Yesterday PJ and I drove up to Columbus to see Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell’s new movie. A couple of my favorite undergraduates had mentioned that they were going to go see it, and we were going to meet them there and watch it together. PJ and I ended up going earlier than I had thought we would (so we could also get in a little shopping), and so we didn’t end up seeing them there. But I owe them for spurring us to drive up yesterday, because Shortbus is a wonderful film.

Scene from ShortbusThe plot of the film revolves around a group of characters who are all emotionally wounded and who live rather hollow lives: a “couple’s counselor” who’s never had an orgasm, her husband who can’t tell her that he needs to be spanked (and spanked hard), a dominatrix who can’t step outside this role, a gay man who’s nearly debilitated by depression, his shallow boyfriend of five years who desperately needs to “love everybody,” and a younger generation of gay men who obsess so much over what they think is this couple’s perfect relationship that they aren’t able to create relationships of their own.

While the film is getting a lot of press for its sexual explicitness (and it is sexually explicit!), the key word here is “relationships.” The sex in the film is a metaphor for the characters’ failed attempts at connecting with one another. The therapist who’s never achieved orgasm also can’t talk to her husband about sex or their relationship without the safety of psychobabble covering over all of their real feelings and frustrations. The gay couple invites a younger man to join them for a threesome but this serves the same function as the straight couple’s comic scene of “safe” language (though the awkwardness of the three men getting to know one another as they wait to start the sex is touching and it is in the combination of these awkward moments and the subsequent sex, which is bizarrely hilarious, that the characters begin to find what they’re looking for).

The characters in Shortbus move out beyond their most intimate relationships to find connection at a kind of community center cum sex party, called Shortbus. It is here that the film is most queer in the sense that, as we see the characters interact (talk, make out, and perform various sexual activities alone, in pairs, and in large groups), we also see them making the kinds of connections they couldn’t find elsewhere. Like many queer films, the goal of Shortbus, at least in part, is to redefine such terms as love, family, and community, moving these terms away from the expectations of heteronormative society and toward a truly queer utopia.

As with all utopic visions, there are problems with Mitchell’s idea society, beautiful as it is. One of my complaints about the film is that one of the most important sexual interactions is shown much as it would be in an R-rated film (waist up). While this scene happens rather late in the movie (and so perhaps Mitchell didn’t want a graphic depiction of this particular sexual act to overshadow the larger point in the film was gearing up for), showing it more explicitly would have further supported the film’s themes and would have been a truly queer cinematic achievement.

Furthermore, although the utopian vision this film yearns for is one I’d love to be a part of too, the film can’t really give us a sufficient road map for achieving it. I frequently read a queer forum, As one of the posters on that website sarcastically wrote about this film earlier this month, “There is no problem that can’t be solved by an orgasm, a drag queen and a marching band.”

If this were the point of Shortbus, I’d have to admit that I kind of agree: there are no problems that can’t be solved by an orgasm, a drag queen, and a marching band! But that’s not really the point. Like the sex depicted throughout the film, these three items are rather joyous metaphors for the possibility of the connection the characters seek. Ultimately, John Cameron Mitchell’s point is that community and connection are out there. We’ve just got to find the band and start banging on the cymbals as it marches by. (I’ll leave how to get the orgasm and what to do with the drag queen up to your imagination!)

This a delightful, heart-felt film. I enjoy John Cameron Mitchell’s direction, and the script, which was partially created by the mostly non-professional actors (who are wonderful), is moving and oddly realistic. Shortbus is very nearly a queer masterpiece.