Getting off on John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus
By Michael Dean Benton
North of Center
It is a common truism that reality can’t be copyrighted, but it can be manufactured, packaged, and marketed. Increasingly in our interconnected and digital world we are confronted by a plethora of images designed to influence us to buy certain realities. No images are more prevalent or artificial than the images of sex as products that circulate throughout American culture. From marketing pitches, to romance novels, to feature films, to internet peep shows: we are a prudish society that feeds on illusions of sex.
In these circulating narratives, from the idealistically romantic fairy tales of Hallmark and Hollywood to the mindless sexual Olympics of contemporary pornography, sex is represented as a skill to be mastered in an individualistic quest to be number one. Interpersonal relations are psychological mind games which involve prescribed “rules” for success, and the pursuit of sexual fulfillment becomes a modern variant of bucket-listing as we check off various acts necessary to feel good about ourselves.
If we fail to perform to the level of these constructed fantasies then there is a new pharmaceutical pill (for a price) to make us hard, to renew our vigor, or to chase away our anxieties. If we feel our interpersonal skills need polishing there is always the advice of a new guru, in a multitude of packaged forms, presented for a fee, available to ease your anxieties.
Unrealistic body images, as destructive as they are in the development of our self-image and self-confidence, are doubled in their effect by the unrealistic expectations of contemporary sexual myths. In American society, sexuality is often understood as a private and sacrosanct aspect of our identity. Fragmented, separated, isolated, impermeable, we become easier targets for unrealistic myths and romantic fantasies.
John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus is an honest exploration of a society that fetishizes sex, but rarely truthfully addresses issues of human sexuality. Despite the uncensored trailer’s emphasis (easily googled), the very real sex in the film is minimal, although very explicit. Instead, Shortbus is a powerful exploration of our psychosexual hang-ups, our collective/individual pain (the setting is post 9/11 New York City), the need for a candid exploration of human sexuality and, most importantly, the redemptive power of human engagement.
The first ten minutes are sexually explicit and, even though I was watching it at home the first time, I felt myself blush intensely (verified in a bathroom mirror). It is as if Mitchell is throwing down a gauntlet and challenging us to engage the most banal sexual mythoi that circulate in our mindscapes. Then, once these are operating, as the multi-character scenes climax (so to speak) he begins his critique of individualized, fragmented sexuality.
The film is a powerful visualization of collective exploration and discussion of sexuality in many ways. Most importantly, it is enacted through the actual visualization and production of the overall project. Coming off the cult success of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Mitchell decided his next project would be a collective exploration of sex and sexuality in America. His production team advertised the project as the “Sex” film and encouraged interested participants to send in a ten minute tape in which they describe an important sexual experience.
In one of the documentaries on the DVD version you can see the tapes sent in by the actors and notice how their actual personalities are infused into the roles they play in the film. In the extras we see Mitchell and a collaborator picking up the tapes as people in New York City are protesting the impending invasion of Iraq. This fearful, deranged, post-9/11 panorama becomes incorporated into the subconscious of the film.
Mitchell did not write a fleshed-out script until he had auditioned actors and made the selections of who would be participating in the project. When he had a set cast, they began to improvise and develop their individual roles as an understanding of the collective project began to develop.
Some of the actors dropped out of the project because they feared the damage that it could do to their burgeoning careers. Perhaps they were afraid of being typecast or labeled by the Hollywood system as an actor who performs in “those” types of films. Other actors were unable to continue because they eventually became incapable of mentally separating themselves from their roles and allowing the characters to develop collectively.
We can see in the development of the film the intense feelings and emotions that circulated throughout these workshops and improvisations. Through their hardships, the cast and crew became more of a unique collective family or affinity group. This brings an authenticity to the performances that is generally lacking in the casting of strangers to perform in a film.
In discussions about this film, the question often raised is whether or not it is pornography. I usually field responses before replying, wishing to develop a collective understanding of pornography and its role in our society. Most people follow the famous judicial claim that pornography is the portrayal of sexual acts bereft of any actual artistic or culturally redeeming manner. In other words, if you removed the sex, would anything be left?
I follow a more complicated description and understanding. Pornography is a fragmented portrayal of human society which emphasizes the individual parts over the holistic beings, that denies the humanity of the participants, and that turns sex solely into a product for consumption. Pornography is all about impermeable sex: penetration without connection, orgasms without feeling.
Shortbus is the opposite of pornography. It is actually a film about permeability. The three main characters are in search of genuine human interactions. Yes, sex and sexuality are vitally important to them, but it is contextualized in a fuller landscape of human connection and interaction. Impermeability is a dangerous dysfunction. It is the mindset of those who are not open to others, whether they are individually unfeeling or culturally closed. It is solipsism—individually or collectively. Permeability is the willingness to be open to new experiences and new ways of seeing the world. It is not necessary that you live your life as these characters do, it is more of a willingness to not view the new or different as dangerous.
Of course, the film is about sex and, in its unflinching exploration, it will challenge many people. I am amazed at people’s willingness to sit through the most brutal acts of violence and destruction, yet they become agitated and disturbed by honest portrayals of sexuality. I have witnessed people walk out during certain parts of Shortbus. I also have had people get angry at me for suggesting the film to them.
For me, it is one of the most powerfully emotional films of the 21st Century. I usually cry during certain parts of the film because I empathize with the struggle of the characters. The power of the film is that it views the answers in the collective community rather in the authority of “experts” or the prescriptions of the pharmaceutical industry. It is a deeply utopian film that calls us to get off on life.