In ‘Shortbus’, The Loneliness of a Subsiding Orgasm

With several of our contributors literally too busy taking in impressions from the 2009 Bergen International Film Festival to do much reporting, we instead publish a review of Shortbus, one of the audience favorites of the 2006 festival.

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Don’t you just hate the term sex comedy? One thing is that it comes with associations to several waves of mediocre teen movies (like Porky’s in the 1980’s, or American Pie in the 90’s and 00’s), another is that it’s usually just a cheap marketing trick meant to label something more daring or interesting than it really is (for instance, Emile Hirsch was the only even remotely sexy thing about Girl Next Door) . I often sense a slight condescension in how many of these movies treat their viewers. Sure, I too am sometimes offended by how low the lowest common denominator can get, but more often I’m simply offended by how prudish these filmmakers assume their general audience to be. Every one of these films seem to get made in a vacuum, cutting themself off from thematically related films that have come before, and thus willfully oblivious to how the genre’s total body of work might have the contributed to changing the audience’s expectations and values over time. Not only does it ensure that the same cliches are trotted out over and over again; this palpable lack of self-confidence with regard to potential impact of an (admittedly loose) genre ensures the boundaries of the sex comedy are barely ever pushed. The main reason why the white heterosexual high school/college virgin comedy is now practically alone in the marketplace, seems to be because every new entry insists (ahistorically) on its own groundbreaking uniqueness.

Initially, this little rant about the sorry state of sex comedy was intended to render the whole genre useless, so as to assure that John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus would not be labeled one. There are two problems with this though; the first being that the inclusion of Shortbus would signal the exact broadening of its ranks and sensibilities that I just advocated, and the other, more substantive problem being that Shortbus is not even necessarily a comedy. If I were – against film’s entire ethos – to try to box it in, I think I’d label it a feel-good queer drama. As the sex comedy subgenre has stood for quite some time now, associating Shortbus with it would risk drawing that film down.

Sex comedy or not, what’s most refreshing about Shortbus is how unabashedly sex-positive it is. All of the main characters have some sort of sexually oriented secret or challenge in their lives, but their sexualities are never questioned or (implicitly) condemned, allowing them to be so much more than just sexual beings. Sure, the comedic potential of the subplot about the sex therapist who has never had an orgasm is not lost on Mitchell, but the emotional importance of her so desperately wanting to experience one, I suspect would have been outright ridiculed in a mainstream sex comedy. I would argue that in the mainstream sex comedy, we are first and foremost invited to laugh at the entire idea of sex(-uality) being important to (young) people, thus running the paradoxically counterproductive risk of making their sexual desires the only thing we know about them. I’m not saying there are not many things about young people’s oft-posited obsession with sex that have great comedic potential. What I’m instead trying to argue is that making us laugh at the thought of young sexuality itself is both dubious sexual politics, and also could be used as an excuse for screenwriters to not bother about creating some genuinely believable and relateable characters, instead assuming that the inherent edginess (oh no, not that!) of the topic itself will be enough to extract the necessary number of reluctant giggles from the audience.

Viewers more conservative than I might dispute my use of the term sex-positivism in at least two ways. First, they would probably point to the opening scene, in which we are introduced to the characters through how they have sex with themselves or each other, to argue that the movie is not so much sex-positive as it a self-conscious provocation. They would probably write it off as merely an attempt to shock the audience, something that would then disqualify it from being sex-positive, because sex is then used as an emotional vehicle by the filmmaker. Second, I would expect them to protest the term sex-positivism itself. Accepting the term (to many conservatives) would mean implicitly acknowledging that sexual frankness in film is not something that could or should always be avoided. Also, embracing sex-positivism at face value could be read as an endorsement of the diverse sexual practices depicted in the film, from extramarital experimentation, to orgies or (gasp!) gay sex.

But whether this is a critique the conservative viewer would actually make or not, my point in stating her (somewhat plausible) case is this: Contrary to the conservative position, I would argue that the most refreshing thing about Shortbus‘ actually is its lack of cynicism. For instance, there is much more to the aforementioned opening scene than just the sex. Shortbus is unabashedly sex-positive in the sense that it takes a proudly non-judgmental position on how love or lust might manifest itself (be it between young and old, two or more people at once, people of the same sex etc.), but it’s definitely not blind to the loneliness inherent in using sex as a sort of escape. Once the orgasm subsides, both the domina Severin and gay couple Jamie and James suffer from an inability to express their true worries and feelings, leaving them with a numbing sense that sex is the most important thing they share. Here, in the least expected of all plot lines, Shortbus shows that it’s so much more than your average sex comedy.

This surprisingly subtle focus on breakdowns in communication (which some have read as an allegory over the anxiety caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks), make it all the more fitting that one of the most moving scenes comes when two implausible partners finally open up to each other. Hammering home the movie’s non-judgmental tone, the tenderly beautiful young gay Ceth (played with effective restraint by singer/songwriter/actor Jay Brannan) talks to to an old man (played by Alan Mandell) who, it turns out, was once the mayor of New York, about his experience being a closeted gay political official at a time when that was equal to career suicide. There is nothing bitter about the old man, but there is a great sense of sadness, as seen on Mandell’s exceptionally expressive face. I don’t know why, but to me, that scene captured what happens when there is an instant connection between two people just perfectly. There might not be love there, but still I did’t feel the least bit queasy when their little heart-to-heart ended in a kiss.

That said, this wouldn’t have been a John Cameron Mitchell project if it weren’t also littered with campy humor. If he’s no cynic, at least he has a fine sense of that slightly uneasy giggle that most people use as a shield when confronted with sex on film. It’s precisely in such a moment that Jamie, in a particularly playful gay threesome scene leans over and asks Ceth: ‘This the first time someone sung the national anthem in your ass?‘. No matter how you spin it, that’s simply an absurdly funny line, and the audience I watched it with, laughed along with me. Likewise, not one to back off a chance to inject some over-the-top campness, the politics of the climactic scene near the film’s end, meant to symbolize liberation and a new beginning, is so deliciously, transparently naive that I can’t imagine that hadn’t been the intention all along.

What this means then, is that Shortbus practises what it preaches; genuine curiousity, sex-positivism and a shot at redemption. I wouldn’t be surprised if even those conservatives, so ashamed about having secretly enjoyed their sneak-peak at the wild side, could get in on the redemption thing.

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Jørgen Lien

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