Jun 072011
 

Shortbus 2006, written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell. IMDB

I grew up with have fond memories of Sook-Yin Lee as a VJ on Canada’s MuchMusic (she memorably mooned the camera on her last broadcast day) and I still listen to her now and again on CBC’s Definitely Not The Opera podcast, where she hosts an NPR-like show about personal anecdotes. That’s why it was a slightly odd experience to see her having un-faked, penetrative intercourse in the first few minutes of this movie. (According to the DVD commentary, she was wearing a female condom.) It felt a little like I was seeing somebody I knew in person having sex.

I have to salute Lee for this act of literal and figurative nakedness. Most of the people in the opening sequence of Shortbus are naked too. A man attempts autofellatio, curling in on himself like a fetus-like position, while another man observes from another apartment. A married couple has what appears to be great sex, but we later discover that the woman (played by Lee) is pre-orgasmic. A pro-dominatrix meticulously disinfects her toys before working over her client, who seems more interested in asking about her life. The message is clear: isolation, fear, withdrawal, avoidance, people curling in on themselves and projecting a defensive, spiky exterior, like hedgehogs. There’s a lot of womb-like imagery, people withdrawing into hot tubs, sensory deprivation tanks and the like.

Early on, Lee’s character Sophia visits Shortbus, a sex-club, hoping to improve her sex life. In old-school sex movies, the utopian, pansexual space Sophia enters would be the solution to her problem, the culmination of her quest for the orgasm. Instead, it just seems to accentuate her sense of wrong-ness, seeing all these other people having a great time. (After the opening scene we have to wonder what issues they are hiding too.)

What Shortbus really accomplishes is that it conveys what I have often felt and I think a lot of other people are feeling these days too: the feeling of being alone at the orgy. It isn’t that the sex itself is empty, it’s that I myself am the problem, that something inside me is keeping me from joining the party.

Sophia tries to awaken her own sexuality by dancing in lingerie and masturbating with a top of the line vibrator, alone in her bathroom. Meanwhile, her husband is jacking off to his laptop in the next room. The guy attempting auto-fellatio, a damaged former hustler, has apparently chosen a lover so much like him that they look similar and even have the same name, and he still can’t accept love. These people withdraw into the womb and they’re still not at peace.

One of Lee’s advisors is Mistress Severin, who lives in a storage locker. At first I thought the use of “Severin” indicated that the writer of this movie knew just enough about BDSM to get the Venus in Furs reference wrong, but I think this indicates that her character has a somewhat confused, uncomfortable relationship with BDSM, or even that she feels that performing her pro-domme role is an act of physical and emotional masochism.

Severin clomps through the streets of Manhattan in platform boots, burdened by multiple duffle bags full of equipment and costumes, looking fairly miserable. Critical type that I am, I have to say that I disagree with the implication that BDSM is necessarily an emotionally distancing experience. BDSM can be a means of both release and intimacy, though there are people who do it out of need to avoid those things too.

There’s a patina of hipster twee-ness over this movie, of a return to childhood or at least a gesturing towards it. The soundtrack is about as far from Nine Inch Nails or Enigma as you can get. I think the idea is to suggest that these are young people, innocents who already know everything but still aren’t wise. The host of Shortbus says that young people are flocking to New York, despite the expense, because 9/11 is “the only real thing that’s ever happened to them.”

Shortbus is also noteworthy for the way in which is depicts sex, being a tragicomedy with explicit hardcore sex, gay and straight. That makes it a relatively rare bird even today, comparable to Catherine Breillart’s Romance in being a “real movie” with explicit hardcore sex.

(Spoilers)

Sophia eventually does achieve orgasm, by herself on a park bench in Central Park, in the middle of one of the blackouts that have punctuated the film. It’s a suggestion of sexuality that does not view the monogamous couple as the solution, but instead of sexual growth through a diverse community of individuals.

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