June 10, 2011

Queer Review: Shortbus (2006)

Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Writer: John Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Peter Stickles, Alan Mandell, Raphael Barker, PJ DeBoy, Lindsay Beamish, Jay Brannan

Shortbus is the most sexually explicit narrative (as opposed to pornographic) film I have ever seen. Director John Cameron Mitchel also directed Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which happens to my personal favorite queer movie. Here, Mitchel is taking things in much different and even more ambitious direction - make a narrative feature with lots of queer sex acts that also functions as a work of art.

Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) has what I would assume to be an unusual problem for a sex therapist in that she has never experienced an orgasm. When she meets James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), they invite her to the Shortbus, a sex club for people of all persuasions, genders, and orientations. Sofia goes there with her husband Rob (Raphael Barker) where she meets Severin (Severin) a dominatrix and the interactions the two woman engage in help create catalysts that help them move forward with their respective issues. At the same time, James and Jamie have brought a third partner into their lives Ceth (Jay Brannan). James is suffering from depression and has an ulterior motive for allowing Ceth into their lives, at the same time this introduction upsets an obsessed stalker, Caleb (Peter Stickles).

The Queering
What I like about John Mitchel Cameron movies is that he clearly cares about using movies to explore deeper themes regarding the human condition. There are a lot of things being said in Shortbus and while not all of them are profound, most of them are at least provocative. There has been a long standing debate for decades as to whether or not "porn" can even be considered art. Producers of pornographic materials have long attempted to prevent their works from being banned in a puritanical world by introducing flimsy story lines into movies that are ostensibly created for the sole purpose of being an aid to masturbating humans. It is clear that Cameron intends to muddy this line by introducing dirty sex into what is an otherwise purely artistic film.

What makes Shortbus different from most narrative features is that the central problem revolves around the main character attempting to have an orgasm, rather than find true love. In short, the plot of Shortbus is the same basic plot used by pretty every other porn film in existence. However, while most straight pornography is about the subjugation of the female subjects to a masculine sexual desire, Mitchel differentiates Shortbus by making the focus on a woman's liberation. This is the key here, and what I would argue makes Shortbus worthy of artistic consideration.

While making Shortbus Mitchel used improve workshops with the actors to create the characters. Between that and the main theme being about unleashed womanhood, I was strongly reminded of Top Girls, a play I had to study for the Play Analysis for the Stage class I took in college.

This not a film for the timid. Characters are shown masturbating, ejaculating, penetrating, and fucking. Sex and art are frequently linked, such as when a shot of cum adds to a Pollack type painting. The point of the Shortbus Club (and by extension, the movie) is to turn sexual acts into works of performance art. Also, think about the implications of Caleb the Stalker, as he watches Jamie, James, and later Ceth, as they all have sex in their apartment.

Just one last thing I want to point out. There are more than a few animated sequences of New York City that are used in clever ways throughout the film. The most notable being at the beginning with an extended shot of the Statue of Liberty, which I am guessing was Mitchel's way of announcing that lady liberation was going to have her way.

Strongly recommended, at least for those who will not mind the mingling here of hardcore porn and art.

The Rating


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