Review: 'Shortbus' Returns with a 15th Anniversary Re-release

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday January 26, 2022

'Shortbus'
'Shortbus'  (Source:Oscilloscope)

Can it really have been as long ago as 2006 that John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus" rolled into the scene? So it would seem; the film cements its status an en enduring work with a 4K restoration and cinematic re-release, and if you assume that it's become a quaint relic from a kinder, gentler, pre-Trump age, then I encourage to you to reassess. Cameron's masterpiece was ahead of its time back then, and effortlessly occupies the present moment.

If you saw the film upon its initial release, you may remember the particular mixture of surprise and delight it offered, starting right off with a CGI-enhanced tour around New York in which Mitchell's camera caromed from place to place, locating (and dropping in on) the movie's main characters: Former hustler James (Paul Dawson), whom we — along with a stalker named Caleb (Peter Stickles) who lives across the way — observe attempting to fellate himself; loving, but troubled, couple Sofa (Sook-Yin Lee) and Rob (Raphael Barker), who are enmeshed in a marathon session of sex that seemingly tries out half the position in the "Kama Sutra"; and a dominatrix named Severin (Lindsay Beamish), who, ensconced in her lair overlooking the footprint of what used to be the World Trade Center, puts her irritation with a "trust fund muppet" named Jesse (Adam Hardman) to good use, flogging the kid for his torrent of vapid questions. The sequence is erotic, comedic, and illuminating; the fact that it takes place to Anita O'Day's rendition of "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Bay" only elevates its already-heightened quality.

Unsimulated sex and potent ejaculations flood the screen as the montage reaches its pinnacle. But the baring of so much flesh is just the start; Mitchell, who devised the story and characters with his cast, is looking to get under their skin, pick apart their problems, and find their souls.

And they do have problems. James is depressed and suicidal; his sweet and loving partner Jamie (PJ DeBoy) can't understand why James won't, and can't, let him in emotionally. Sofie is unable to attain orgasm, despite Rob's heroic efforts; she optimistically calls herself "pre-orgasmic," but there's a hint of desperation in the way she talks about her dilemma. Severin, meantime, is increasingly dissatisfied with her line of work. And Caleb — the stalker who lives across from James and Jamie — is stuck in a romantic and sexual no man's land, treating the window into his neighbors' apartment as his version of cable TV and getting so invested in their domestic situation that he's become invested in their happiness and well-being, even as he neglects his own.

They all end up bouncing off one another in an emotionally and philosophically energetic free-for-all, thanks to their frequenting a private salon called Shortbus, which is run by none other than Ms. Justin Vivian Bond (who, in 2006, was known simply as Justin Bond) — or, at least, a fictionalized version of Bond.

The place is a pansexual, poly-everything blend of cabaret and play space. A labyrinth of orgy rooms, encounter rooms, and rooms where patrons can "process" upsetting stimulus, Shortbus features live music, modern (or maybe post-modern) art, and lots of horny patrons. Among them: A seventy-something former mayor of New York called Tobias (Alan Mandell), who dispenses gentle life wisdom to the younger set, and a cute, perhaps somewhat callow young man named Ceth (Jay Brannan), whom James and Jamie pick up in an effort to enliven their relationship... or so Jamie thinks; as it turns out, James has other ideas in wanting to bring a third into their union.

The film plays with roles and identities, pairing and paralleling characters in narratively logical ways that also accomplish emotional resonance. Who can Sofie, the sexually frustrated couples therapist, turn to for advice except for Severin? Where can Severin, who compulsively takes Polaroids of strangers and turns random moments from their lives into art, find a sympathetic vibration except in James, who's something of a budding filmmaker? And how can James navigate his way out of the dead zone his life has become except through making a connection with Caleb, whose infatuation, while intense, is a self-limiting prospect, being part projection and part fascination with surface beauty?

For all its sexual bravado, "Shortbus" possesses a frankness that's both smut-free and refreshingly honest. These people get off (or at least make concerted efforts to), but they also ache, and it's the fellowship of their sadness, loneliness, and hope that's the goal and the reward Mitchell drives us toward. The moment we arrive there is absurd, surreal, sublime, and satisfying.

The 15th anniversary re-release is an occasion to celebrate. You may never have forgotten this film if you've seen it before, but you might be surprised at how many rich moments you don't remember, and that makes it worth the rewatch. If you've never seen "Shortbus" before, that's all the more reason not miss it now.

"Shortbus" opens in New York on Jan. 26th, with a theatrical expansion to select cities following.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.