I was suspicious when I heard that John Cameron Mitchell was auditioning "sextras" for his new film, at the time called "The Sex Film Project." He said he wanted to use actual sex, not simulated, in his film. And one had to wonder; how is that not porn?
Well, it's not. "I know it when I see it," and Shortbus is about sex, not about getting off. Sure, it's also about narcissism, but then, isn't a lot of sex? Why, you might well ask, should we be interested in a movie whose basic premise is "let's put actual sex on the screen"?
Maybe because, unlike porn, it's an "actual" movie. In fact, after the first few minutes (which, I believe, are deliberately shocking and set up a counterpoint to the actual themes of the film), I was perfectly comfortable watching this film in mixed company (both of gender and level of acquaintanceship). Because I wasn't watching people trying to be sexy--I was watching people have sex. Strangely, there is a difference, one that made it much less disturbing than simulated soft-core. And what this movie is about is that it's okay, no matter what you're into. And that you, yes you, are a voyeur, so you can't escape anyway.
The story involves the intersection of several people who converge upon Shortbus, the sex club and salon for the "gifted and challenged" of the sexual world. Supposedly based on a real place and time, it's a well-lit, sex-positive venue where no one is pushed but everyone is encouraged. Our primary vehicle here is Sofia, a sex "I prefer couples counselor" therapist who has, despite her job, never had an orgasm! She offers some exceedingly bad therapy and subsequently attempts various techniques for achieving her ultimate goal--all the while protesting that "sex is awesome!" Now, this could very easily have been excruciating to watch. I can imagine some wonky "edgy" comedy with this premise trying to get away with whatever it can. Like American Pie for the Peter Pan Syndrome set. But by making the sex "real," Mitchell's also made it believable. Not everything the characters do is plausible, but the spirit in which the film was made seems to make up for it. There's a gay threesome situation that is by turns really angsty and sweet. There's an old, closeted mayor of NY who frequents Shortbus and counters the claim that by being in the closet, he "didn't do enough" about AIDS. There's an S&M mistress who doesn't have any close connections to people, but who photographs them obsessively and frequently inappropriately.
In the end, when I sit down and think about the actual plot, there's not much to it. And I don't know if I learned anything specific from Sofia's journey. But I feel I did learn a lot about beauty, and bodies, and sex in general. Not to mention having the utter contrast of our media's simultaneously Puritan and pornographic impulses thrown in sharp relief; this movie shows it all, but is neither. And while my feelings about it as a movie are mixed, my reaction to it is as positive as... well, as it wants us to be about sex.