“Shortbus” celebrates the lives and loves of New Yorkers
Ah love. It takes many forms and makes itself felt in different ways in different films. Often love is a man protecting his family in an action movie, a girl and her wild horse in a sentimental drama, or more commonplace, a man and a woman and the infinite variations that Hollywood seems to spin on that tried and true formula. For independent filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell however, love is a bit different. It comes from the front, from behind, in groups of two, three, or 20—or, in one very memorable scene, love comes from and into you.
“Shortbus” is all about what we are prepared to accept under the umbrella of this universal “love.” The story, which Mitchell developed in collaboration with his group of talented actors, follows several lonely and confused individuals in their search for intimacy, sexual or otherwise, in New York City, circa 2003.
Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a sex therapist who has never had pleasure from sex. James, not Jamie (Paul Dawson), is an aspiring personal filmmaker along the lines of Jonathan Caoette in Tarnation—a film Mitchell also produced. Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is a mohawked dominatrix who is as cruel to other people for her work as she is to herself on her off-days. Together, all these people visit a club called Shortbus, a sexual palace and gathering place to release the immeasurable stress of living in New York in this new century.
Together, their lives and bodies intersect along with a cast of even more interesting supporting characters, such as a “Rear Window”-esque voyeur, and a pastiche of a former New York City mayor. Sentimental? Absolutely. But because of this film’s graphic depiction of sex, its sentimentality might be ignored by some viewers.
Mitchell and his wonderful cast of characters make this ridiculous, maudlin story not just acceptable but endearing. Although “Shortbus” is advertised as a movie about sex—and there is a lot of sex, gay and straight, and occasionally with musical accompaniment—what Mitchell has crafted is a film about people who want to be loved; sex just happens to be a part of that, just like in real life.
We might look at the screen and see the uncensored and sometimes goofy displays of penetration and want to look away or feel disgusted. But what Mitchell is pushing his audience to do in “Shortbus” is to question our own aversion. The people we see having sex are doing so as an extension of their affection; the onus is on the viewer. Mitchell is telling us that the reason this sex is making us uncomfortable is because of our uneasiness with the roles of our own sexualities—a fear that the characters in “Shortbus” all learn to overcome.
Near the beginning of the film, the host of Shortbus (the wonderful Justin Bond of “Kiki and Herb”) says of the club’s prurient behavior, “it’s like the ’60s, but with less hope.” However, “Shortbus” is nothing if not a film about hope and love and the corny but emotionally true ways that people find each other. With “Shortbus,” Mitchell proves that his earlier film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” was not a fluke, and also shows that he is one of the most audacious and endearing filmmakers of his day. In 2006, he tells us all we need is love. Amazingly, to the film’s credit, it sounds revolutionary.