I see it all around me, but it stops at my skin.
–James (Paul Dawson)
The Statue of Liberty shows up early in Shortbus. Actually, it’s a model of the Statue of Liberty, part of a New York City that looks warm and cute, like a diorama enhanced and made fantastic by sweeping camera and careful lighting. John Bair’s childlike, soft-edged 3-D cardboard cutouts comprise buildings without people, streets without menace, a fantasy locale for the wondrous explorations of selves and others that make up the movie’s meandering, intersecting, flamboyant plots.
And yet this New York is also, acutely and emphatically, post-9/11. Repeated references to the date and the trauma reflect inhabitants’ inevitable awareness of the sense of menace that now filters through daily life. Everything might end tomorrow, even today. While such awareness doesn’t lead precisely to a carpe diem approach to desires and fears, it does create a sense of urgency for John Cameron Mitchell’s movie. Whether that sense of urgency is as faux as the urbanscape remains a puzzle, and what “faux” might mean in what might be described as a performance art film is another question.
Shortbus underlines the problem of defining what’s real in its use of sex as means and sign of pleasure. As everyone knows by now, this movie shows a lot of sex — real penises, intercourse, semen, assorted positions. Undertaken by an array of actors with whom Mitchell worked for two years to develop the script, the sex is arranged as a series of plots and characters who gather at a club called Shortbus. (“Actually,” if the word means anything, this is located in Brooklyn’s D.U.M.B.O. [Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass] area, more precisely, the loft belonging to charismatic Manhattan performance artist Justin Bond.) Here the assembled searchers enjoy music (by Yo La Tengo and Justin Bond), conversation, and sex, as voyeurs and participants.
You come into this club by way of Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who prefers the term “couples counselor,” as her clients tend to be pairs of people in search of connections with one another. Like all the protagonists, Sofia has been previously introduced in the movie’s opening sequence, a pageant of explicit virtuoso sex acts, so as to show all at once and quickly the explicitness and so, get on with the stories. Unfortunately, these stories vary in interest and persuasiveness, and Sofia’s story may be the stalest: as she confesses to one pair of clients, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (PJ DeBoy), she has never had an orgasm. She has also never told her husband Rob (Raphael Barker), going so far as to thank him following their introductory marathon sex act, because good girls, even those who are therapists and have studied other possibilities, protect the sensibilities and egos of their men.
At the club, Sofia witnesses all sorts of sexual behaviors and exchanges, her eyes not exactly wide, but revealing that she’s not been to such a place before (among the revelers is Mitchell himself, because, he told a preview audience, he felt that if he was going to ask his actors to perform real sex on screen, he should do so as well — more on the question of real sex below). At the club, the Jamies (as everyone calls them, their similar appearances suggesting a certain narcissism in their coupling) solicit Ceth (Jay Brannan), a beautiful pale boy model/third term for their currently-in-crisis relationship (this leads to one of the film’s showiest pieces, a threeway with all participants belting the U.S national anthem, joyous and ferocious at the same time).
The same night the Jamies find Ceth, Sofia finds the “sister room,” where she meets professional dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish). Predictably, she’s unhappy with her career choice. You learn eventually that she lives in a storage locker, its walls papered by the many instant, sometimes revealing, sometimes mundane photos she takes of most anyone she meets (or spots on the street, as a her collection of frankly well-composed shots reveal). The fact that she gives Sofia the photo she’s taken of her suggests they have a connection: when Sofia expresses her upset by the invasion of privacy the unposed photo represents, Severin is willing to part with it, her latest emblem of domination, in order to appease her potential new friend.
Again with the predictable: while the women find intimacy in a sensory-deprivation tank, talking, James seeks another sort of fulfillment. His introductory sex trick has him bending his body so as to perform a blowjob on himself. Despite or because of his apparently profound self-interest (also indicated by his documentary project, all about him), James is suicidal. But Jamie is ill-equipped to help him with his despair, taking it as whining, knowing nothing about the onanistic turn, and focuses instead on the suggestion they bring in Ceth, feeling first threatened and then excited. And so the movie grants James another observer/obsessor, a neighbor who films him through the Jamies’ apartment window, that is, a stalker.
Disturbing in concept and banal in form, the stalker — whose name is Caleb (Peter Stickles) — obviously incarnates the film’s interests in watching and wanting in relation to sex. While Shortbus is hardly porn (that is, designed to “arouse” consumers), it does position you as voyeur (not to say, “stalker”). It also remains hung up on the same dilemma that troubles so many hetero porn films, the sign of female climax. Not only is this Sofia’s quest (which ends up structuring and standing in for other quests in the film, as her eventual and gigantic orgasm figures for everyone’s fulfillment), but it is the sexual event that cannot be certified “real” on film (unless you’re Annie Sprinkle, and Shortbus doesn’t address female ejaculation).
This problem doesn’t need solving, exactly. Unseen or undocumentable orgasms are troubling for viewers, not orgasmers. But it leaves Shortbus without a way to show what’s real, except by metaphor, model, and allusion. In this context, 9/11 is all too pertinent. While the film’s veteran New Yorkers make fun of young interlopers, kids who have felt compelled to come to the city because 9/11 was the realest thing that ever happened to them (via TV, which is the primary mode of “reality”), the movie celebrates the search for realness in itself, the end being less significant than the understanding granted by investigation.
This celebration raises a couple of ideas. One is a little progressive, controverting the typical attention paid to visual boundaries, what’s allowable and not on screen, as imagery incites or confirms behaviors, however sexual, spectacular or violent. The other idea has to do with the real, as a category of value, meaning, and politics. What’s real is inevitably subjective and shifting, as memory and history collide and separate. Allowing that, the most compelling story in Shortbus is New York’s, apart from the wars that started and the policies that expanded after 9/11. The New York in Shortbus is imaginary, recovered and compassionate.