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  • Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Revisiting ‘Shortbus’: How John Cameron Mitchell Used Unsimulated Sex to Make Striking Bush-Era Social Statements

By |2022-02-14T15:14:27-05:00February 14th, 2022|Entertainment, Opinions|

“Let’s face it: monogamy’s for straight people,” says Jamie (PJ DeBoy) in one early moment in John Cameron Michell’s “Shortbus.” The film was restored and rereleased by Oscilloscope Laboratories and will screen Feb. 24 as part of Skin City at Outer Limits Lounge in Hamtramck.
In the movie, Jamie is sitting next to his partner James (Paul Dawson) in their sex therapist’s precisely decorated, peach-toned office. The pair, who’ve been together (and exclusive) for some five years, are now considering opening up. “We thought we should get an impartial opinion from a sex therapist,” he adds sheepishly.
Upon the film’s 2006 release, this prospect and many of the film’s other features might have seemed like a greater provocation than they do now. Released in the midst of the more – or perhaps just differently – sexually repressive Bush years, the movie responded on multiple fronts to the climate of its time. Stemming from Mitchell’s desire to reclaim onscreen sex from porn, “Shortbus” often seems to chafe against the overscrubbed confines of then NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York.
Featuring an ensemble of smaller-name performers finding their way around discontented relationships and boxed-in sex lives, Mitchell always works to present characters’ discoveries and disappointments as work toward self-discovery, illuminating long-shadowed regions within themselves. Even as they seek structure, they learn mostly by doing and then discussing: specifically by exploring kink, non-monogamy, and increasingly messy, blurry, communal approaches to eroticism — and then talking about it after. Mitchell’s script and direction draws these processes out through long bouts and montages of unsimulated, adventurous sex: flogging, pissing, rapt observation, and large-scale orgies all enter into the mix; all are presented, too, as something more than natural for anyone to try.
The characters, many finding themselves a bit less comfortable, tend to engage in all this with an air of awkward hesitation. James and Jamie’s repressed couples counselor Sofia Lin (she dislikes the term “sex therapist”), played by Sook-Yin Lee, best embodies the feeling, acting as a new entrant to the technically underground, atmospherically free-for-all sex salon that gives the film its title. She’s in some sense a surrogate for arthouse and festival audiences at the time of the film’s original release, inviting them to venture out along with her into worlds of surprise and pleasure.
While Mitchell’s approach is companionable toward his viewers as much as the film’s fumbling, earnest characters, it bears some signs, too, of a gleeful frankness that’s beyond either of their reach – and other signs also of a winking, self-aware voyeur. When a trio of guys belts the national anthem into each other’s dicks and butts, there’s a bemused, half-contented directorial gaze at work – but also a playful, inviting sense of subversion.
This air of invitation seems to be at the heart of the movie’s rhetorical aims. Whereas Mitchell’s 2001 film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” focused on outsiders on the basis of identity and circumstance – starring an immigrant trans woman with desires for a kind of alt-pop stardom – the playful kinksters in “Shortbus” are largely (like much of its imagined audience) middle to upper class. This reality proves more than incidental; crucially, it situates them and what they do squarely within the mainstream while allowing them the luxury of time and mental bandwidth required for intense self-exploration. The Shortbus and the film around it, then, offer an environment for both viewers and characters to explore structured forms of play, creating a safe space more akin to an adults-only Montessori school than a sex club in the old, verboten and underground sense. By winnowing the gap between the erotic and workaday, the private and public, Mitchell makes a case from the same place many a queer man would: one that sees desire and self-conception as deeply intertwined, but with boundaries subject to constant questioning and negotiation.
While sex was already featured prominently in a range of independent works produced around the globe — and the rise of digital filmmaking made production of more risk-embracing material freshly accessible domestically — Mitchell’s determinedly lively presentation of onscreen sex between his characters feels distinct in its aim and tone.
By making sex unabashedly its center, “Shortbus” argues that a place firmly in the mainstream is exactly where such depictions belong. Because as so many queer people grasp well enough already, without understanding desire, it’s impossible to really know who you are.

About the Author:

George Elkind is a writer and media critic based in Metro Detroit.
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