I can’t speak for all the ladies out there but there comes a point in every boy’s life when he discovers he has a penis and how good it feels to lavish said penis with much attention. Sadly, the realization that there is more to life than satisfying your penis’ urges does not subsequently occur for every boy. In the opening scene of John Cameron Mitchell’s provocative new film, SHORTBUS, James (Paul Dawson) sits immersed in his bathtub. He has a video camera in hand and it is not long before he turns his focus to his flaccid member. What follows is a pulsating montage that introduces most of the film’s other players and sets the tone, announcing in a barrage of eruptions exactly what to expect. Broken up by sweeping spurts of an animated New York City (strikingly animated by John Bair), James bends over backwards for some good old fashioned auto-fellatio until his boyfriend, Jamie (PJ DeBoy), comes home; sex therapist, Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) gets busy with her husband (Raphael Barker) all over their apartment before she fakes an orgasm rather convincingly; and dominatrix/prostitute, Severin (Lindsay Beamish), whips her latest John while he asks her views on world events and adds his own, uh, personal squiggles to the Jackson Pollock above his bed. There is no use hiding the sex in a movie about sex and you know instantly whether this is a movie for you or not. Sex controls these people’s lives. It motivates their decisions, stands in the way of their happiness and, for a little while, their frustrations become mirrors unto our own sexuality.
John Cameron Mitchell is a man who clearly thinks about sex very often. That being said, he clearly doesn’t just think about it with the head between his legs but the one on top of his shoulders as well. His previous feature film, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (which he also wrote and starred in), smashed walls surrounding gender identification and forced people to see the person and not just the genitalia. With SHORTBUS, Mitchell dives deeper into desire and sexual identity. Characters like lovers, James and Jamie, want to open up their relationship and talk themselves through it to make sure they survive the transition. When they let a third man in on their fun, they blur the lines between love and sex. Like many others, they want to push themselves towards the exploration of their desires but they also ignore the emotional ramifications of being so open-minded. Meanwhile, Severin’s persona is hyper-sexualized to the point of being one-dimensional. She makes sure she comes across as a powerful sexual being but owning one’s sexuality outright means running the risk of having that become the dominant facet of your identity or, as in Severin’s case, it becomes a convenient rock to hide behind. In one of the film’s more touching plot lines, Severin’s rebellion pushes her so far from herself that she can no longer even say her real name out loud.
Serving as the opposing repression to Severin’s expression is the relationship between Sofia and Rob. Given her role as a couples’ therapist, the twosome strive for complete openness but what they maintain hidden are their deepest sexual desires and issues. In one of the film’s more brilliant moments of subtlety, Sofia, locked in her bathroom, is determined to give herself an orgasm, something she has never been able to do by herself or with the aid of someone else. The progression is coming along smoothly until Rob’s music blaring from the living room takes her out of the moment. The funny thing is that his music is purposefully that loud so that Sofia can’t hear him masturbating. When she storms in on him, he hurries to close his laptop so that she doesn’t see the sadomasochistic porn he’s watching. Whereas they seemed earlier to have a very healthy sex life together, it is revealed here that their connection only goes so far. Sofia does not know of Rob’s S&M interests and he doesn’t know she’s never been able to climax. As a result, neither is being fully honest with themselves or with each other causing their hang-ups to transition into actual marital problems.
SHORTBUS is not without its shortcomings. Hiring actors who are willing to do almost anything on camera means potentially not hiring the best people for the roles. While Lee and Beamish exhibit both strength and vulnerability in their roles, creating a quiet intimacy between them, the Jamie’s are merely amateurish. Deboy is devoid of personality and Dawson is meant to be downtrodden but comes off more as passive. Their surface performances lend to the film’s inability to go to the depths it needs to. Given that the film is trying to delineate between the physical and emotional permeation of one’s body and soul, just scratching the surface is not enough. In that sense, SHORTBUS is like mediocre sex – it passes the time and it is enjoyable but it doesn’t make your body ache for more and everything you felt during is gone by the time you get out of the shower.