Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Shortbus at Toronto International Film Festival

Getting off by getting on

THE STORY OF O. In the hilarious Shortbus, Sook-Yin Lee plays a relationship therapist who can't reach orgasm. Credit: (Paula Wilson)

The first thing you’ll hear about John Cameron Mitchell’s latest film Shortbus is that there is real sex in it.

Real sex, you may ask, like real?

The answer is yes. Real. Not just missionary but full-on, penetrative aerobic sex, het and queer. Within the first five minutes, actors Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson and Lindsay Beamish play out an orchestra of sexual positions and acts on almost every piece of furniture imaginable. It’s like the Cirque du Soleil of humping.

Beyond being real, the sex in Shortbus is the kind you don’t usually see in feature films — sweaty and exposed, sincere and unpolished. It’s not really pornographic. It’s missing the standard “as close as you can get” shots of butts and vaginas. Moreover, it’s not always very satisfying for the characters. How often do you see a porn star roll over after fellating himself to look horrified and sad? Overall, there’s too much going on in the eyes and lives of the characters in Shortbus for it to feel like porn.

For writer/director Mitchell (Hedwig And The Angry Inch) the sex is not a weapon meant to shock or a device meant to titillate. “Sex,” he says, “is always about something else.” It is a way to show loneliness, pain, fear as well as joy. Sex attaches the characters to each other; it links up stages in their lives. Sex is not the focus of the film, but a means of exposing us to the characters who are often damaged and fabulously crazy.

Toronto’s Sook-Yin Lee, one of the film’s main stars, is contemplative on the subject of Shortbus’s pornographic and yet unpornographic qualities.

“[The film] is one of those weird anomalies,” she notes. “So much in life is about black and white situations and gaping generalizations — so we have porn, and everything else. So what happens when it’s a different colour? What do we call it when there’s been no precedent; when we don’t know what it is; when the genre hasn’t been created yet?”

Mitchell makes a distinction between his film and other recent films employing real sex like Virginie Despentes Coralie’s Baise-Moi from 2000, Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny from 2003 and Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs from 2004.

These “so-called enlightened” films are “pretty negative,” says Mitchell. “[They] are as trapped in the same guilt [over sex] as the people attacking these films.”

Guilt is present in Shortbus, but not guilt over having sex. Sex is just another of life’s complications. It’s these complications, our struggles to live well, that interests Mitchell. He says the title is meant to describe the space these characters inhabit, a place where people get stuck. “Society views people on the shortbus as people who couldn’t keep up with the mainstream.” To Mitchell, it turns out to be “a much more interesting place to be.”

In the film, Shortbus is also the name of a sexclub run by a sublime demi-drag queen played by Justin Bond (of Kiki And Herb fame). Here everyone is welcome to try anything — and here you’ll see tons of cameos by a host of Toronto queers like John Caffery, Gentleman Reg (both of whom grace our cover) and Lex Vaughn. (Also listen for music by Reg and The Hidden Cameras on the amazing soundtrack.)

Lee’s participation in Shortbus was seeded during her role as Kwahng-Yi, one of the bitchin’ Korean army bride rockers in Hedwig And The Angry Inch. “I said [to John] call me when you have a new project going.

“It happened to be this one.”

Actors were encouraged to submit audition tapes where they discussed some element of their sex lives. Five hundred hopefuls submitted tapes. A handful were brought to New York for further auditions.

Lee used the audition to talk about her experience growing up as the only Chinese kid in her suburban neighbourhood. She says she discussed “living in isolation, living in a kind of tumultuous family environment and then trying to figure out my sexuality within all that stuff.

“It was a coming-of-age reiteration of what it was to start being sexual as a teenager and then confounded… when I did have sex… by the challenges involved in accepting an orgasm.”

Sofia, Lee’s character in the film, is a New York relationship therapist dealing with a similar search, not only for the elusive orgasm but that sense of self and sexuality. Much of her character grew out of that year of improvisational work with Mitchell. It was a potent process, says Lee, crucial to building up intimacy and trust among the ensemble. “We got to know one another.”

For PJ DeBoy, former host of Pridevision’s Locker Room, who now lives in New York, Shortbus was also a chance to expand and explore. DeBoy and Mitchell are close friends and Mitchell approached DeBoy to be in the film. The experience, says DeBoy, “was an emotional ride in every sense… from fear to joy.” He saw the more explicit sex scenes as an opportunity for him as an actor, a chance to “express a character expressing himself doing something he loves doing.”

DeBoy’s character, Jamie, is a former child star who is deeply in love with his boyfriend, also named Jamie (or James), played by Paul Dawson, DeBoy’s partner in real life. DeBoy’s character is a central emotional touchstone of the film, representing a so-called “perfect couple” with pathos and uncertainty lurking beneath the smooth veneer of homosexual cuteness.

One of the film’s most sensational sexual servings sees the two Jamies having their first threesome. James (Dawson) and Ceth (Jay Brannan) are 69ing, while Jamie (DeBoy) rims Ceth. Jamie starts to sing while continuing to rim; then he sings the “Star Spangled Banner.” Stunning — a playful and unforgettable juxtaposition of US patriotism and gay sex. It’s one of DeBoy’s favourite scenes. Set against the film’s explicit backdrop of 9/11, it’s a little piece of genius. That kind of wit runs throughout the film.

For DeBoy, the scene is a political jab that reflects his personal politics and love for sex. “In the US,” says DeBoy, “we have this whole ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ thing… and I think the act itself is such a beautiful thing.” He’s puzzled why sex is still taboo. At Cannes, he notes, none of the press, no matter how often he used the word, would spell out what happened in that scene. “Nobody prints the word rimming!”

The media’s untouchable attitude toward sex was also an obstacle for Lee, host of CBC radio’s Definitely Not The Opera. The CBC threatened to fire her upon hearing about her participation in the film. “When [the CBC] put on the brakes,” she says, “I knew I had to get my side of the story together. [I said] I’ve got to go in there like the best lawyer in town and state my case because these people are assuming this is a tawdry porno — which it’s not.”

Fortunately, after discussions regarding the artistic nature of the project Lee was given the thumbs up to continue working. She credits CBC’s change of heart as lucky. “I know,” she says, “if I was living in the States and working for Fox, there was no way.”

It seems we are still living in an age when fucking for money, being sexual for money, is not cool — although, under the umbrella of art, it seems, it’s a different story.

Whether or not audiences will line up to be titillated, to see erect penis, or to check out the complex characters created by Mitchell in Shortbus is anyone’s guess. Clearly, a little bit of vagina can’t do a movie much harm in the eyes of fans of Mitchell’s work.

And for those not on the Shortbus?

Lee remains hopeful about the movie’s message and possibilities. “This is a movie that if people are brave enough and open-hearted enough to go and see, they’ll be surprised and maybe they’ll be confronted by some of their assumptions.”