Beyond the Boner

John Cameron Mitchell's 'Shortbus' has an abundance of sex, but the film is not about sex

Philosophers and psychologists have long thought that people go to movies in order to have feelings. For example, they go to see tragedies in order to have sad feelings, and they go to feel-good movies in order to have good feelings, and they go to porno films in order to have boner feelings.

But John Cameron Mitchell, the director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, noted that porno movies focus so exclusively on boner feelings (and their corresponding feelings of non-boner-persons) that they leave out all other emotions.

So he thought, why not make a film that explores sexuality--wherein scenes of sexual behavior are integral to the plot and character--that's about some aspect of character other than the underwear-centered feelings that have already been so tastefully explored in films like Hairy Potter and the Sorcerer's Bone and Eternal Scumshine of the Spotted Dick?

Which is exactly what he's done with Shortbus, a film that has nearly as much gay three-way sex as your average priest-minister-and-a-rabbi joke, but with far more emotional depth and variety.

The film starts with a gorgeous animated sequence of New York City at night. As the camera zooms into a cardboard model of an apartment, it shifts to live action, and we see the sorts of things that show up constantly in James Dobson's mind, and rarely on a mainstream cinema screen: a white guy and an Asian woman giving each other their best in a variety of loving and vigorous positions; a young man trying to kiss his wounded soul, assuming his wounded soul is hanging out on the end of his penis; and a trust-fund hipster receiving some indie-core punishment from a goth-rock dominatrix.

But this isn't just porn for porn's sake. Each of the sexual acts is inherently important to the stories of these characters.

James, the man who's trying to love himself in all three senses of the phrase, is in a long-term relationship with Jamie. But James can't feel good about himself, so he and Jamie go see Sofia, a couples' counselor, to talk about the possibility of bringing another man into their relationship.

Somehow, and this is one of only two poorly motivated sequences in the film, Sofia blurts out that she's "pre-orgasmic," which in psychologist talk means that she can't get her hoo-hoo to make special power feelings. So James and Jamie invite her to "Shortbus," a club for New Yorkers who want to hang out with their wangs and/or other genitalia out.

There, Sofia meets Severin, the dominatrix, and they begin to explore the limits of their ability to feel.

This could have been like the maudlin, melodramatic, hard-core gay porn they show on the Lifetime network at 2 a.m. if it weren't for the tremendously smart dialogue and charmingly natural acting. Much of the credit for this goes to the actors, who helped create their roles, though I assume the best dialogue comes from Mitchell himself, as he's listed as the film's sole writer.

Not only did he pen such lines as, "Have you ever had anyone sing 'The Star Spangled Banner' into your ass before?"; he also did a great job on the casting. Most of the actors are little-known or first-timers, yet they're all great. Especially notable are Paul Dawson as James and PJ DeBoy as Jamie. Their ability to be simultaneously funny, sad, hopeful, naked and erect is deserving of its own special Academy Award category.

They and Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) share the spotlight as they try to figure out how to make life worth living. Meanwhile, a slew of hangers-on, witty performance artists and suspicious voyeurs flit in and out of their lives.

The theme of voyeurism is one of the strongest, and Mitchell can't help but occasionally become a bit sappy as he transforms the sad outsiders who watch into full-scale people who feel. But he saves it all with a triumphant ending that doesn't give in to the temptation for neat closure.

Almost everything about this film works, including a great score by Yo La Tengo and neo-folkie Scott Matthews, and some very intimate photography by cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco. DeMarco's work is notable in that he manages to shoot the sex scenes with a vision that allows the feelings and force of the dialogue to come to the fore, even when someone is coming to the fore.

The only downside to Shortbus is that the plot is a bit too meandering and the conflicts too clearly stated. But even when the film seems to go off course, the dialogue remains so inventive that my attention didn't lag.

It would be nice if other filmmakers could take a lesson from Shortbus and see that there's no aspect of human life that isn't important in explaining how it is that people have the thoughts and feelings they do. But until hell officially freezes over, Shortbus will remain one of the few movies that understands there's more to sex than titillation, and more to titillation than exploitation.