I guess a film about a pre-orgasmic protagonist is bound to be a little anticlimactic. But in the case of John Cameron Mitchell’s recent film Shortbus, the anticlimax is both relief and disappointment.
Many will rage and roar that it’s porn. Certainly, there’s porn out there with a lower body count in terms of sheer fornication. But there’s nothing about Shortbus that’s designed to turn you on. Rather, it’ll make you laugh, and wince. Unlike most mainstream films, this one doesn’t mystify or demystify sex. It doesn’t cast sex as mysterious collateral for the main plot. Instead, sex – in all its forms, from masturbation to twosomes, threesomes and wild orgies – is simply part of the story, part of the question that each character is trying to answer for themselves: What do I need? How am I going to find it?
Like any ensemble comedy, really, this one deals with people in pain. Specifically, a fringe bunch of New Yorkers who find their way to the lounge-cum-pleasure-palace called Shortbus, where they play out the extremes of their sexual fantasies. But, at the heart of it, they are people in pain, people looking for solace and solutions, looking to connect with others, to turn on their lights, as it were, in a city where the lights keep going out. Heironymous Bosch would turn in his grave: here’s sexual deviancy that’s not just refreshingly real – it’s uplifting, playful, fresh and unimpeded by moralising overtones.
It doesn’t exactly get there in the end, I must admit. I could have done with a more convincing turning point for the main character, a more emotionally satisfying ending. The closing scene felt a little like a pantomime encore pantomime, with the cast gathering for one last rowdy number, almost tearful at the imminent farewell, but mostly celebrating what a fine old time they’d had making the show. Which, no doubt they had.