The one thing most readers of this newspaper have already heard about Shortbus is that it contains scenes of actors actually having sex. Yes, there are erections and cumshots, but the effect is totally unlike porn. Writer-director John Cameron Mitchell is more interested in stimulating other parts of the body than your crotch.
A couple of years ago, Mitchell apparently felt a desire to respond positively to America’s post-9/11 malaise, to let New Yorkers in particular relate better to their city and fellow citizens. He set up a website where he invited applicants for roles in his movie, with the criteria that they had to be intelligent, attractive and willing to have sex on camera. From the hundreds of audition tapes he chose six men and two women, then spent the next couple of years developing the characters and storylines with the actors.
The title Shortbus is the name of a club hosted by drag queen Justin Bond (a.k.a. Kiki, who performed with Herb at this year’s Mardi Gras festival). In New York, long yellow buses help the physically or mentally challenged or the exceptionally gifted to get out and about to expand their horizons. Similarly, at Shortbus, people (presumably those who meet Mitchell’s three criteria) can stretch their boundaries.
Among the club-goers are a hot gay couple looking to make a threesome, an Asian-Canadian sex therapist unable to have an orgasm with her husband and a dominatrix having a life crisis. Most of the explicit sex is in the first third of the movie -“ some of it hilariously awkward and unsuccessful -“ but after that the characters kick in and you fall in love with them all. Sook-Yin Lee is delightful as the therapist, fearlessly confronting her problem while touchingly ready to engage with others -“ her early encounter with a roomful of lesbians is a gem, and her experiment with a vibrating egg in her vagina is classic slapstick. Another standout is Jay Brannan as a sweet young model who is more perceptive than he seems. An impromptu musical number where he makes creative use of another man’s hard cock is hard to forget.
Mitchell himself leaps in to perform cunnilingus in a brief cameo, his first sex with a woman. If you liked his earlier Hedwig And The Angry Inch you’ll probably love Shortbus. Some might find it self-indulgent and over-sentimental -“ Mitchell can’t seem to curb his appetite for musical numbers and the last five minutes drag somewhat, pun intended.
However, despite some serious themes -“ suicide, loneliness, depression -“ this movie should send you out of the cinema feeling better about the world and the people around you. Considering the increasing level of explicit violence that film-makers are exposing us to, it is cheering and thought-provoking to see that sex can be freely shown in movies today and not just in art houses -“ Shortbus is also screening in the George Street megaplex. It’s well worth seeing, and you may be surprised that its sex scenes won’t be uppermost in your mind afterwards.