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Shortbus: An Unapologetically Sexy, Realistic and Moving Look Into Relationships and Connections in New York

Nicholas Chang’s goes beyond a surface-level analysis of Shortbus and appreciates the crafted intimacy and connections between its wonderfully messy characters. 

TW: Discussion of graphic sexual scenes

“You know what’s the most wonderful thing about New York? It’s where everyone comes to get fucked. Really!”

Sex is a natural human activity. It isn’t just a way to achieve personal arousal and pleasure but a way of creating an intimate connection between two people. Due to its variety, sexual activity can take place in many forms, from conventional sex to fetishism. Because of the complexity of sexual activity, engaging in it doesn’t mean limiting it to sex involving only two people. The definition can be increased to even a threesome, foursome or an orgy. In that orgy, anything can happen, but what especially matters is the sense of community and solidarity it forms.

That’s what John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, his cinematic follow-up of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is about. If the title sounds familiar, chances are you’ve heard of its partial notoriety for containing unsimulated acts of sexual content. That means you’re seeing the performers doing it. In that sense, it’s easy to brand Shortbus as pornography, which some critics and audiences did. Declaring it as such means missing the point of the film.

Within the first ten minutes, Mitchell gets straight to business. Shortbus opens with a montage of its characters engaging in sexual activity: a former sex worker, Jamie (PJ DeBoy), naked and alone in his apartment, where he films himself in a yoga pose in an attempt to fellate himself; a couples counsellor, Sofia Lin (Sook-Yin Lee), and her boyfriend, Rob (Raphael Barker), engaging in vaginal sex and dominatrix Mistress Severin (Lindsay Beamish) flogging her younger submissive client. As Shortbus cross-cuts between its characters, all of them seem to orgasm, getting closer and closer to their pleasures. And finally, the release: Jamie ejaculates into his own mouth, Sofia and Rob climax, and Severin's client comes all over his body and on the painting above him, where his semen is lost and indistinguishable from the colourful splatters on the canvas.

As we watch the actual sex unfold, Shortbus holds nothing back. The penetrative actions and ejaculations are on display for all to see, and it is incredibly sexy to watch. However, once Shortbus finishes its first sexually explicit sequences, there’s an immediately solemn feeling afterwards. Right after Jamie finishes, he cries to himself, pouring out his vulnerable feelings. It indicates an idea of disconnect, how hard it is to engage with others as the world grows increasingly digital.

Jamie and his boyfriend, former child star James (Paul Dawson), are in a dissatisfied relationship and believe they need to open up by having sex with others. Before following through with this, they hold a consultation with Sofia, only for the session to turn into a disastrous affair that’s close to a shouting match. Once Sofia apologises for her unprofessionalism, she reveals that she’s pre-orgasmic: she hasn’t been able to achieve an orgasm, and she regularly fakes one in the worry that Rob will believe he doesn’t sexually satisfy her. In a turning of the tables, Jamie and James suggest that Sofia attend the ‘Shortbus’: a weekly social, artistic and sexual salon hosted by drag artist Justin Bond (playing himself) in New York City.

At the Shortbus, any adult can attend. Queer or straight; male, female or non-binary- anyone is welcome to join. Anything can happen at the Shortbus, from orgies to intimate sexual activity, but there’s never a pressure to engage in sex. Patrons can socialise with one another and get to know each other, most likely before engaging in sexual activity, but sometimes, there are drag acts and social screenings taking place. Other times, patrons can move to designated safe spaces where they can open up and feel safe. But whatever happens in the Shortbus, it’s a community. It’s where the characters cross paths, with their interlocking story arcs becoming windows for exploring their inner lives, complex relationships and emotional and sexual problems.

The onscreen depictions of sex acts can feel overwhelming, especially as John Cameron Mitchell never shies away from them. Auto-fellatio, oral, rimming, cunnilingus, anal penetration, hand-jobs, 69-ing, whipping and flogging. Shortbus has it all, but there’s rarely a point where its graphic sexual content feels gratuitous or excessive, especially as it becomes integral to the narrative. Shortbus’ sexual content isn’t intended to arouse, even though it remains unapologetically horny, but to bring about the emotional vulnerability of these characters and their attempts to connect and find pleasure.

Frank G. DeMarco’s digital camerawork is intimate and up-close with its characters, infinitely curious about their sexual experiences but never being exploitative or looking down upon them. His cinematography remains naturally lit and occasionally handheld to craft not only a warm atmosphere but to give it a feel of realism. As Shortbus reinforces that “voyeurism is participation,” its variety of shot selections and subtle digital video aesthetics turn us into observers. However, it doesn’t feel like we’re intruding on these characters’ lives but being invited into them, revealing a love for the human body and the queerness on display to make the viewing as sexy as it is surprisingly sincere.

Because each performer from the ensemble cast engages in at least a sexual act, it automatically adds fearlessness and a sense of honesty to their works. Even though some of the initial acting starts off stiff, most performances become natural as Shortbus progresses. While relatively unknown performers like Sook-Yin Lee, Lindsay Beamish and Jay Brannan engage with their emotional authenticity, Paul Dawson is a revelation. Especially in the haunted looks in his eyes, his performance is melancholic. He offers a downright haunting portrayal of depression and how it makes us numb and disconnected not only from our relationships but ourselves. It’s hard to shake off how realistic Dawson’s performance is, along with most of the cast, which only lends genuine honesty to Shortbus’ qualities.

It’s not always about the sex, despite how the premise seems. It’s a window into these characters’ inner lives and personal pictures. When looking specifically into the big picture, Shortbus offers insightful, complex looks into love, relationships, sexuality, personal desires, dreams, politics and the need for human connection in New York City. Mitchell’s screenplay explores these subjects through his characters’ actions and the clever, philosophical and often funny dialogue without feeling ham-fisted, manipulative or exploitative. It’s where Shortbus finds numerous ways to empathise with its characters. The majority of them are flawed, with some feeling uncertain over the current direction of their lives, some acting unreasonably, and others repressing their pain. As Mitchell allows their arcs to intersect, their behaviours never feel forced, nor do they act as devices to advance the narrative. Shortbus’ sense of humour and eroticism never comes at the cost of its characterisations, or of the lingering human drama that it takes seriously. Instead, it finds the right balance between sweetness, wit and heartbreak to show that it cares for its characters.

Shortbus especially finds the messiness of these characters by exploring individual arcs. One particular example is that of Caleb (Peter Stickles), a neighbour living across the street from Jamie and James, where he stalks them by watching their sexual activities and even following them. That he’s introduced via a Rear Window reference is an immediate indicator of his voyeuristic quality. The creepiness of this arc contrasts with the emotional warmth of Shortbus’ tone at first. As we learn about Caleb’s loneliness and his attempts to live through people’s relationships to combat that. His storyline ultimately integrates well into the narrative structure. His actions aren’t excused, with Shortbus recognising how he violates and intrudes upon others’ privacy, but it examines his behaviour from a place of understanding. To allow another dimension to come to fruition is a testament to Mitchell’s ability to humanise his characters.

Even though Shortbus runs the risk of being overstuffed with its numerous storylines, it finds time to balance them and ensure that its characters have sufficient screen time to allow for nuance. Because Mitchell succeeds in exploring their lives, his narrative structure lends itself to an emotionally satisfying climax. His characters aren’t perfect, but Mitchell recognises that they’re deserving of happiness and of human connection. When he finally gives them what they want through an electrifying song of solidarity and community, which is enhanced by the joyful presence of the Hungry March Band, the optimism feels earned. Even though Shortbus may contain plenty of unsimulated sex, it works for narrative purposes and its heart proves it’s far more than what the notorious reception may have misled viewers into thinking what it is.

“We all get it in the end.”


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