Comfortable and Furious

Shortbus (2006)

The greatest societal affliction is not, as someone once said, a limp dingus, but rather the inability of a navel-gazing Asian woman to have an orgasm so powerful that if its energy were harnessed, it could light all of New York City, if not the world. At least that’s the conclusion of John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, a film that might have been a shocking, raunchy good time had it not taken the plight of its shallow monsters so seriously. In fact, there’s an embarrassing earnestness afoot, as if we care whether these nitwits find love or, more tellingly, a waif-like stud willing to sing the Star-Spangled Banner while tossing your salad.

Hey, I’m at full attention for any film that, within its first five minutes, features a limber young pup contorting and twisting until he successfully blows himself and ejaculates in his own mouth, or a married couple sounding out a ringing endorsement for yoga after screwing in a dozen eye-poppingly outrageous positions, but whenever the film turned away from the semen and the stench to offer trite life lessons, I found myself tucking away my engorged member and begging for a few moments of nap time.

Sofia (Soon-Yin Lee) is a “couples counselor”, which is her way of defining what is, essentially, a sex therapist. Needless to say, she has problems of her own, primarily that she’s wholly unfamiliar with the female orgasm. She fakes it time and again with her boyfriend, and as a result is empty and conflicted. Outside of the shopworn idea that the doctor eventually becomes the patient, the character grates because she’s a product of therapy-speak, always “owning” her problems and sharing with her boyfriend while firmly locked in the lotus position. She could be a satirical creation, but I’m convinced Mitchell cares about her deeply, as so much of the script is devoted to the notion that the world will not be right until she experiences pleasure.

Sofia’s not entirely convinced that the female orgasm is even real, dismissing it as a myth fostered by a feminist culture that seeks to violate the mandates of nature. After all, she announces, it has no bearing on reproduction, so why on earth would it be preserved in the evolutionary process? Being an evolutionary failure on all counts (no offspring and, to date, not a single orgasm in my presence save my own), I’m not one to speak on the matter, but if in fact such a thing exists and it has nothing at all to do with passing along DNA, what the hell does it mean? I’ll stand firm, though: the female orgasm is a global conspiracy to force women into thinking that intercourse has anything at all to do with them.

Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson) are the gay couple having problems, which forces them into therapy (thereby meeting Sofia), and later, a botched suicide attempt by the depressed James. I’m not sure why he tried to end his life, but kudos for his method: taking a bottle of pills, wrapping a plastic bag around his head, and jumping naked into the pool where he works during the day as a lifeguard. Let me be the first to advocate fully nude suicide attempts, though I’d rather witness more dramatic stabs like leaping from tall buildings, or jumping in front of a subway. Alas, James is saved by a voyeur who has been stalking him the entire film, I’m guessing because he’s horny as fuck and James is pretty built and all.

On this note, if Mitchell is gay, why is he playing into every stereotype that gay men eschew conversation, engagement, or anything elevated of any kind in order to exchange fluids? Jamie and James claim to love each other (and love the new boy who makes things interesting for awhile), but we never see them do anything but play naked Twister and make out. Mitchell redeems the gay man in the end, though, by aggressively suggesting that our savior is a drag queen who has the voice of an angel and a sex appeal so strong that even the heterosexual Sofia couldn’t resist sticking her tongue down his throat.

So what is the “Shortbus” of the title? It’s many things, actually — think of the Warhol party from Midnight Cowboy, coupled with random outtakes from the execrable Tarnation, while mixing generously with Annabel Chong’s memoir. Or maybe it’s what the emcee said, “Like the 60s, only with less hope.” It’s a house of experimentation, pleasure, and sin, and in every corner, there are people taking drugs, playing Spin the Bottle, taking one in the face, or, most appallingly, confessing their sexual exploits for Sofia. One chick — I think it was a chick, though she did have more facial hair than Rasputin — talked about her first orgasm with the following words: “It was like the release of all this creative energy, and it, like, co-mingled with others’ creative energy, and like, it made me feel like there was harmony, and like there was like, no more war.” Or some such nonsense.

I supported the ERA, want to apply a hammer to the glass ceiling, and would pound the pavement for equal pay for equal work, but let’s face it: feminism ruined the world. Fine, maybe not the world, but it sure as hell dashed all hopes of being able to talk about sex without sounding like a stoned Beat poet. Fuck, at least men don’t invoke spirituality, mountain streams, and lush fields when discussing their genitalia. Sorry ladies, we don’t even know if you’re in the room, so we sure as hell don’t hear harps and hummingbirds.

Sofia is further helped by the introduction of a vibrating egg (I guess Mitchell watched Annie Hall one too many times), which leads to an extended slapstick sequence that got old well before Sofia got off. You see, the egg is operated via remote control, and Sofia’s boyfriend is supposed to give her a “shock” whenever he wants to get her attention. They bring the egg to Shortbus, and while she’s off kissing drag queens and being pawed by tattooed bisexuals, her boyfriend misplaces the remote and it ends up in the hands of fellow patrons who assume it’s actually meant for a television. Hilarity ensues, and Sofia is thrown about like a rag doll.

The egg also helps dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish) achieve orgasm, as she rides Sofia while the egg is experiencing a nuclear meltdown while lodged in Sofia’s crotch. More on Severin: she beats the shit out of rich homosexuals with a whip, but she hates her life because she’s never been in love. It’s yet another tired character trait, as all sadists are assumed to be damaged souls rather than healthy beings who get all wet while watching others suffer welts and abrasions. But no, the tears have to flow, and she has to be the kind of punk chick who obsessively takes Polaroid pictures and scrawls funky messages on them because she wants to be an artist. At one point, she even cries: “I want to save up the money so that I can make art for a year.” I’ve raked self-involved creeps over the coals for many years as a Ruthless critic, but it never grows stale. I’m convinced that 90% of the world’s problems would disappear overnight if people just got the fuck over themselves.

Among the other travesties include: an old queen (who claims to be Ed Koch) who exchanges passionate kisses with a young boy after spewing forth a personal philosophy that seems designed to get young, impressionable boys into the sack, the emcee of Shortbus wrapping up the movie with a song which tells us that we all “get it in the end” (double-entendre, oh do behave), and a trippy fantasy sequence with Sofia that ended with her furiously rubbing her clit (reducing to a cinder would be more accurate) while laying on a park bench next to the ocean.

It’s at that point that the electrical grid of Manhattan came alive after having experienced a blackout, and I wasn’t sure what to feel, other than a bit of envy that a human being managed to convince others to give him money to make such a movie. I could read a dozen self-help books and attend Tony Robbins courses around the clock, and I still won’t possess such powers of persuasion. But give Mitchell credit: he’s making the films he wants, sense or logic be damned, and he’s fighting the good fight for the power of sex to save us all from ruin. Easy for him to say – he’s never been married.