Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Shortbus (2006): Bringing Sexy Back

Shortbus (2006)
dir: John Cameron Mitchell

Shortly after the failure of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, American cinema underwent a change to be more conservative in its sexuality. Queer movies started pulling back a little in their explorations of sexuality. Straight movies totally did. Between 2000 and 2005, only a handful of movies dealt with sexuality in an explicit enough nature to warrant an NC-17. Of those which received NC-17 ratings for explicit content, only 7 were American, and one of those was a documentary on a porn film from the 1970s.

Queer cinema, however, was starting to come into its own at that point, and had been making a bit of headway in sexuality with more explicit scenes in semi-mainstream foreign films like Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers and Pedro Alomodavar's Bad Education. With sexuality being repressed in both queer cinema and straight cinema, and the world still recovering from the worries of September 11th (5 years later), suddenly, it seemed right to get back to our roots. To our souls. To our genitalia.

John Cameron Mitchell made Shortbus to be released in 2006 as a way to say that sexuality is beautiful and should be in films other than pornographic films. He didn't care if you were gay, straight, poly, kinky, vanilla, oppressed, repressed, open and flowing...sexuality was an open topic for Shortbus. With it, Mitchell seems to have opened up the floodgates for a new wave of queer explicitness, an Equal Sex Film Movement, that is continuing today.

Shortbus isn't a porno, nor is it indulging in porno lite trashiness. Mitchell didn't make a movie that was sex for sex's sake. Instead, Shortbus was more like the kicking down of doors in human sexuality by celebrating sexuality in all of its weird and absurd forms, but also understanding it in a humanistic way that is more than just exploiting a bodily act. When people are in and out of love, they can have explicit relations, repress their own sexuality, tell things about each other, to each other, and everything just is complicated and messy just like life. Rarely is any of the sexuality actually bad.

There are 3 stories that Mitchell weaves together to interconnect and lead and follow and pulse and vibrate with each other. The central story is that of Sofia Lin, a couples counselor and sex therapist, who has never had an orgasm, even though her story is opened with wild aggressive jungle sex with her husband Rob. The second story is that of Jamie and James, a queer couple of 5 years. James is going through a serious depression, especially after having seen a man die in the hot tub at the gym where he hot tubs. The both believe that they can accomplish something by opening up their relationship. And, the final, somewhat tertiary story, is that of Severin, a dominatrix who also swings both ways and in severe need of human connection.

Jamie and James go to Sofia before they open up everything in order to learn about themselves and their own relationship, and through a wild act of unprofessionalism learn about Sofia's issue. So, they introduce her to a place called Shortbus, which is essentially wild loft/apartment created like an artistic hippy's heaven, where people go to connect, engage, and screw without judgement or abandon. The host of this slice of erotic heaven is Justin Bond, a queer transgendered performance artist who welcomes everybody with open arms. In Shortbus, there are hovels of lesbians, rooms of straight people, gay men, leathers, bears, and everybody else you could imagine all struggling to connect and find each other in the throbbing pool of humanity that is a big city.

Earlier I made mention that Shortbus kicked down the floodgates, but I would be remiss to say that it is a compassionate, embracing, and welcoming movie compared to a thematically similar NC-17 movie from 2004, John Waters' A Dirty Shame. John Waters created a movie about a woman who was once prudish, got conked on the head, and became embracing of the varying arrays of sexuality through the help of Johnny Knoxville's home to sex. Both are essentially saying that sexuality is a human right, and a beautiful thing, and that everybody should be accepting and embracing of everybody else even if it isn't quite your kick. But, where Mitchell is celebrating in far more generic terms, Waters was pointing out all of the weirdos and embracing them in his own fashion.Where Shortbus is all about a community helping one woman to orgasm, A Dirty Shame was about one woman trying to connect a divided community. And, Shortbus is committed to open and healthy conversations while A Dirty Shame is more like a snide punk trying to shock you by showing off its vast knowledge.

Shortbus also had more on its mind, by centering everything in New York City, and also making a big show of this being a post-disaster society. After all, NYC is where the Twin Towers fell, and that is the community that felt the disaster the most. There are direct references to this being an all-American rebellious celebration of sexuality, from the opening frame of a drawing of the Statue of Liberty to the rimjob threesome edition of the Star Spangled Banner to the Sex Not Bombs room in Shortbus, which is essentially a writing mass of naked humping flesh under a hanging A-bomb, showing the duality of life and death, and the celebration of freedom in the face of disaster.

Shortbus is simultaneously a preachy film and also a not preachy film. In methods very similar to Plato's The Symposium, Mitchell allows his characters to ramble on about their thoughts about life, love, the pursuit of happiness. Some of this is verbal rambling, and some of it is actually rambling through the actions of their plots. Some of it is right. Some of it is silly. Some perverse. Some erotic. Some drunken. And, some is just plain wrong. But, as long as it is welcoming and embracing without emotionally destroying other people, the theory is entertained in the house of Shortbus. There's a stalker/voyeur who follows James and Jamie, does a bad thing and a good thing in their lives. The bad thing is punished and the good thing rewarded.

Of course, this is all about emotions and feelings, but Mitchell also made a very very explicit movie that never dives into pornographic exploitation. Well, rarely. A boy has to flourish sometimes. But, Mitchell opens up Shortbus with a pan into James' bathroom where he's in the tub, and it pans out so you can see his semi-hard penis, which he then films his attempts at autofellatio. The wild monkey sex between Rob and Sofia? You see all of it. You also see Severin and her frequent trust fund baby client, who harasses her need for human contact in order to get more punishment out of her. This explicit and frankness has led to a newer era that is starting to have more mainstream frank explorations of sexuality be accepted.

Luckily, for all of us, Shortbus ended up being not only a barrier busting movie, but a GOOD barrier busting movie that was very carefully laid out to avoid the levels of exploitation that would surely be leveled at it. I'm sure some would call it one step too far, that open sexuality is a bad thing, that it doesn't explore the deterioration of the nuclear family. Etc etc etc. Tish tosh. In order to make a good home, one has to learn how to communicate, which is all this movie is. It's brilliant, and witty, sometimes a bit too obvious or on the nose, but otherwise thoroughly enjoyable.

Required Viewing.

No comments:

Post a Comment