Shortbus is a very important film for me in that I came across it during a vital and pivotal moment in my life. I was 19 years old, and I was struggling to find my identity in a rural culture that doesn’t condone sexual exploration—at least not any that exceeds the bounds of heteronormativity. I was very fortunate to have a group of friends in college who showed me that the fairy tale romances we were raised on are not the only way to find love or to enjoy sex, and Shortbus is a demonstration of the education I received and was a big influence on who I am today. It only seems appropriate, then, that I pay tribute to this deeply personal film by reminding the world of its existence on the 10th anniversary of its premiere.
(And don’t worry; what follows isn’t an exhibition of my own sexual kinks and proclivities. That’s an entirely different article for an entirely different sort of publication.)
The story of Shortbus is unique in that it wasn’t crafted by one or two writers with a tight plot and set characters; rather, director John Cameron Mitchell assembled a group of actors who were willing to contribute their own experiences and improvisational skills to craft a narrative of disparate romantic and sexual exploits in the city of New York, laced with equal parts comedy and tragedy. There’s the story of a depressed man who wants to open up his relationship with his codependent boyfriend. There’s a straight female relationship counselor who has never herself had an orgasm, which places strain upon her own marriage. There’s a dominatrix for hire who simultaneously feels alone in the world yet doesn’t want to let anyone in romantically. All their stories and more converge on an underground club called Shortbus, a haven for the weird and eccentric that allows for exhibition, both artistic and sexual.
Yes, sexual—and the film does not simulate its sexual encounters; the actors are really having sex with their actual genitals in full view of the camera. Some might consider this pornographic, but I would say that this completely misses the film’s point in destigmatizing sexuality. The film places very strong emphasis on the normalization of homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender identity, crossdressing, polyamory, open relationships, sex workers, BDSM, voyeurism, and exhibitionism. People are diverse and into all sorts of strange and wonderful things, and according to the film’s philosophy, that’s okay! Many of the supporting actors are amateur performers playing versions of themselves, showing themselves to the world in what might be the only distributed film that would tolerate their nonconformity, then or now.
But even within the largely plotless space of the narrative, the main characters are allowed to develop and demonstrate the nuances of their respective relationship experiences. There are plenty of moments that highlight the comical absurdity of sex and the unadulterated joy that comes with it (name another film where a threesome breaks out into a rousing rendition of the national anthem!) Other moments are touching in their sincerity, such as when the former mayor of New York speaks out about his closeted tenure during the AIDS crisis. Still, other times the film dips into sadness and melancholy, such as when it touches upon themes of suicide or the end of relationships. But ultimately this is a film built of love and hope, positively communicating that it’s okay for relationships to end or to change, and that anyone can find their community and love within it.
The final scene of the film is a candle-lit gathering during a citywide blackout where the characters congregate in a gesture of support and solidarity. The host of Shortbus sings a tender rendition of “In The End” as the stragglers filter in, and one by one they wordlessly come to peace with their issues. It’s a beautiful scene that chokes me up whenever I see it, because it’s a culmination of positive, heartfelt character drama into a community not dissimilar to the one I eventually found for myself. Shortbus’s characters grew in ways that I could relate to, ways that the escapist romantic fantasies of mainstream popular culture preempted me from ever conceiving. Shortbus is a film for all us non-straight, non-cisgender, non-monogamous, and/or non-vanilla weirdos out there who don’t see ourselves reflected anywhere else. If you’re a weirdo like me and you haven’t seen Shortbus yet, you owe it to yourself. It was part of a time that changed my life, and it made me feel like I belong; I cannot give it enough thanks for that.
‘Shortbus’ was released on this day in 2006.