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This Is Hardcore: John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus”

This Is Hardcore: John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus"

Shortbus,” John Cameron Mitchell‘s first film since the raucous and more than a tad melancholic “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” opens with another decidedly masculine-featured diva transplanted to America from Europe: the Statue of Liberty. With bold, smooth glides, the camera caresses the faded green copper of the crowned lady as if it were a lover’s skin. It’s an invitation not only to look at New York City a little differently but also to marvel at its sensual textures. Soon enough though, such regal introductions give way to a panoply of porno-acrobatics: freedom, in all its permutations, is indeed filling the screen, from the auto-erotic to the sadomasochistic, vertical, horizontal, and diagonal. Smartly, Mitchell thrusts us quite literally into his erotic-neurotic Manhattan landscape so there will be no doubt, and no anticipation: “Shortbus” is hardcore.

That’s just the beginning; what’s most remarkable is that once it’s over, it’s quite unlikely that the first thing you’ll recall about the film is the sex. Mitchell has perhaps completely achieved what he set out to do: to normalize pornography within a mainstream narrative, to allow it to function as simply another character trait, to display erections, spooge, and penetration without them overwhelming the people, landscape, or story. Mitchell’s cinematic instincts — so musical, so grandiose, so spectacularly queer yet attempting to be hetero-friendly — are so dead-on (“Shortbus” contains the most humane, compassionate use of the close-up of any American film this year) that it will be easy for many to overlook “Shortbus”‘s slightly faulty wiring and precarious plot pivots. Like “Hedwig,” “Shortbus” achieves joy through sadness, spiritual elation through psychological agony, yet whereas “Hedwig” remained refreshingly independent and searching right to the end, while also finding an emotional solace, “Shortbus” seems all too eager to provide easy catharses. Yet you may be too caught up in the elegance of the cutting and the exhilaration of the music (Animal Collective‘s “Winter’s End” provides the melodious backdrop for the sexually egalitarian climax) to even notice.

“Shortbus” is a thoroughly engaging communal experience, yet there’s a central disingenuousness in its purporting to be a cross-sectional look at human sexuality: There’s something almost retrograde about its female exploration — it’s the same old search for that elusive (one character calls it “mythical”) orgasm. Downtown Manhattan hipster super-couple James (Paul Dawson), a former hustler, and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a former sitcom child star, are seeing high-strung sexual therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee, who did a wordless cameo as one of Hedwig’s Korean housewife bandmates); their relationship, perceived by everyone else as rock-hard, has begun to falter, in between and out of the sheets. Meanwhile, as we have already gathered from the wham-bam (thank you ma’am) opening, Sofia has issues of her own; namely, she’s a self-identified “preorgasmic.” James and Jamie invite Sofia to the bacchanalian club Shortbus, a “salon for the gifted and challenged,” in order to help her on her way to emotional and clitoral fulfillment.

Even if Sofia gets the short shrift narratively, “Shortbus” is so earnest and lovable, and Sook-Yin Lee’s performance is so open and dynamic, that the film’s overall fabric feels tightly woven, if momentarily. Mitchell’s aesthetic is probably too stylized to completely achieve that free-for-all spontaneity that’s meant to form the story’s core, but his sense of cinematic and musical rhythm pays off big time. Unlike the hideous rutting in Michael Winterbottom‘s dreadful “9 Songs,” the sex here is spliced together with musical force, a rush of motion. Often, “Shortbus” feels like the optimistic, New York cousin to Tsai Ming-liang‘s “Vive l’amour” or “What Time Is It There?“, certainly in its frantically crosscut final moments. Both Tsai and Mitchell see dysfunction and disconnection, yet here isolation breeds togetherness; in a climactic power outage (much like those of Tsai’s flooded cityscapes), sex literally gives the city an electric charge.

Despite his film’s simplified overdetermination and tidy wrap-ups, Mitchell manages to do something that many filmmakers find surprisingly difficult: make sex sexy. Compare any one of Winterbottom’s drab fucks with the delicate turn-on of the scene in which the boyish Ceth (Jay Brannan) serenades James and Jamie with his guitar before engaging in a riotous, tender three-way, and it becomes clear — it’s the gradual accruing of character traits, rather than the anonymity of flesh, that sets “Shortbus” apart. Mitchell may not be a master at slapstick (often the film breaks down when his characters behave uncharacteristically broadly), but he is able to capture a time and a place as well as anyone working today. The cast is game and adorable, yet New York City is the real star here — everything that New York is is here: its simultaneous liberation and entrapment, its fear of AIDS and its sexual permissiveness, its financial struggle and its giddy opportunity, its post-9/11 disillusionment and its pre-apocalypse abandon.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]

A scene from John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus.” Photo courtesy of THINKFilm.

Take 2
By Keith Uhlich

Would that John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” were more of a balls-out comedy, it might have been a small masterpiece. (I now plan on randomly screaming “I’m an albino!” for months to come, and maybe even — as per the film — in the throes of back-end passion.) But Mitchell and his very game and appealing cast (with whom he collaborated on “Shortbus”‘s story) are after a false-hearted pathos/catharsis that leaves a decidedly sour aftertaste. Call the result Prozac Porn; as has been widely reported, this is one of, if not the first wide-release film to marry hardcore sex with conventional narrative. It’s a union borne out of genuine intent, and despite the middling result, I think there is a legitimate need for the culture at large to see images like these.

Mitchell, for the most part, eschews avant-garde mannerism (or at least subtly parodies it) as he follows his group of unlikely characters around an equally unlikely (read: whimsical) post-9/11 Manhattan. Couples and singles, gay and straight, all with their own sets of pent-up sexual and emotional problems, come together at the Shortbus sex club to achieve some kind of release, one that the film unfortunately illustrates — in its climactic moments — as a bastard stepchild music-video montage, complete with weepy indie rock and tear-strewn silent glances. Mitchell pulls his punches more often than not; despite all the self-pleasuring and XXX penetration on display, it all feels rather tame. When Justin Bond‘s transvestite Brothel Madame describes a Shortbus orgy as “just like the Sixties, only with less hope,” the observation doesn’t hit with any sort of profundity. It’s pseudo-Wildean pith joined with candy-colored Wonka visualizations: the “sextras,” as they’re called, might as well be Oompa-Loompas leading “Shortbus”‘s characters to what the “preorgasmic” sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) might term a “false epiphany.” That Mitchell treats his film’s modest revelations as sacrosanct universal truths exemplifies his intellectual myopia, but hey, he’s damn good with a punchline.

[Keith Uhlich is a contributor to Reverse Shot, a film critic for Slant magazine, and managing editor and contributing writer for the blog The House Next Door .]

A scene from John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus.” Photo courtesy of THINKFilm.

Take 3
By Jeannette Catsoulis

Introducing the trailer for “Shortbus,” John Cameron Mitchell tells us his film “isn’t about sex, it’s about sexuality.” This is, of course, complete nonsense; “Shortbus” is the most active-aggressive, single-minded, unapologetic movie about sex since Patrice Chereau‘s “Intimacy.” Unlike that film, however, “Shortbus” isn’t only about sex; this is a movie so dizzy with longing its characters can barely function. Sofia longs for transformation, Jamie longs for love, James longs for intimacy, and Severin longs for tenderness. But while most American movies prefer to access sex through the prism of romance — feeling must always precede fucking — “Shortbus” asks us to consider the reverse: What if sex can help us love? Or what if it’s just something fun to do while we wait?

This isn’t nearly as facile as it sounds. Neither a utopian manifesto nor a subversive attack on mainstream morals, “Shortbus” is a romantic comedy that dares to show whole human beings rather than the Hollywood castrati we’re accustomed to. And once you get over the initial shock of Mitchell’s gynecologist-cam, you cease to notice the pubic hair and begin to notice the humor of the script and the vulnerability of the cast (the wires running from between the legs to between the ears are almost visible). Yet for all its progressiveness, “Shortbus “is an oddly nostalgic film, a reminder of hippie love-ins and the heady days of Plato’s Retreat; the days before America — and American filmmaking — began to fear the orgasm more than the Uzi. I saw “Shortbus” a couple of hours after “Jesus Camp,” and it struck me that Mitchell’s film celebrates everything the evangelicals of “Jesus Camp” fear. It made my heart soar.

[Jeannette Catsoulis is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot who has also written for the Independent, DC One Magazine, and is a regular film critic for the New York Times.]

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