Starring: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish
Written By: John Cameron Mitchell
Directed By: John Cameron Mitchell
Released in 2006
Following the success of Hedwig and the Angry Inch John Cameron Mitchell decided his next film project would be about sex. He put out a call for audition tapes asking people to tell him a personal story; he received hundreds of applications. He and his development team then picked 40 people for the initial callback. These 40 people were invited to a screening of their own audition tapes and asked to rate each person they saw on a scale of sexual attractiveness.
After this, the production team found a group of nine individuals who were sexually compatible with at least one other participant and invited them to a series of workshops. There they workshopped their characters, growing them and their interactions from these exercises. From these improvisations and experiments, Mitchell wrote the script.
Sook Yin-Lee, the Canadian singer/television personality, was nearly fired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for choosing to appear in the film, but they relented after receiving letters of complaint from the likes of Yoko Ono, Michael Stipe, Gus Van Sant, and Francis Ford Coppola, among others. Two actors dropped out in fear of the effect the film would have on their careers. Lindsay Beamish was brought in to play Severin, a dominatrix whose name is taken from the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel, Venus in Furs. They worked to build rapport and trust with one another
When principal photography on the film began two and a half years later, the actors worked off of the script, but were encouraged to stray from it if they chose. The script acted as a loose corral around the story, and would provide an outline, but the dialogue was largely fluid.
Yeah. I got one. What is Shortbus?
A movie about human connection starring a cast of unknown actors, directed by an independent film star!
But wait, one of them is famous.
Famous? Famous for what?
She's a well known Canadian...
There is real, penetrational, naked, uncensored sex.
Hey, hey, hey! Sign me up! Let me just call up a few of my friends, get a few brewskis,
unbutton the pants, and take a trip down to Palmsdale!
Uh. This isn't that type of movie.
It really isn't. Shortbus is about a group of people who have no trouble having sex. All kinds of sex. Wild sex, easy sex, kinky sex sex sex mmmmppphhhh mmmmmpphhhh. What none of them are able to do is feel a connection to one another. The film isn't shot like an adult film; it doesn't feature extreme close-ups of anatomy and people grunting and moaning like idiots. Sex is pretext, it is context, it is never the story.
The film opens with James naked in his bathtub, Sophia and Rob having sex in the oddest positions, and Severin whipping one of her clients as he asks inane questions. Before we know who they are and what they do, we see them in the most intimate of contexts. This gives the audience a clear picture of what to expect up front, without slipping the sex in the back door. Sophia (Sook Yin-Lee) is a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm. Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is a dominatrix looking for a real relationship with another human being. James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy) are a gay couple who explore sex with a young twink named Ceth (pronounced Seth, played by Jay Brannen). All of them converge on an underground sex club called Shortbus, a "salon for the gifted and challenged", run by Justin Bond (of Kiki and Herb). Most of the film is composed of conversations between two of the myriad of main characters.
Your first viewing is a chance to do one of two things: nitpick and bitch about all the things you dislike or don't believe, or open up yourself to the emotional beauty contained in this film. The former offers a treasure trove of material; The acting in some places is threadbare, pacing is sacrificed in order to deliver didactic monolouges about the nature of sex, love, or NYC. Some of it feels completely contrived, rushed, and roughshod; Mitchell attempts to employ every single weird novelty act in New York in bit parts in this movie.
But there are real moments too. There is a moment during the film when Severin, whipping a john, says "It's hard not to feel anything in your life." I had to watch the movie five times before that sunk in.
At that point I had ceased to criticize the film; it was now criticizing me. How many times do I accept quick sexual release when what I need is a kiss on the forehead and someone who refuses to end the hug? Why am I more terrified of becoming emotionally attached than I am of STDs? How much of my dislike of my film stems from the fact that what I'm seeing is familiar?
This is a movie about sexuality, but not about sex. It is out of focus in some parts; some parts are still and silent and weigh upon you like a heart made of crystal. Like Hedwig and the Angry Inch this will require several viewings to grasp the full scope of its many layers.
The tone of the film is lighthearted and voyeuristic, but the serious bits are dovetailed seamlessly with the other stuff. It is a comedy, a drama, and a film about being human and not really knowing where to go from here. I would recommend it for anyone who knows the terror of emotional numbness, and for anyone who enjoys the freshness and candor of experimental independent films.
Author's Note: Full Disclosure: I have seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch over fifty times. I was completely ga ga over it when it came out.
Author's warning: I am serious about this uncensored sex thing. Ever seen a man suck another man's dick? Ever seen a man suck his OWN dick? Don't want to? Then do NOT watch this film.