One of the most anticipated sex films of 2006, John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus boasts high production values, a non-porn cast, and good reviews...Well I'm not buying it.
There's an old saying: you can put garbage in a new place but you can't make it smell better. Transversally, this saying works in regards to this film in that you can take hardcore sex out of its modern shot on video gutter and put it into a glossy film, but without artistic substance you still have the same thing: porn.
Shortbus caused quite a stir when it came out in mid 2006. I remember walking past the local cinema playing it to see a line out the door of people waiting to get in and buy tickets for it. I saw it, not knowing quite what to expect but still expecting something marginally interesting; at least different. My sole expectation was not men and I left the film neither feeling good or bad about having seen it, rather just disappointed.
Shortbus, the film given a positive reviews by so many "mainstream" critics, was nothing more than a cinematic mouse in cat's clothing. Again, it's not that the film was bad, for it wasn't. It's not even that it was offensive, had it been I could at least have given it credit for that. No, the film was just boring, un-insightful, and most of all unoriginal! Its frequent misguided attempts at being "arty" were simply tedious. And as for the sex, that which the film was sold on, it was nothing different than cinematic depictions of sex have been since X Rated films first became legal.
I suppose before I continue my rant I should provide some of the films narrative. I shall preface the following description by saying that the so-called story which occasionally pops up is nothing more than a politicized retelling of Damiano's Deep Throat set in the 21st century. Sook Yon Lee plays a marriage counselor who has never had an orgasm. Lucky for her, a kindly gay couple decide to solve her sex problems by taking her to a nice underground sex club with good mood lighting where all sex is free and Sook might even be able to solve her sexual hangups!
Meanwhile, it is revealed that all is not well in the homo love heaven of our gay couple. Tensions are rising and their "marriage" may be in peril! (oh no!) At the same time, an attractive blonde guy is watching them screw and bitch and is taking pictures of said goings on. His big secret? He's sad, lonely, and has a crush on one of our homo heroes, awwww. All eventually works out and, in good porn fashion, the film "climaxes" in a nice group grope.
So continuing on my previously started rant, it's not that Shortbus isn't a well made film for it certainly is. The photography, lighting, and production design are on par as the best late 70s/early 80s hardcore features, but unlike those films, Shortbus is not being cinematicly transgressive simply because it's a well made film which also has hardcore sex. That's been done and it continues to be done and done much better. The film doesn't push the envelope by doing anything innovative. Narrativly it's unoriginal, sexually it's less than shocking, and artistically it's pretty empty.
Throughout the film, Mitchell tries to inject liberal political jargon into the rather succinct narrative and does so to no effect. The characters are so flat and forgettable, if not downright annoying, that trying to present them as the fallout victims of an evil capitalist system is laughable. These characters represent the problems of society, not its victims for all of their problems can be traced back to their own selfishness and senses of entitlement.
Moreover, taking into account that Mitchell is gay and therefore focuses the film on the gay side of things more than the straight one, he immediately turns this movie into a hackneyed plea for gay rights, in particular marriage (an ironic liberal plea that a conservative ideal be allowed for all) while simultaneously trying to cast fault on the idea of monogamy. At one point, in a typical porn turn, the "faithful" gay "married" couple engages in a threeway with photographer boy as a means of solving the relationship problems. This action completely destroys the presumed integrity of their supposedly loving relationship and is laughably played.
Returning to the real world for a moment, I must again ask myself a classic question: who was this film made for? The answer is simple: it was made for older "art film" buffs and people like me (that is, 18-30 y.o. counterculture kids who listen to "alt" music, dress "emo," embrace bisexuality and liberal politics, and watch "indie" movies and art films). This film is trying to make a positive statement that the liberals of my generation can rebel against "the man" by having lots of sex and being sad. Wow. I think if Mitchell tried to stop crowd pleasing and make a serious comment on just how fucked up my generation actually is, and how much of it is their own fault, instead of playing into its self serving "we're the victims of the Bush administration" crap, he could have made a good serious film.
Shortbus, a term referring to retarded...errr..."mentally challenged" people, is the perfect "art" film for just those individuals. It's pretty, surface level, and has naked people running around talking about crap only people on a shortbus would find deep.
This being a Hollywood-ish film coming from a mainstream DVD company, the transfer is flawless.
A nice little "let's pat ourselves on the back" doc. about the making of the film is presented. It's a shits and giggles as the various players and crew members all have a jolly time and try to come off as intellectuals.
None, however a bit more editing could have done the film some good...
Should You Buy It?
If you've heard the hype, which you probably have, you should rent it. It's still an interesting, though very misguided, film to see if for no other reason than because of its hype. If after renting it you too discover you belong on a shortbus and wish to add this to your collection, do.