The drag queen host (Justin Bond) of the Brooklyn salon that gives John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” its name, surveys the room where a frisky and friendly orgy is in full swing, and pronounces: “It’s just like the '60s … only with less hope.”
It’s a great line, destined to be much quoted. It’s also not a bad description of Mitchell’s boundary-breaking movie, his first since the cult hit “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” There’s a distinct echo of the '60s in Mitchell’s open embrace of sexuality in all its gender-blurring varieties, but the idealism of what in those days was called “the sexual revolution” comes tempered by three decades of AIDS, neofundamentalism and Internet pornography. What’s remarkable is that a glimmer of utopianism still beats in “Shortbus"’s large, polymorphous-perverse heart.
The first thing you need to know about Mitchell’s movie is that it contains lots of real and totally graphic sex. One of the first things we see is a very flexible young man attempting to give himself oral sex. The sex in “Shortbus” comes in all permutations—hetero and homo, standard-issue and fetishistic, performed solo, in couples, groups and in one surprisingly funny turn, a light-hearted threesome among gay men who perform (without derision) “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Setting aside those who will find all of this beyond the pale (there will be many parts of the country where “Shortbus” will not be exhibited), viewers will quickly glean that Mitchell’s methods, style and tone are the opposite of the pornographer’s. Titillation is not the point, nor is shock. Mitchell’s more radical agenda is to normalize the outré, to beguile us through his comedy of sexual manners into seeing sex as just another expression of character, as worthy of cinematic exploration as an itch to maim, murder or bake a cake. His movie is a celebration and demonstration of outsider Eros.
Mitchell developed his story with the collaboration of the actors, who incorporated aspects of their own lives into their characters. Sophie (Sook-Yin Lee) is a sex therapist plagued by her inability—in spite of athletic bouts of sex with her husband, Rob (Raphael Barker)—to have an orgasm. Among her clients are the gay couple James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy). The depressive James, a filmmaker, is tormented by his inability to feel, to receive the love that’s offered him. The third soul in need of healing is the lonely dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish)—usually seen with her young, trust-fund “slave” in tow—who wonders why she can’t form a meaningful relationship. It’s Severin who offers to help Sophia achieve her orgasmic goal—introducing her to the denizens of the Shortbus salon in return for free therapy. James and Jamie open their relationship to Ceth (Jay Brannan) who falls for them as a couple, a development that is watched with horror by the voyeur across the way (Peter Stickles), who is wrapped up in his fantasy that James and Jamie are the perfect couple. Among the supporting characters is a gay former mayor of New York haunted by the thought that he didn’t do enough to stop the spread of AIDS because he was in the closet. Hmm, who might that be?
“Shortbus” tends to work better in its first, comic half, than in its second, more serious stretch, where the characters’ trials and tribulations flirt with soap opera. The actors, formidable with their clothes off, aren’t always as expressive fully dressed. Beamish’s conflicted dominatrix stands out for her understatement: she understands nuance and stillness, where some of the others settle for the broad gesture. Dawson’s James haunts as well: the bitter taste of his despair feels real. And though Mitchell is wonderfully democratic in his openness to all sexual categories, it has to be said that his heterosexual men are the movie’s least convincing, and sketchiest, figures.
But if the brush strokes are sometimes a bit sloppy, the grand design of “Shortbus” endears. Mitchell is trying something no one has done before. Other films (mainly foreign) have certainly given us totally explicit sex before. Think of Catherine Breillat’s “Romance” and “Anatomy of Hell.” Or the grittily aggressive “B--se-moi.” But these were all films that rewarded prurience with punishment (in the form of either graphically unpleasant sex or windy French philosophizing). Mitchell brings an all-American cheerfulness to his sex romp, a native-born faith in the therapeutic benefits of unfettered desire. With his Felliniesque carnival finale, he’s inviting one and all into his Big Tent of Desire. This is XXX with a happy face.