise their own freedom and their own bravery to make many more strong cases.
left to right:
Raphael Barker and Sook-Yin Lee as Rob and Sophia
Mitchell, far-right, directed Shortbus
left to right:
Lindsay Beamish and Adam Hardman as
Severin and Jesse
left to right:
PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson as
Jamie and James
New York in blackout
All Images © THINKFilm 2006