Over the years, a number of courageous – some would say foolish – filmmakers have taken on the challenge of making traditional narrative cinema films which include pornographic sex scenes.
The vast majority have failed in this project: it seems that explicit sex is such a jarring thing to see on the big screen that it throws audiences out of a film’s reality and storyline. There appears to be a fundamental clash between our libido, conventions around viewing sex in public and how we engage with storytelling.
Happily, Shortbus, directed by John Cameron Mitchell (creator the fantastic stage musical and film Hedwig and Angry Inch), is one of the most successful I’ve yet seen in this genre of film.
Shortbus presents us with a group of characters in post 9/11 New York City striving to integrate their sexuality with the rest of their lives. Among others, there’s a gorgeous – and oh-so-darn-sweet gay couple trying to hold their relationship together, a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm, and a lesbian dominatrix who really just wants to be loved.
They all come together at Shortbus – a contemporary salon type club which offers its patrons a heady – and somewhat hippie-like – mix of intellectual discussion, music, art, free love and sexual experimentation.
Be warned, when the film is described as explicit this is no exaggeration – the actors really do have sex with one-another on screen. The gay sex scenes are among the most hardcore in the movie, but are presented as just another variation of sexuality. In this world, being gay is really no big deal.
One of the very first scenes introduces us to a character who masturbates and ejaculates into his mouth. And it is all up there on celluloid – as explicit as any x-rated film you’ve seen. Mitchell is actually rather smart by starting the film this way; he immediately throws us into the deep-end, a strategy that succeeds in dealing upfront with the shock of seeing these scenes in a cinema and smoothing the way for what is to come.
He also uses humour throughout the film to keep proceedings relatively light. (There’s a scene in which a character hums The Star Spangled Banner right into another character’s sphincter – which is rather amusing). The actors are also extremely likeable (and remarkable brave) and we genuinely feel for their character’s dilemmas, which all helps to ensure that this indeed feels like a ‘real movie’.
This lead to the question of whether Shortbus would be as interesting if it didn’t include the explicit depiction of sex. The answer is probably not, but then again that would be like asking if Lord of the Rings would work without any special effects.
There are some serious missteps: The film loses its way in the second half and starts to meander alarmingly, and a silly musical number at the end simply doesn’t work. It’s also hard not to notice that the characters are all oddly naÃ¯ve and rather goofy, which may get irritating.
What is most surprising about Shortbus is that it fits into the “hooker with a heart of gold” clichÃ©. It may thrust all manner of exposed body parts and bodily fluids at you, but it’s really just a soppy romantic film at heart. One that you’ll find quite hard to dislike.
It’s certainly not the most remarkable drama you’ll ever see, but thanks to its light and frisky tone and very congenial characters and cast, you’ll most probably quite enjoy your visit to Shortbus. I certainly did.