The brief but stormy history of hardcore sex in mainstream movies is littered with earnest attempts at making real-life screwing work in the service of a story: take Catherine Breillat's decidedly unerotic Romance, Michael Winterbottom's cooly observed 9 Songs, or Vince Gallo's ridiculously arty Brown Bunny. So far, real sex has always been couched in over-the-top pretension, perhaps in an attempt to maintain maximum distance from the soulless thrusting of plain old porn.
Imagine Woody Allen with Remote-Controlled Vibrators
With his groundbreaking second film, John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) doesn't try to gene-splice hardcore sex into a lofty art house film, but instead recognizes it as the logical extension of another genre: the comedy of sexual manners, set among Manhattan's bohemia. Shortbus certainly isn't the first movie in which neurotic New Yorkers talk endlessly about sex and art, but it's the first in which the actors engage in more than just talk, on screen. Imagine Woody Allen with circle blowjobs and remote-controlled vibrators. Frank Zappa famously asked whether it's possible to laugh during sex. In Shortbus, laughter is not only possible but absolutely necessary, and there's nothing wrong with singing "The Star Spangled Banner" into your lover's asshole.
"Voyerism is participation:" PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson in Shortbus© ThinkFilm
The playful spirit of Shortbus is established right away by a scale model of New York City that's a lot cuter and much easier to navigate than the real thing. Spatially connected through swirling flights of fancy through the cartoon city, a number of individual stories develop: there's Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a frigid sex counselor who's unhappily married to Rob (Raphael Barker,) "the two Jamies," (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy) who struggle with their relationship, and a lonely, Polaroid-obsessed dominatrix to trust fund hipsters whose real name is rather more friendly than the Sacher-Masoch-inspired Severin (Lindsay Beamish.)
They all meet in the secret downtown club that gives the film its name, a "salon for the gifted and challenged" where initiates go to eat "potcorn," participate in orgies, or just watch as self-proclaimed orgasmic superheroes, albinos and dreadlocked chicks that go by "Bitch" do their thing. "Just like the Sixites, only with less hope," drag queen Justin Bond proclaims, but that's not quite true, either. A fictional version of former New York mayor Ed Koch gives a moving speech about his closeted past and the need to become "permeable," a note of trust in our shared humanity that informs the rest of the movie.
A Joyful Carnival of Desperate Souls and Gleeful Deviants
Unlike Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus isn't technically a musical, but it feels like one, with musical interludes that accentuate the movie's lusty romp through New York's most schlong-shaped borough. When the city's lights fail, the film rides to its delicious climax, one of the most generous and sweet in memory, a joyful carnival of desperate souls and gleeful deviants that plays at once like a more honest and x-rated version of the deeply cynical 40-Year-Old Virgin, John Water's desperately inoffensive A Dirty Shame, Rushmore's Heaven & Hell Cotillion, and the final money shot from Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal: "We all get it in the end."
It's been a few weeks since I have seen Shortbus (and I've only seen it once so far), but it has colored my perception of every movie with romantic complications I've seen since. The handling of Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwarzman's marital problems in Marie Antoinette, the confused suburban desires in Little Children--they all seem prudish and dishonest now. Talking about 9 Songs, Michael Winterbottom observed that it was curious that audiences didn't expect sex in movies to be real--unlike, say, eating and drinking. Without going too far out on a limb, I feel that Shortbus has the potential to become one of the films that redefine audience expectations, a watershed that divides other movies with similar themes into before and after. It's that good.