SEX. It's everywhere you look. The internet is a breeding ground for pornography, sex is used strategically in marketing and advertising campaigns (the infmaous "sex sells"), sex scandals in the media are frequent along with strong emphasis on celebrity love lives. Contemporary society seems obsessed with "sex" and yet it still remains a sensitive subject for most people. Understandably so, it is a delicate divisive issue with so many different viewpoints and it is no surprise that John Cameron Mitchell's (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) lastest work was met with much controversy. Many labeled it as an excuse for him to exploit pornography and it makes me wonder if these people actually watched the film before making such a ridiculous claim. It's true that there are plenty of hardcore sex scenes and Mitchell doesn't shy away from explicitly (and I strongly emphasis this word) showing people engaging in various sex acts.
The opening scene is that of a young man masterbating and then giving himself fellatio until he climaxes into his mouth. It then cuts to a couple in the heat of passion going at it wildly on top of a piano followed by a BDSM session. These are real people that are actually having sex and the camera is not positioned in such a way to create an illusion that these "actors" are pretending to have sex. But isn't that what pornography is? Filming people in real time having sex for others to watch as a way to achieve sexual gratification? Yes, that may true but Mitchell isn't interested in pornography. That's better left for the adult entertainment industry. Instead, he is interested in voyeruism, the role of sex in contemporary society, and how it influences relationships with gentle hints of a post/911 setting.
Following the lives of several New Yorkers which include a sex therapist unable to have a an orgasm, a gay couple struggling to make their relationship work and a dominatrix with a tender heart all trying to deal with their frustratated sex lives. Most of the action story place at an underground sex-club and it is here where the group of friends experience their sexual awakenings. Much of the cast are non-profesional actors which was quite surprising because all of their performances are outstanding. The Altmanesque paradigms are clearly evident as Mitchell follows around his group of characters in a self-contained fashion. He does an excellent job of avoiding artificiality and as a result, takes on a very raw mentality. Intent on creating the most realistic portrayal possible of crestfallen individals hiding behind a facade who are searching for a way to feel sexually liberated, the film is heart-wrenching in its depiction of fragile individuals on the brink of cracking at any moment. As each of the main group of characters slowly open up about their true feelings and desires the film completely switches gears replacing the fascination of sex with humanism. Mitchell is able to achieve something extroardinary here because everything feels so personal. His critique on the difficulties that sex or sexual identity brings to relationships becomes even more poignant this way. A daring and provocative film that is sure to turn heads, Shortbus can be uncomfortable to sit through at times but totally rewarding in the end.