Thursday, November 11, 2010


‘Shortbus’ features scenes of unsimulated sexual intercourse.

(The moral majority might want to log off at this point.)

To be more specific, ‘Shortbus’ features scenes of straight sex, gay sex, oral sex, group sex, SM, voyeurism and what is academically referred to as solitary sexual activity. Y’know, polishing the lighthouse. Or if you’re female, flicking the bean. There’s even a scene where a rather limber chap contorts himself into a position whereby an attempt at self-fellatio proves almost successful. The downside is that he ejaculates onto his own face.

Anyone still reading?

Although I don’t want to wade too deeply into the muddy waters of crudity in this review, I am an advocate of calling a spade a spade. Not a digging implement. Or, if you’re anything like the council workers in my hometown, a leaning implement. Also, there’s a word I need to get out of the way (that’s “get out of the way” as in introduce it so I can use it repetitively throughout the review); so let’s all take a deep breath, face up to the male appendage and say it together:


It’s not a word I normally use, but damned if I’m going to repeatedly type “penis”, “phallus”, “member” or “organ”, and I doubt I could take this review seriously if I opted for “dick” (private eye connotations), “willy” (whale on the run connotations), “knob” (door handle connotations) or “todger”. I simply couldn’t type “todger” over and over without braying with laughter.

So, then: cock. There’s plenty of it in ‘Shortbus’. The film opens with a naked man lying in the bath then cuts to a close-up of his cock. He waggles it about a bit. Next thing, he’s holding a camcorder and zooming in on it. Then we cut to a rather severe looking dominatrix (is there any other kind?) giving some Ivy League chinless wonder a good flogging; he gets so excited he ejaculates on a Jackson Pollock print (this is intended as a visual joke; it’s not a very good one). Up next: a twenty-something couple working their way through an energetic sequence of positions, some of which would see many of us on the waiting list for a hernia operation if we attempted them with such gusto. But proving that quality is better than quantity, it’s soon revealed that their shag-a-thon is less than orgasmic.

Let’s make the introductions: the naked man of bathtub/self-BJ fame is one half of a gay couple, James (Paul Dawson) and Jamie (P J DeBoy*), known to their friends as “the Jamies” even though James would prefer to be called James and not Jamie. The dominatrix is Severin (Lindsay Beamish) and her client – the “trust fund muppet” to use her own description – is Jesse (Adam Hardman**). The energetic couple are Rob (Raphael Barker) and Sophia (Sook Yin-Lee). Rob volunteers at a soup kitchen, while Sophia’s the breadwinner. She’s a sex therapist (“I prefer the term couples counsellor”) and she’s never had an orgasm.

Oh, and there’s a mildly creepy guy, Caleb (Peter Stickles***), who lives in the apartment opposite the Jamies (sorry, Jamie and James) and spies on them.

After the opening montage of cock-filming, whipping, various positions, semen/Pollock interfaces and what is probably the world record for exertion in pursuit of a self-gobble, writer/director John Cameron Mitchell gets down (oooh, madam!) to the story proper. Actually, that’s pushing it. When a film contains a credit to the effect that the narrative and characters were “developed by the actors”, you know you’re in improv territory. ‘Shortbus’ is basically the cinematic equivalent of a fringe group putting on a shoddily conceived play with a couple of good ideas but no real focus. Here, the lack of focus is obfuscated by the preponderance of cock.

For what it’s worth, the story element runs along these lines: Jamie and James attend counselling with Sophia where they debate whether to introduce a third party into their relationship. The session gets a tad argumentative and Sophia lets it slip that she’s never achieved orgasm. In a move that tramples all over patient/counsellor relationship protocols, they invite her to a sex club called Shortbus where they’re confident she’ll get her bell rung. In a manner of speaking.

This is a good place to pause and consider the title. When Sophia asks Shortbus’s gender-bending Master (uh, Mistress?) of Ceremonies Justin Bond (him/her?self) why it’s named thus, his (her?) reply is, “It’s like the big yellow school bus. But it’s short.” I’m not sure I want to dwell too long on the implications of this statement.

Anyway, it’s at Shortbus that Sophia meets Severin and a tentative and unlikely friendship develops; Caleb moons over James and Jamie; and James and Jamie meet Ceth (Jay Brannan) – pronounced “Seth” but he’s a floppy haired poncy student type so what are you going to do? – and promptly get a little three-way action going. God knows I’m not the expert on Gay Three-Way Scenes in Early Twenty-First Century Independent American Cinema, but this is probably the only gay three-way scene which climaxes (sorry!) with an in-flagrante performance of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. (This is not a paragraph I ever imagined I would type.)

Anyone still reading, by the way? If you are: (a) thank you – from the bottom of my heart, thank you; and (b) I promise I’ll wrap this fucking thing up before it hits the 1,500 word mark.

The above mentioned rimming/fellatio/American national anthem scene is actually pretty funny, one of two scenes that are genuinely amusing and reasonably well executed. The other one involves a vibrating egg that Sophia stashes upon her person. So to speak. Elsewhere, though, the film falls flat. Virtually all of the characters are self-obsessed, precious and unlikeable; occasional lurches into melodrama (particularly a story strand that resolves in a suicide attempt) are abrupt and unconvincing; attempts at relevance through lumberingly unsubtle references to 9/11 are inappropriate and embarrassing; and the mise-en-scene of the club itself is vaguely ridiculous – I mean, really, a sex club with a house band that looks like this:

The essential dichotomy of ‘Shortbus’ is established in its opening sequence and never successfully resolved. The camera glides over an animated New York that looks like it’s been constructed from cardboard boxes and through the window of the Jamies’ apartment.

It’s arty, artificial and reeks of self-conscious indie cuteness. It’s a technique that’s repeated throughout the film, the cardboard NY expanding to incorporate a paper cut-out Central Park and what looks like a papier maché Ground Zero (more 9/11 heavy-handedness). Between this, the quirky little touches like Sophia’s inability to orgasm causing power cuts (!), and the pseudo-poignant ending where the patrons of Shortbus light candles and join in a sing-song, Mitchell’s real aesthetic – a warm, fuzzy indie dramedy – is both painfully obvious and utterly at odds with the interminable and unerotic panoply of jiggling cocks, wobbling arses and naked skin.

*Either this is a pseudonym, or the dude’s parents were freakin’ psychic!

**Do I even NEED to make the comment?

***Did the cast of this movie just make up suggestive sounding names for themselves?


Erich Kuersten said...

Hah! I liked the gay sing-a-long-ishness of this film, as if John Michael Cameron (?) is afraid to wander too far from his HEDWIG roots, if you'll forgive a missed opportunity for witty hair piece allusions. And I really loved Justin Bond as the weary old thing. But jeeze, I could have done without that tantric self-fellatio scene... good god. Your review was witty and spottin, I mean spot on

Bryce Wilson said...

Well I for one am tired of all this sex on the television...

...Seriously I keep falling off.

(Thank you Thank you I'll be here all night)

Glad to know that I wasn't the only one curiously under whelmed by this movie. Between you and Erich for the first time that doesn't feel like bad company.

I mean... It means well and er uh... it means well. And like Erich I have a sneaking affection for the ending sing along and Justin Bond in general.

But one reaches the saturation point rather quickly. And after the novelty wore off it wasn't shock or outrage I felt, just the wish that Mitchell hadn't been so... thorough.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comments, fellas. Agreed on all counts: Justin Bond is a scream, the sing-a-long is actually quite sweet and there a few nice moments (Sophia receiving a round of applause from the militant lesbian feminist crowd after she bawls Rob out is quite amusing), but on the whole 'Shortbus' leaves you with a sense of meh.