If you haven’t seen my choice of LGBT film, it’s probably best if you don’t watch it with your grandmother first time around. Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, Shortbus opens on James (Paul Dawson) filming himself as he masturbates with grim determination in the bath. The camera doesn’t spare the audience’s blushes. We watch as he gets hard, ejaculates over his chest then sits forward and starts to cry silently. There’s nothing titillating about this scene; the utter joylessness of his orgasm is bleak and unsettling.
Shortbus is a comedy-drama about a disparate group of emotionally and sexually repressed New Yorkers, including James, his boyfriend, their voyeuristic gay neighbour and a sex therapist who doesn’t enjoy sex, who meet with each other in the liberated environment of a Brooklyn-based alternative club called Shortbus (after the small yellow bus used to take special-ed children to school in the States). When it hit mainstream cinemas in 2006 the reaction to the film’s scenes of real sex was predictable. Time Magazine called it ‘the first middle-class porno movie’ and various UK tabloids bewailed it as yet another sign of society’s moral decline.
But to label Shortbus as pornography is to see only what you want to see rather than what’s actually happening on screen. Your average rite-of-passage gay movie, with its beautiful teenage boys or girls, climactic kisses and coy cutaways between love scenes, is more pornographic in intent than this one. The sex between the various characters isn’t eroticised or glamorised; it’s messy, awkward, often unsatisfactory and occasionally ridiculous. You’ll view patriotism in an entirely different light after watching one man, giggling, sing The Star Spangled Banner into another guy’s backside during a threesome. And the episode in which therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) helplessly bounces around a club while the person who has found the remote control for her vibrator tries repeatedly to change TV channels with it is a great piece of slapstick.
This combination of sexual explicitness and comedy, as well as drama, is what makes Shortbus shine and so unique among LGBT films. Mitchell takes the idea that you can’t show emotion if you’re going to show an erection and throws it out of the window. Penetration is never an end in itself, instead driving forward and lending weight to a story populated by people who feel as real as their problems. James’s eventual reconciliation with his boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and the trauma of his days as a prostitute is genuinely uplifting, as is the moment when Sofia finally achieves the orgasm that’s always eluded her.
Shortbus isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Sometimes the acting is the stiffest thing on screen and the script occasionally buckles under the weight of its East Coast therapy-speak. Nevertheless, there is real heart pumping the blood to its extremities. The final scenes, in which the candle-bearing occupants of Shortbus sing and dance during a city-wide blackout, remind us that, whatever else it is, this film is an urban hymn to diversity and community. And who could object to that?
Shortbus is available on DVD from Amazon.co.uk
Throughout March, So So Gay will review its writers’ top LGBT films to support the build-up to the 25th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. The Festival takes place between 31 March and 6 April. For more information, visit theofficial websiteand follow the BFI’s offical Twitter feed @BFI
First published by So So Gay Magazine