James knows he is surrounded by love but, being depressive, struggles to feel it. ‘I see it all around me but it stops at my skin. I can never let it in.’ The wages of impenetrability – sexual, social, personal, political – are at the crux of ‘Shortbus’, John Cameron Mitchell’s heartfelt, hilarious paean to permeability played in the key of sex. Oozing warmth, colour and song as well as bodily fluids, the film is structured around seven young New Yorkers orbiting the titular ‘salon for the gifted and challenged’, a kind of super-tolerant pansexual orgy with elements of performance art and group therapy thrown in. James and his boyfriend Jamie (real-life couple Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy) have reached an impasse in their relationship, to the consternation of their unofficial fan club Ceth (Jay Brannan) and Caleb (Peter Stickles). Meanwhile, their couples counsellor Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), who has never had an orgasm, is getting narked with feckless hubbie Rob (Raphael Barker) and escort Severin (Lindsay Beamish) finds her severe façade cracking.
Long-gestating and semi-improvised, ‘Shortbus’ is already famous for its unsimulated sex scenes, and it begins with several bangs: self-sucking, flagellation and cunnilingus on a Steinway all pulse their way to climax, immediately followed by a wash of simultaneous melancholy. The sex act is not enough – something Mitchell evidently understands. Few arthouse directors have put real sex to such narratively constructive and credibly, humorously human use – always indicative of character, it is seldom erotic, much less titillating – but it is only one of the film’s techniques. As in Mitchell’s debut, ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’, much use is made of music (including aching, marvellous songs by Scott Matthews, Yo La Tengo and others) and colourful, figurative animation: in this case a rough-hewn CGI cityscape prone to emblematic blackouts.
It’s also unassumingly political. Where ‘Hedwig’ focused on bereft halves in the wake of the Cold War, ‘Shortbus’ offers a post-9/11 world of asymmetrical anxiety amid a dearth of meaning, from the question ruefully posed to the Statue of Liberty at the film’s opening – ‘Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?’ – to the observation of salon ‘hostess’ Justin Bond (aka the fabulous Kiki of cabaret act Kiki & Herb, playing himself) that ‘9/11 is the only real thing that’s ever happened’ to America’s youth. Amid such uncertainty, the film also pays attention to the new boom in autoarchiving: James, Caleb and Severin all find some solace in compulsive photography; the feature ‘Tarnation’ grew out of an audition tape Jonathan Caouette sent to Mitchell. ‘Voyeurism,’ Bond notes, ‘is participation.’
Some of the identity politics might come off – deliberately? – as a touch gauche (‘Hi,’ one girl smiles, ‘my name’s Bitch’). But how not to love a film that features an ‘orgasmic superhero’ called Shabbas Goy, a guy having ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ sung up his ass and a drag queen with a megaphone?
Cast and crew