Shortbus (USA 2006, Comedy/Drama/Romance), Writer/Director: John Cameron Mitchell
This post is another special request from BD. (You’ve got great taste in films, BTW. I’ll bring you mine tonight to see what you think!)
Shortbus’ working title was The Sex Film Project, which sets the stage well for what you can expect from the movie. It follows the interconnected lives of several New Yorkers who meet at Shortbus, a salon that celebrates art, love, communion and sex. The patrons come together to talk politics, wax philosophical, and engage in various carnal acts.
Technically, the film is a great achievement. It was made on a relatively low budget of $2 million (it pains me to call that a low budget—I could make eight feature films for that amount!) and was funded by some unusual sponsors, including Moby and Canadian writer Douglas Coupland (I love his work). The film is well shot, and features creative editing that doesn’t rush but takes some liberties with chronology to make certain scenes flow better. The soundtrack includes a great mix of fun and touching music. The script is excellent and betrays as great a sense of humour as of humanity on writer/director John Cameron Mitchell’s part (I’m thinking of the gay three-way scene when one participant sings the Star-Spangled Banner into another’s ass). Mitchell developed the script using the same approach that British writer/director Mike Leigh made famous in films such as Secrets and Lies; he had the actors improvise their scenes as a means of developing and exploring their characters’ histories and motivations.
These technical components come together to allow Mitchell to explore what Shortbus is really about: sex. Sex in the film is notable not because of how graphic it is, but because it is completely desexualized. In Mitchell’s world, sex isn’t about eroticism so much as it is about people connecting, expressing, bonding and laughing. Sex is treated as a language, a way of communicating. For the people at the salon, the act is safe and trusting; they’re like children playing in a bathtub, when sexuality was still innocent and no one had told them it was wrong.
Most of the main characters in Shortbus are unable to feel or connect in some way. It’s as if there’s a physical blockage that prevents energy from flowing through them—either sexual, spiritual or emotional energy. Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee of CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera) is a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm. Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is a dominatrix who can’t connect with other people. James (Paul Dawson) can’t let anyone penetrate him, emotionally or physically. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, he describes his depression by saying: “I see (happiness) all around me but it stops at my skin. I can never let it in.” It’s a beautiful moment and a beautiful performance from Dawson.
Throughout the film, Mitchell cuts to a gorgeous computer-generated model of New York, which serves as a metaphor for his characters’ blocked energy. As the story progresses, we see the lights in the model city go out one by one. After several brown-outs, the energy is completely cut off, culminating in a blackout near the film’s conclusion. The electricity only returns to Manhattan when Sofia finally reaches orgasm and the other characters have begun to open themselves up, releasing their own energy and letting other people’s energy flow through them.
In one of the film’s opening scenes, we learn that James and his boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy) are thinking of opening up their relationship. That sums up what all the characters want (and need)—to open up and let others in.
What touched me most about Shortbus is the complete lack of judgment with which the characters are treated. Gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transgendered… Mitchell treats each of his characters with the same love and respect they give each other. All of the characters have pure intentions; there is no malevolence in any of the relationships, no desire to hurt. It’s almost the opposite dynamic from the one in Bad Education (see the Bad Education review from July 2007). Both films feature people who can’t connect, but Shortbus’ characters are filled with real love—the unconditional desire for another person to find what’s best for them. James’ stalker, Caleb (Peter Stickles), doesn’t want to break up James and Jamie; he wants them to be happy together. When Jamie sees James through the window and realizes he’s been with Caleb, he isn’t angry; he’s overjoyed that James is alive and safe.
It’s interesting that Douglas Coupland played in role in getting Shortbus made. Before I learned about his involvement, I’d already been thinking about how the film reminded me of a short story from one of my very favourite books, Coupland’s Life After God. Here’s an excerpt:
“I had recently begun worrying about my feelings disappearing more and more—noticing that I had seemed to simply be feeling less and less. These worries became more focused and stronger as I was driving… I tried to forget what I was thinking about and just listen to the radio… The radio stations all seemed to be talking about Jesus non-stop, and it seemed to be this crazy orgy of projection, with everyone projecting onto Jesus the antidotes to the things that had gone wrong in their own lives. He is Love. He is Forgiveness. He is Compassion. He is a Wise Career Decision. He is a Child Who Loves Me. I was feeling a sense of loss as I heard these people. I felt like Jesus was sex—or rather, I felt like I was from another world where sex did not exist and I arrived on Earth and everyone talked about how good sex felt, and showed me their pornography and built their lives around sex, and yet I was forever cut off from the true sexual experience. I did not deny that the existence of Jesus was real to these people—it was merely that I was cut off from their experience in a way that was never connectable.”
Coupland taps into the same feelings of emptiness and disconnect that Mitchell explores in his film. Shortbus is set in a post-9/11 Manhattan.* The host at Shortbus explains that young people come to New York because of the World Trade Center attacks: “It’s the only real thing that’s ever happened to them.” They arrive in the city desperate to feel something, to find something to believe in.
Coupland’s reference to sex and Jesus and forgiveness brings to mind another line in Shortbus. An elderly male patron explains that: “People come to New York to get laid… People also come to New York to be forgiven.” The characters in Shortbus come to forgive each other and, most importantly, to forgive themselves. In Mitchell’s words: “Everybody’s there. Every sexuality. Everyone’s welcome. Food. Drink. Art. Sex. Friendship. Love. They are all on the table, and there’s talent, and there’s mercy.”
I want to end with a line from another favourite novel of mine, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees: “Kathleen is truly and utterly and completely Kathleen in New York. That’s what the city does for you if it’s meant for you.”
* It strikes a personal chord for me because I temporarily moved to Manhattan just three days after the WTC attacks. While I was there, I started writing notes on a feature script that I finished when I returned home to Canada. The scriptexplores some of the same themes as Life After God. What happens when people no longer have anything to believe in? I had the premise in mind before arriving in New York—it came to me in a dream, actually—but the theme of the loss of, and the search for, faith came about while I was living in Manhattan.