The Holy Grail Is Filled With Lube
by Greta Christina
Shortbus. Starring Raphael Barker, Lindsay Beamish, Justin Bond, Jay Brannan, Paul Dawson, PJ DeBoy, Peter Stickles, and Sook-Yin Lee. Original music by Yo La Tengo. Written by John Cameron Mitchell, in conjunction with the cast. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. 102 minutes. Unrated. Opens October 4 in New York, October 6 in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
He’s cracked the code. He’s found the Grail. Best known until now as the director/co-writer/star of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” John Cameron Mitchell has done the thing that it seemed was going to be done in the ’70s but never quite happened; the thing that those of us who care about sex and movies have been hoping for decades would happen but never really expected to see.
He’s made a movie — a regular, non-porno, arthouse-circuit, movie-type movie — with real sex. Explicit, non-faked, “actors actually doing it” sex. Lots of it, not just a scene or two. And he’s made it good. The smart, funny, engaging, “stay up ’til two in the morning talking about it” kind of good. Serious, top-notch, deserving of many awards good.
And now nobody else can ever again say that it can’t be done.
“Shortbus” is unquestionably about sex. I mean, come on — the working title was “The Sex Film Project.” But it’s not about sex in the way that, say, “Debbie Does Dallas” is about sex. It’s about sex in the way that “The Godfather” is about the Mafia, the way “Babette’s Feast” is about food. Sex is the hook, the peg to hang the ideas on. It isn’t so much about sex as it is about what sex means, how people use it, what place it has in our lives. It isn’t so much about sex as it is about the problem of intimacy — the problem of how to connect with other people without losing yourself.
It digs into that question through seven main characters, who intertwine and intersect at a New York sex club/art salon called Shortbus. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a couples’ counselor/sex therapist, who’s never had an orgasm and fakes it dramatically with her husband. There’s Rob (Raphael Barker), Sofia’s sensitive and supportive husband, who has no job or direction — or indeed life — of his own. There’s Jamie (PJ DeBoy), a former TV child star with an unsettling attachment to his old TV catch phrase, who can’t let go of his former fame and who wants more than anything to “love everyone in the world.” There’s James (Paul Dawson), Jamie’s lover, a former hustler, who’s obsessively filming his life for the lover he’s getting increasingly detached from. There’s Ceth, pronounced Seth (Jay Brannan), a dishy young model in constant search of a husband, who hooks up with Jamie and James — and leaps giddily to the assumption that the two of them are the husband for him. There’s Caleb (Peter Stickles), a quietly creepy freelance proofreader who stalks/spies on Jamie and James and has become scarily obsessed with their relationship. And there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix and amateur artist, a woman with perceptive and profound insight into other people’s lives and problems — and an equally profound inability to connect with those people in a way that’s anything other than confrontational.
And right from the beginning, you see these people’s characters — and their neuroses — sketched out in their sex lives. Sofia and Rob, who look like a perfect couple from a Gap commercial, start the movie having wild porn-star sex in every position in the Kama Sutra, followed by a smug little post-coital chat about how great their life is. (Sofia actually says, “I feel sorry for couples who don’t have what we have.”) But we soon find out that Sofia’s not getting off and is faking it so Rob won’t leave her… and a bit later on, we learn that Rob isn’t getting the one thing he needs to wake him up sexually and make him feel connected. James starts the movie masturbating into his mouth on camera, for the film he’s making for Jamie… but when Jamie comes home and wants to make love, James turns him away. Meanwhile, Caleb is watching James jerk off — actually, he’s watching James filming himself jerking off — through a telephoto camera lens from a neighboring building. Ceth starts his stretch of the movie using a hand-held electronic dating-service device to try to meet guys… while he’s at the Shortbus sex club and art salon, surrounded by amazing people of all genders and preferences. And Severin is half-heartedly whipping the ass of a smug trust-fund hipster who keeps pressing her with nosy questions that seem profound and probing on the surface but are actually glib and meaningless.
Now, the thing that strikes you right off the bat about the sex in “Shortbus” isn’t just what a natural facet of the characters it is. What strikes you about the sex in “Shortbus” is how natural it is, period — how authentic it feels, how much it looks like real human sex.
I mean, if you’ve heard anything about this film, you’ve heard that it’s the Real Sex movie. And even if you’ve seen a lot of porn, you might expect to be somewhat startled by that, either shocked or titillated or both. But the very explicitness of the sex actually makes it less jarring. In most non-porn movies, when you see someone naked, it’s so fleeting — and so out-of-place — that you can’t help but be jolted out of the narrative while you stare at their goodies. But in “Shortbus,” the nudity and the sex are so upfront, so un-selfconscious, and such a fluid part of the story, that you almost immediately stop being surprised by it. The sex in “Shortbus” doesn’t push you away from the characters, to drool over them from a voyeuristic distance — it draws you in, to identify with the characters and care about them.
And I think because of this, the sex doesn’t get used as a symbol of the characters and their strengths or flaws. In most movies, good sex and bad sex are handed out like lollipops or spankings — rewards or punishments for being the right or wrong kind of person. But in “Shortbus,” bad sex isn’t a finger-wagging punishment for being neurotic and troubled. It’s just one aspect of a neurotic and troubled life. The sex isn’t a consequence of these people’s lives. It’s part of their lives. It isn’t separate.
There are so many examples of this, and I could gas on at great length about every single one. But my favorite is the remote control vibrator. After going to the Shortbus sex club on her own, Sofia brings Rob along — along with a remote control vibrating egg, the egg portion of which she tucks into her panties, and the control portion of which she hands to her husband. The idea is that they’ll wander around the party on their own, but when he wants to connect with her, he can give her a little remote control buzz, and she’ll feel it and know that it’s his touch.
But Rob is distracted and uncomfortable at the party, and he sticks the remote in his back pocket and pretty much forgets about it. He does set it off, several times — but he does it by accident, without even knowing he’s doing it, leaning against a door or flopping down on a sofa. Eventually he loses the remote… and it gets picked up by someone else at the party, who tries to flip channels on the TV with it.
So Sofia keeps thinking that Rob is sending her happy little sexy “I love you” messages by remote control… but in fact, he’s not. He’s in his own little world, and isn’t really thinking about her at all. And the buzzes keep going off at exactly the wrong moment, interrupting connections and conversations that Sofia’s having with other people, turning moments of genuine intimacy into awkward erotic faux pas. Once Sofia discovers that Rob has lost the remote, every shred of her therapy-speak “own your own feelings” relationship style gets blown into shrapnel. She flies into a rage — probably the most honest and direct communication she’s had with Rob in ages — and smashes the egg into pieces.
In other words, the device that’s meant to create a loving and sexy connection between them winds up just being sexual static — the illusion of a connection without a real connection — that gets in the way of any closeness they might have with other people, without fostering any intimacy between the two of them.
Kind of like their marriage.
That may sound depressing and grim. But “Shortbus” is anything but. It’s a serious movie, yes, and at times it’s fucking tragic. But it’s also funny and clever, touching and sexy, engaging and sweet. And it’s hopeful. This is actually one of the things I like best about the movie — it’s positive about sex, without being deluded about it. It doesn’t pretend that good people will always be rewarded with happy sex; it doesn’t pretend that all sexual problems are easily solved with the right toy or technique or even the right partner; it doesn’t pretend that sex will save the world. It acknowledges how complicated sex is, how wrong it can go, how badly it can hurt when it goes wrong. It sees all that — and it still sees sex as joyful, and necessary, and worth trying to do right. It sees sex as an essential form of human connection — and it sees human connection as worth doing, maybe the only thing worth doing, even when it’s difficult and frustrating and doesn’t go right.
I could go on an on. This could easily have been a five-thousand word movie review, and I’d still have felt like I had more to say. I could talk about the recurring theme of documentation and self-documentation: how everyone in the movie is filming and photographing themselves and each other, so busy trying to connect through art and technology that they wind up making themselves distant and self-conscious. (Like having your primary form of connection with the world involve sitting at a computer by yourself at two in the morning telling everyone what to think, just for example…)
I could talk about how non-simplistic that theme is, how the movie isn’t just a heavy-handed ironic screed about the isolation of the modern world. I could talk about how the tools people use to connect in the movie do sometimes help them connect, even when they’re crossing their wires… and how the crossed wires sometimes turn into real connections.
I could talk about how, unlike almost every other movie ever made about love and sex, “Shortbus” doesn’t view every dissolved relationship as an unredeemed tragedy. I could talk about how rare it is for a movie to acknowledge that some relationships make people unhappy — even good people who are trying their best — and that sometimes a break-up is the beginning of a happy ending.
I could talk about the fact that all the jobs the main characters have — actor, model, sex worker, proofreader, therapist — are all jobs that are about communication and connection… and yet are also about keeping a leash on self-expression, molding the face you present into something other people need.
I could talk at great length about the repeated theme of boundaries and boundariless-ness: the delicate balance between too much distance and not enough, the question of how to keep reasonable boundaries without building impenetrable walls, and how to let the world penetrate you without losing your own skin.
I could talk at very great length about how fluid sexual identity is in the movie, and how naturally people from different sexual identity groups connect and interact. The lesbians and gay men and straight people all have their little worlds; but this is a modern American city, and these worlds all overlap, and these people all know each other. This is actually one of the most striking things about “Shortbus,” and it’s a little depressing to realize how unusual it is. There’s no Gay Best Friend in an otherwise totally straight movie; there’s not the One Lesbian Couple at the party, or the Tranny Comic Relief who shows up for five minutes to be laughed at and disappear. There’s just gay men and lesbians and straight folks and bi folks and transfolk, and they all know each other and like each other and irritate each other and get tangled in each other’s lives. You know — like real life, in any major city anywhere in the Western world.
I could talk about the fact that, for once in my goddamn life as a movie viewer, I didn’t feel insulted by the depiction of sadomasochists. I could talk about how sadomasochism isn’t used as a sign of evil or craziness or misery in “Shortbus,” but is shown as just another way to be sexual, with its own special pleasures and complications, and as much potential for trouble and joy as any other way.
I could talk about how the movie seems much longer than it is — not because it’s dull or sloppy, but because there’s so much going on. The movie is so rich, with so much nuance and complexity and detail, that it doesn’t seem possible that it all got packed into just 102 minutes.
And I could talk about the places where the movie doesn’t quite work — the false notes, the plot turns that feel forced, the character developments that don’t seem plausible. There are undoubtedly a few of these: the therapist who smacks her client in the face and then spills out the details of her fucked-up sex life; the clients who then invite her to the sex club; the voyeur/stalker who turns out to be just another caring guy who needs love and connection. The dead body in the Jacuzzi that nobody notices until they bump into it. That sort of thing. “Shortbus” is not a perfect movie, and I like and respect it too much to pretend that it is.
Because this is much better than a perfect movie. This is a great movie. This is a true movie. This is a unique movie. And this is an important movie. This is a movie about sex that’s explicit, not just in the standard sense of the word, but in every sense. It tells the truth about sex, as clearly and precisely and honestly as it can.
And that, all by itself, makes it invaluable.