Saturday, January 27, 2007

Review: Shortbus

I went to see Short Bus tonight. There are a lot of good things you could say about this movie. It's got lots of lovely and real moments, humour and wit, and, most importantly, it shows people having sex. Not just soft lighting and fading to black, but people having sex in a way that an actual person might actually have sex.

I'm not going to say any of these things, instead I'm going to explore why, despite these features, the movie left me cold.

The most obvious reason was that there was just too much non-consensual sexual activity for me. A professional dominatrix has sexual contact with a man who repeatedly steps over her boundaries, and she can't afford to enforce those boundaries. A stalker stalks a couple for two years, and culminates this in touching one member of the couple sexually when he is passed out. The climax of both the major plots involve scenes with sexual contact that is clearly non-consensual.

I don't have a problem with movies depicting non-consesual sex. What I need is for a movie that depicts non-consensual sex to take that seriously. To give the viewer space to be creeped out. I need to know that the director also believes that non-consensual sex is a problem, or else I can't play in his world. I can't switch from creepy non-consensual sex scene to happy orgy party scene, where one woman's orgasm restores power to a city.

Shortbus sold itself, both during the movie itself and through publicity, as a broad view of life and sex. I think if I hadn't thought of the movie like that I would have enjoyed it a lot more, becuase my other problem was what a limited world the movie showed.

Partly it was limited in the way films set in Manhattan are so often limited. Ridiculously rich people are meant to stand for us all. I realised while watching that I'm prejudiced against Manhattan movies, or at least that subset of Manhattan movies that believe that by showing us Manhattan they are showing us the world. If what I've been told is true, then if you can afford an apartment that looks spacious in Manhattan, then you have a reasonably to very high income.

But it was more than that, the extras in the scenes set in the club were remarkably similar for a movie that was supposed to show us a broad section of human experience. They were almost all young, conventionally attractive and white. The exceptions were tokenised to an extent that felt insulting. The old man wasn't just an old man who might enjoy sex like everyone else, he was also the only old person in the building (and as a side-note I don't think he deserved any forgiveness or absolution). The non-white characters were given pointed roles (one of the main characters or one of the few lesbians who was shown twice), which presumably was meant to make us forget how few of them there were. There were two fat people in there, but both were meant to show how weird and freakish this club was, and didn't actually do anything (because that would be too much).

I discussed all this, as we were walking home afterwards. We agreed on the points I mentioned above, But my friends felt they had gained something from this movie, and many people gave it rave reviews. I understand why. We're so deprived of anything resembling real images of sex and sexuality, that for so many of us a step in the right direction is really important.

I'm not sure that any movie can take the weight that the director and marketers tried to give this one. If films acknowledge sex as a part of our life then this could be a movie about a sex therapist, a depressed man, and the people they meet. But they don't, and it's not. I'm not saying you shouldn't see it, because movies like it are rare - but we deserve better.


  1. what? you mean that sex and the city isn't a good example of ALL single women in nyc? kidding. that's the thing that gets at me about all television programming - the idea that we are all like, or should aspire to be like those in the show.

    thanks for the head's up about the film. i won't be seeing it. sounds as if the sexual aspect of it was more on a gratuitous level than anything else. there's more than enough non-consensual sex in reality - i don't need to watch it if there isn't any clear point to be made. like that movie reversible.

    i think you should make a movie.

  2. Anonymous12:30 pm

    I also reviewed this film on my blog and I found the points you raised very interesting. Thanks. I too found the tokenism a bit distracting in the film but then concluded like you that the film can't be everything.