When I arrived in Toronto last September after an absence of more than a year, I found a town abuzz with sexual controversy. The TIFF (that’s snobby Torontonian for Toronto Int’l Film Festival) was about to go on and there was to be a supposedly mainstream film with – SHOCK HORROR! – hardcore, un-simulated, penetrative sex of the homo-, bi-, and heterosexual couple, intimate group, and massive group varieties, complete with whips, erect penises, toys, vaginae, leather, drag queens and spanking. Hot damn! Barring animals, this film has something for everyone!
The film is Shortbus, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, creator of the world’s second most famous transsexual cult musical, Hedwig & the Angry Inch.
Shortbus ties together the sexual misgivings of a number of New Yorkers in a Brooklyn anything-goes sex club called Shortbus. Let’s see, you’ve got Sofia, the sex therapist (played by Sook-Yin Lee, former MuchMusic VJ) who has never had an orgasm; James and Jamie, the gay couple who think they want to add a third; Severin/Jennifer, the dominatrix in dire need of her own dom and the bratty trust-fund sub she isn’t pretending to hate; a septuagenarian former mayor of New York (character, not actor) coming to grips with his response to the AIDS crisis during his time in office; and, apparently just for Toronto indie scene points, a cameo from Gentleman Reg, albino folk-rocker darling of T.O. hipsters.
As you might or might not have deciphered, depending on the bus that drove you to school, the title of the film and the sex club refers to the fact that these characters are painted as somehow disabled or bearing some kind of history retarding their sexual “progress.” The film affords us a chance to get to know these people intimately, revealing to us their deepest, darkest secrets so that we might know why they’re on the short bus to sexual fulfillment. And yet, the film keeps them at a problematic distance so that we don’t get a complete picture of how to get them… fixed. An ambiguous portrayal of sex leaves the question of whether their problems require fixing or not open to interpretation.
Through rotoscoped (the animation technique wherein a film is shot in live action and each individual frame is then traced over. Think A Scanner Darkly or Waking Life) sweeping bird’s eye view shots of a post-9/11 New York City, we get the sense that these people are completely insular, cut off from the world around them. Something in the world has made these people the way they are and it is by retreating from the world into Shortbus that these people find individual and relational sexual fulfillment. Consider the film’s tagline, “You have to get on [the Shortbus] to get off [sexually].” And yet, paradoxically, the film likens the individual person’s sexual experience to the larger workings of the world. The female orgasm is compared to a moment when all wars stop on a dime and the opening dominatrix scene is significantly and somewhat overbearingly located in a room overlooking the World Trade Center site. The film seems to be saying that it is through the individual sexual experience that one communes with the reality of the world and that such an act has ideological consequences. The reality of the world is the cause and solution to all our sexual and, by extension, existential issues.
Shortbus is the sexualization of Marshall McLuhan’s media theories (easy enough done if you ask me!), Jean Baudrillard’s theory of hyper-reality, post-modernity, and the reality check we North Americans got on 9/11. The film is surreal yet accessible, while being seriously and ambivalently arousing. Its message is contained perfectly in the line the mistress of Shortbus says to Sofia as they oversee an orgy of Caligulan proportions: “It’s just like the sixties, only with less hope.” This moment of candor is interrupted by the revelation that someone just came on his cat. Feel free to tell me you think I’m weird, but I’d say the sexual manifestation of hyper-reality couldn’t be better expressed.
Shortbus is a mind trip between objective reality and individual consciousness. And I, for one, will be there.