Sex in the Film Shortbus

by Clifton Smith
Collaborator: Trevor Helminski

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.

Ground Zero

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


3 thoughts on “Sex in the Film Shortbus”

  1. I was talking to a friend of yours this evening about this article. I attempted to read it immediately after seeing the film and enjoyed the statement but it didn’t resonate. (Please do not be offended as this is my fault.) For some reason it took me a while to process this film. After a second read of this article so many things clicked about this film. I love: that human beings have the ability to create hope and joy out of tragedy. I feel like this could broadly sum up the entire film, as well as Mitchell’s other film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

    1. Roz, thank you for reading and commenting!

      I’m not at all offended that my writing didn’t have immediate resonance for you. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember the last time I was offended by something.

      My primary hope in writing this was to share a film I feel is noteworthy and explain my feelings. I did my best to analyze it as though I didn’t know that seeing sex on screen makes some people uncomfortable. For me, there is a foreseeable future where mankind unites in complete bodily acceptance. I’m convinced the people of that future will be able to watch Shortbus, stripped of its current novelty of explicit sex, and find substance, humanity, and beauty.

      I’m glad you found these things and, if I helped, I’m even gladder to have convinced you of my opinion that I continue to confidently stand by.

  2. The following is a comment that was forwarded to me by a friend whose relative watched Shortbus. I post the comment here myself because, one, I can’t ask the person who made the comment to post it and, two, I’ve received the comment from a few other people. Here is the comment:
    The acting was horrible and there was no plot. Some things were randomly put in there that had nothing to do with the movie (like the vibrating vagina egg).

    This was my response to the comment:
    I have to admit, I continue to feel that the scene involving the vibrating vagina egg is one of the movie’s weaker moments. However, I do not think the scene was “randomly put in there.” I think the scene has a lot to do with the movie. On one level, it is, for Sofia, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The incident builds the case she’s forming, consciously and unconsciously, that she and Rob may not be compatible.

    On another level, the egg is a reference to a Japanese movie called In the Realm of the Senses. You might remember that the egg has the text, “In the Realm of the Senses” printed on it. That’s Mitchell telling people (who know too much about movies?) that the reference is intentional. Senses was released in 1976, but wasn’t shown in many places uncut until one or two decades later. The movie deals mainly with sexual obsession and is one of the earliest serious movies to contain explicit sex. In one scene of Senses, the male protagonist inserts an egg into the female protagonist’s vagina. She pushes it out and he eats it. In the Realm of the Senses is, thirty years later, an excellent source to study for someone trying to see if explicit sex can be used in a movie non-pornographically.

    So, the scene is useful to the movie narratively and in the way it references the other movie. My beef with the scene is that it turns into a kind of slapstick I don’t think quite works for the movie. At the same time, though, Mitchell is poking fun at Senses which was too solemn and too dreary to be entertaining to me and, I would imagine, to many viewers. Mitchell accomplishes more than Oshima (director of Senses), I think, and the egg scene is an example of Mitchell being confident of this belief. There’s nothing I can think of offhand in the movie that didn’t serve a purpose on at least one level.

    As for the acting, I can’t say much in response. I thought the acting was extraordinary for the mostly non-professional actors. People I talk to who found substance in the movie seem to appreciate the acting. People I talk to who found pornography seem to appreciate the acting less. It makes sense to me that our respect for an actor might vary in relation to our respect for the movie the actor is in.

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