Shortbus

Hipster’s-eye view
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2006
Director: 
John Cameron Mitchell
Starring: 
Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy, Raphael Barker
The Setup: 
Bunch of people go to a sex club / hipster haven called Shortbus and have many emotional moments.
Discussion: 

I did NOT like the movie of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but mostly this is because I had seen John Cameron Mitchell in the original production here in New York and it was just so much more powerful and profound than what ended up on screen. Although now that I’ve seen Shortbus I have to wonder if the small live setting only made one more forgiving of the its limitations, and maybe they were just revealed by the big screen. No, I prefer to believe that the small live show was really good.

Now to this. I avoided this at the theater because I hated the movie of Hedwig so much, and it sounded annoying, and it just didn’t look like there was all that much to it except sex and whimsy. But then everyone was saying how brilliant it is and how it must be witnessed, and my friend who I ended up watching it with had people telling him he NEEDED to see it and to see it NOW. So we both holed up one night to watch it together.

The movie begins with these nice close-ups moving around a model of the statue of liberty. Then it pans over and we see this whole illuminated model of New York that looks as though it was made of pieces of painted cardboard, but we’re moving around and through it so sinuously I have to believe there was something digital about it. Watch the trailer and you’ll see it. Mitchell uses this as a way to move around the city and show where everyone is, which is ingenious and clever, and I could watch it forever.

So we begin one afternoon with a bunch of our characters having sex. You do know that the people in this movie have real sex, don’t you? Good, so we can move on. This guy James tapes himself coming into his own mouth, and he is being surreptitiously taped by some guy across the way. This dominatrix Sevrin is beating this annoying trust fund kid who won’t shut up. This Asian woman Sofia is having sex in every possible position with her husband. Everyone comes at the same time, and everyone feels terrible afterward. Sofia is the only one that seems to feel good, but we find out afterward that she was faking it.

So then the gay couple go to Sofia, who is a couple counselor. Jamie is a former child star, and James is a former hustler. James is also named Jamie but they call him James so as to avoid confusion but Jamie the former child star continuously calls him Jamie anyway. Got that? Sofia asks to speak to James alone and he tells her about this time when he was just about to hook up with this other guy in this pool when they found a corpse in the pool and he gives the corpse mouth-to-mouth but he’s dead and the corpse looks up at him with an expression that surely means something. Then Jamie comes back in and things escalate to the point where Sofia slaps him, which is surely not recommended by her therapeutic handbook, and then she tells them both that she’s preorgasmic, which means she’s never had an orgasm. They tell her she has to go to Shortbus.

She does. Shortbus is this sex and drug club in Brooklyn that is apparently frequented by the uber-hip and a few gay ex-mayors there to make it all not seem QUITE so achingly hip. Sofia comes in and sees a bunch of people having sex in this big room that seems to be lined with silk or something, making it look like an outtake from Caligula. Sofia gets drunk and ends up in a room with a bunch of lesbians and reveals to them that whenever she starts to feel pleasure during sex she feels as though someone is about to kill her. There are some electrical brownouts that occur at key moments of symbolic import.

Meanwhile James and Jamie are introduced to Ceth [pronounced Seth], who is obsessed with them. They eventually have a three-way, with Ceth giving orders and telling everyone where to move and what to do. If you’re ever trying to explain to someone what a “pushy bottom” is, and you’re having trouble, you could just show them this scene. During this time one of them also sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” into another one’s ass, which is perhaps meant to be subversive. You know, and I used to think I was pretty kinky.

Now let’s pull back into reality for a moment. I, who, based on Hedwig and all the people who thought this movie was just the greatest thing, was prepared to hate this movie, was surprised to actually find myself enjoying it. There is a lot of gay banter and situations that you just don’t find in movies every day, and I was finding parts of it hilariously funny. However, I was surprised to see that my friend, who was really keen to see it and has much more of a taste for hipsters and is much more down with the whole ‘free love’ vibe and the liberations of sex, was sitting there silently fuming with his arms crossed in front of him. He was not finding it funny, it was annoying to him that much as this movie purports to be about everyday, non-glamorous people, they are all everyday in a very glamorous, hip way, and one notices that all the guys have big dicks. We have also noted that every exchange, every glance, every word uttered is just SO VERY MEANINGFUL eventually one just wants this movie to fuck off. And we’re only halfway through!

SPOILERS > > >
The ever-so-meaningful emotion, kept in relative check for the first hour, now hits 11 and stays with the needle buried in the red zone. Sofia brings her husband to Shortbus and puts a vibrating egg in her pussy, giving him the remote control. Her husband tells someone else he meets that he feels small, kept. It seems that everyone at Shortbus is opening up about themselves [just like WE ALL need to do!] and at times the whole thing is like some kind of mass therapy. I guess this is why I never go to sex clubs like Shortbus—well, that and that they don’t exist—because, as they say in Fight Club, “People with that kind of emotional honesty make me go a big rubbery one.”

So the big joke is that Sofia’s husband, uninterested in using the remote to her vibrator, tucked in into his back pocket and so it goes off every time he sits down, ruining a great many possibly orgasmic sessions she may have had. Perhaps I am not as familiar with the female anatomy as I should be, but I didn’t see why she couldn’t just take it out. Hi, you ARE in a sex club. Then the remote falls out completely and some guy picks it up and is using it to try to change the TV channel, causing Sofia to have such powerful convulsions that she beats some gay guy up. It is all seriously straight out of Three’s Company.

Around this time I turned to my friend and said “I think that each of these people is going to experience an emotional APOTHEOSIS,” and he didn’t find that nearly as funny as I did, but maybe it’s because the movie was making him a grumplestilskien. Then there’s another emotionally-induced brownout the moment when Sofia finally yanks the vibrating egg out of her snatch and smashes it, making me wonder if Con Ed is aware that the entire electrical infrastructure of the city is inextricably tied to the emotional well-being of a few sensitive individuals in Brooklyn.

Then it turns out that there’s another, then another guy obsessed with Jamie and James as a couple. With Ceth, that’s three. Personally, I do not know one person who is obsessed with a particular gay couple, but I guess I don’t travel in these circles. Jamie apparently feels that they have found what they’re looking for to revitalize their relationship in Ceth, although to me it seemed obvious that Ceth is the most vacuous black hole of narcissism imaginable. Then James videotapes his own suicide attempt, and is saved by the guy who watches him from across the way. Then Sofia is daydreaming during a session and imagines she’s on a park bench on an island. Then there’s a city-wide blackout.

Well as I predicted, it’s apotheosis time. So then Jamie and someone watch James’ film [everything he’s been taping], then he sees him all lit up by candles in the apartment across the way [by the by, think someone has seen L’Appartement / Wicker Park?]. Then everyone goes to Shortbus, where drag-ish something Justin Bond of Kiki & Herb is singing this song “We all get it in the end,” while Sofia’s husband watches as she has her first orgasm, at which point all the lights in the city come back on. New York runs on cum power! Clearly the rights to Dionne Warwick and Jeffery Obsborne’s seminal duet “Love Power” was not available, as I am absolutely positive that would have played over the credits.
< < < SPOILERS END

Now, one of my most-hated movies of all time is Magnolia, and that is the movie that seems to have laid the blueprint here. My problem with both films is that, much as I’m a mopey pessimist myself, even I admit that life is NOT JUST UNRELIEVED MISERY. Occasionally nice things happen. And both films purport to be a peek at the real lives of a bunch of everyday characters, but the intense focus on the misery and emotional strum and drang and lack of orgasms and suicide attempts and finding of dead bodies and wackos taping people from across the way… eventually alienates one from the characters, and the movie. I totally disengaged an hour in, and it was all a wallow in misery and neurosis and carefully orchestrated [and phony as hell] emotional epiphanies from that point on.

The other thing is that while this movie seems to be trying to capture a cross-section of everyday New Yorkers from various walks of life, they are all somewhat impossibly hip. I have already mentioned that they are all the kind of “everyday” glamorous like you might find in a music video, and that all the guys have rather large dicks. One also notices that the movie spans locations from Manhattan to Brooklyn [perhaps there was Queens, but I don’t remember it], as if to say that it is SIMPLY IMPOSSIBLE for hip, interesting people to live outside of those two boroughs! So this really is an insular, hipster’s-eye view of what “everyday people” are like.

The other thing is that it tends toward the tendentious. Throughout, one has the feeling that there is an agenda at work, that we are to understand that these people ARE the most interesting people, that we all SHOULD open ourselves up to sex with others, that we all SHOULD be giving sway to our neuroses, that we all SHOULD be attending hip sex and drug clubs. The unreality of the characters and the highly-contrived situations they find themselves in is inextricable with this. And the heavy-handed feeling of messaging eventually makes you to want the movie to just get out of your face. As my favorite creative writing teacher told us in his dry, sneering British voice: “Don’t. Comment. You are not. Thackery.”

On the plus side, if you’ve ever hooked up on a wild sexual experience while in a city or whatever, you know how you come outside and see a Grandmother buying an orchid for her granddaughter and you think: “I wonder if she has any idea what is going on right on the other side of that door?” or “I wonder how much sex is going on in this city right now?” this film kind of gets at that. And it does explore a whole undercurrent of New York society that you just don’t see represented, and some of the dialogue, being at times very true to life to everyday gay people and others, can be hilariously funny. I just wish Mitchell had resisted the urge to have every single little exchange be fraught with super meaningful meaning! His apparent tendency to insert an extra special note about just how very unique every aspect of this production is becomes apparent when you try to watch the trailer, and are instead treated to a personal greeting from the writer / director telling you about the process of making the film and how they showed it an Cannes and it got a great reception. That’s great, but I wanted to watch the trailer, so why don’t you SHUT THE FUCK UP AND SHOW ME THE FUCKING TRAILER!

Once the credits were rolling my friend turned to me and said “That made no more sense than Purple Rain,” the movie we had last watched together. Then, upon arriving home at 12:30 am, he was so moved that he felt compelled to send me an email delivering the word he had distilled about the film during the course of his subway ride home: “Juvenile.” Personally, my word would be “Tendentious.” Either way, neither of us liked it or ever want to see it again.

Should you watch it: 

If you liked Magnolia. If you liked Magnolia and are gay, hoo boy, this is the movie for you.