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Numerous New York City dwellers come to the exclusive club Shortbus to work out problems in their sexual relationships. Rob and Sophia are a happily married couple, except for the fact that she has never experienced sexual climax. This irony follows her to work because she is a couples counselor who frequently has to deal with the sexual issues other couples have. Two of her patients are Jamie and James, a gay couple who have been monogamous for five years and counting. James wants to bring other men in to the relationship, and his own history with depression may hint at an ulterior motive. Ceth (pronounced Seth) may be the perfect addition to their family, but Caleb, a voyeur from across the street, may have his own ideas about that. Sophia visits Severin, a dominatrix with secrets of her own to reveal. Written by
A married sex therapist doles out relationship advice at work but privately spends her time in search of an orgasm, which she's never had. Two gay men find themselves drifting from one another and introduce a third man into their relationship in an attempt to bring some fulfillment back to their emotional connection. A professional dominatrix excels at abusing clients, but brings that abusive behavior to her personal relationships as well and as a result isolates herself from any true human contact. Meanwhile, all of these characters meet regularly at Shortbus, a sex club where everyone is free to be whatever they want to be, where no one's a freak because everyone's a freak, and where, most importantly, everyone feels a sense of community in a scary post-9/11 world.
Such is "Shortbus," John Cameron Mitchell's emotionally affecting follow up film to his dazzling debut, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." By now, everyone knows that "Shortbus" contains many scenes of quite explicit sex. As happens with any more conventional film that contains material we are used to seeing only in bona fide pornography, the sex tends to dominate on a first viewing; it's so hard not to be distracted by the explicit scenes and ignore the other things going on. However, it is to Mitchell's great credit that I left the film not remembering the sex as much as I remembered some of the beautiful emotional moments, of which "Shortbus" is chock full.
I saw a screening of this at the Chicago International Film Festival, and two of the actors, Sook-Yin Lee and Lindsay Beamish, were on hand to answer questions. Lee explained what Mitchell was trying to do with this film, and I greatly admire his ambition. She said that he was trying to make an antidote to all of the other films out there that treat sex just as explicitly but in such more negative ways. Sex in our movie culture is usually full of dysfunction -- if it's not downright harmful, it's at best desultory and unsatisfying (think "9 Songs"). Our culture condones graphic violence in films, many times in combination with sex, but squirms away from sex as it really looks, even though it's one of the most natural of human functions. Mitchell wanted to illuminate this hypocrisy and show that sex can be fun, sex can bring people together, sex can make you laugh. It can't necessarily solve problems, as the characters in this film realize, but it doesn't always have to necessarily cause problems either.
My biggest complaint about "Shortbus" is that I felt somewhat left out. As a heterosexual male, I don't feel that I was represented by any of the film's characters. Mitchell, as a gay man, obviously has an understanding of gay relationships, and the storyline with the three gay lovers is handled beautifully. But I felt that Mitchell was stereotyping heterosexual relationships in the same way that heterosexuals stereotype gays. The married couple is bored, unfulfilled, caustic with one another. Lee's character can't achieve orgasm until she comes to a sex club and gets it on with another woman. Just once, can't a film show a heterosexual couple who are happy and having a completely satisfying emotional and sexual relationship? I know this wouldn't make for great drama, but it would at least make me feel better.
I really liked "Shortbus" without feeling that it was a complete bulls-eye for Mitchell. At the very least, he has an outstanding talent and has proved himself to be a young filmmaker to watch.
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