Revisiting the Tryouts for the Orgy
January 27, 2022 12:15 PM   Subscribe

In 2006, John Cameron Mitchell (writer and director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch) released Shortbus, a movie that famously features a whole lot of unsimulated sex. Mark Harris revisits the early days of the making of that film. (NSFW) (archive link)
posted by Gerald Bostock (36 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite


 
Great piece, thanks for bringing it here Gerald Bostock!

I love Shortbus and it's part of a lot of fond memories for me (the first time I saw it was, ironically, during an interlude at a sex party, where the community spirit was much like the one in the movie). The scenes during the blackout, the song and the unexpected and totally camp marching band still resonate with me. A while ago I had the pleasure of getting to see John perform songs from Hedwig live and that's one of my top life experiences. I agree with Harris' take that he's smaller and softer than you'd expect him to be from his work, but he still has a joyful and exciting presence about him.

The documentary about Shortbus (Gifted and Challenged: The Making of 'Shortbus') is worth a watch as well if you're interested in the material.
posted by fight or flight at 12:56 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


So like Chorus Line, sans leotards?
posted by sammyo at 12:58 PM on January 27


That is an interesting piece and worth reading. Thank you for posting it.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:59 PM on January 27


I might have known the orgy would be paywalled. I didn't think I could get more disillusioned, but here we are.

I remember this and 9 Songs from around the same period. Neither was a perfect movie, but they were both trying to use the kind of sex you normally see in porn to tell grownup stories. I think that's a noble effort, since sex is a pretty big deal in real life.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:14 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]


So strange. I loved Hedwig a ton and yet I've never even heard of this movie.
posted by heyitsgogi at 1:14 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


That was some solid first class writing. Thank you for sharing it.
posted by ZakDaddy at 1:18 PM on January 27


Oh, sorry. I thought you said John Cameron Swayze, and I came in to make a "Timex - takes a licking, keeps on ticking" at the orgy joke. Nevermind.
posted by bartleby at 1:39 PM on January 27 [5 favorites]


Oh, sorry, I thought you said Patrick Swayze, and I came in to make a "I brought a watermelon to the orgy" joke. Think no more of it.
posted by box at 2:20 PM on January 27 [13 favorites]


I remember the controversy over the CBC's announcement that it intended to fire Sook-Yin Lee over her casting in Short Bus, the outrage among the artistic community that followed, and the CBC publicly reversing course and rescinding its previous threats. I marveled at how much more grown up the Canadian media landscape must have been than the USA, which suddenly felt somehow Podunk in comparison.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:37 PM on January 27 [8 favorites]


Oh, I thought you said Cameron Mitchell and wanted to make a close the fucking door !!! joke.
posted by Pendragon at 2:51 PM on January 27 [6 favorites]


Oh, sorry, I thought you said John Allan Cameron, and I was trying to recall the orgies in his painfully wholesome late seventies CBC variety show.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:06 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


I think that's a noble effort, since sex is a pretty big deal in real life.

It's built into the machinery.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:10 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


Here's an archive link for those of us hitting the paywall
posted by signsofrain at 4:12 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


I marveled at how much more grown up the Canadian media landscape must have been than the USA, which suddenly felt somehow Podunk in comparison.

I feel like fifteen years later, the CBC would still fire someone for the same thing.
posted by ssg at 4:44 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


I confess I haven't seen Shortbus since its theatrical release, but there was a long time when I evaluated my longer-term compatibility with various boyfriends-to-be based on their reaction when the film came up in conversation. (It's like a rapid test for sex-positivity.)

Also, Shortbus felt like it was one of the last of a great run of soundtracks from the '90s-'00s. So much on it that I love by Azure Ray, Gentleman Reg, Scott Matthew, and (of course) Justin Bond.
posted by mykescipark at 4:51 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


I vividly remember seeing Shortbus at E Street Cinema in D.C. Somehow I can even remember where we sat.
posted by trillian at 5:01 PM on January 27


Oh, sorry, I thought you said James Cameron and wondered when we're finally going to get 3D porn movies.
posted by PhineasGage at 5:15 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]


Oh sorry I thought this was a update of the Decameron, a framing story for a number of tales told by a group of people sheltering in place hoping to escape a pandemic.
posted by otherchaz at 7:09 PM on January 27 [6 favorites]


Great article that reminded me it's past time for a re-watch. I saw Shortbus first on Netflix back when they had to ship you the disks and felt like I was seeing something really surprising and joyful. And no, I *don't* think it could get made today, or at least not with the same sense of fun.
posted by merriment at 7:31 PM on January 27


I found the soundtrack at the Thrift Store! There's so many good songs on it. Just a great album to have on repeat.

Somehow I dialed myself,
I didn't know I could get service in Hell
How quickly can you get here
don't know where I am dear
finally the world seems to be revolving around meeeee

posted by alex_skazat at 7:54 PM on January 27


I haven't seen the movie yet, but I appreciate this article, not least of which because in the before times in New York City, I went to two of the indie film venues mentioned for somewhat outré movies, so I can well imagine how a couple of the scenes described went.
posted by limeonaire at 7:57 PM on January 27


I haven't seen this movie but I will try to find it. I am bemused, however, at the unquestioned elevation of this project to "art" status, because I think the answer to this question

How will a new generation of moviegoers who are seeing Shortbus for the first time take it all in — the threesome, the spectacularly large orgy, the BDSM, the now almost subversive feeling of joy that the film takes in all forms of sexual pleasure?


is that they will look at it in a rather blasé way, given that spectacularly large orgies, threesomes and BDSM, not to mention the subversive feeling of joy in sexual pleasure, are all standard fare on all sorts of porn outlets (they always were, of course, but now it's all but normalized to watch them, especially for that generation).

That said, I haven't seen Shortbus, and no doubt there is more to it than the sex, but even still.
posted by chavenet at 2:45 AM on January 28


That said, I haven't seen Shortbus

Maybe you should before you decide to comment on whether or not it qualifies as art or has any worth and meaning beyond what you've read in an article.
posted by fight or flight at 3:14 AM on January 28 [10 favorites]


Coming back in: sorry, chavenet, that comment reads back far crankier than I intended it. The hazards of posting pre-coffee.

Anyway, yes, I think that a modern audience might not find the sex scenes as shocking (though I think watching stuff like that isn't as normalized as you suggest) but the thing with Shortbus is that, although sex is centric to the movie's plot in lots of ways, it's also not just about sex. The orgy scene, for instance, becomes a point of emotional awakening and change for some of the characters beyond just being about sex itself. It's not framed or filmed like a porn scene at all, it's a "look at this wonderful world you've discovered" moment. This is even lampshaded with one of the main characters, a sex therapist who struggles to orgasm. For her, sex has nothing to do with her issues or what she needs to realise about herself -- she's having plenty of great sex, but it's the rest of her life that's in the way of her achieving pleasure.

So yeah, not just about sex! But also totally about sex. ;)
posted by fight or flight at 4:04 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]


is that they will look at it in a rather blasé way, given that spectacularly large orgies, threesomes and BDSM, not to mention the subversive feeling of joy in sexual pleasure, are all standard fare on all sorts of porn outlets (they always were, of course, but now it's all but normalized to watch them, especially for that generation).

Shortbus was released in 2006, not 1966, porn was already totally normalized. Also showing unqualified pleasure and joy in kinky sex is far from normalized in 'regular' movies or mainstream porn today. Shortbus was and remains special in that regard. I suggest you watch it before passing your blasé judgments.
posted by lemur at 5:23 AM on January 28 [6 favorites]


Seconding the "great soundtrack" comment. Lots of really good songs.

I have a favourite secret memory that I don't tell anyone in real life, but I can probably share with you lot: one time I had a young lady visiting for the night, and we watched Shortbus, and she was very impressed and also somewhat turned on, and when it finished she turned to me and said "how many people have you shown that to and then immediately had sex with them afterwards?"
posted by illongruci at 7:04 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: ironically, during an interlude at a sex party
posted by the sobsister at 7:45 AM on January 28


How will a new generation of moviegoers who are seeing Shortbus for the first time take it all in — the threesome, the spectacularly large orgy, the BDSM,
I think the mid 2000s orgy/sex movies were getting a lot of play, including A Good Old Fashioned Orgy from 2011 has several bankable comedy stars in it, and features multiple sex/orgy scenes and 2008's Zack and Miri Make a Porno with Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks (also two big stars).

I wouldn't be surpised that Shortbus was overshadowed by these two bigger movies.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:04 AM on January 28


Oh, sorry, I thought you said Kirk Cameron, and I immediately closed this tab.
posted by MrJM at 9:19 AM on January 28 [3 favorites]


I feel like showing lots of real-life sex — in all its variation, surprise, disappointment, awkwardness, joy, stickiness, generosity and selfishness — would be as revolutionary today as it ever has been.

I've always been deeply dissatisfied with sex in all kinds of narrative fiction. For something so central to human experience, we seem to be able to examine it deeply only in metaphor or allusion... not directly.

Given that, having never seen Shortbus, my expectations are fairly low — but I'm very curious to see this.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:06 PM on January 28


I want to make clear that I really wanted to like Shortbus. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is one of my all-time favorite movies. When I heard that the same director was using several members of the same cast to make a movie about the interesting ways in which people have lots of sex and the repercussions of that activity, I was thrilled. I honestly thought that there was no chance that I would not love this film. So, uh, this is me admitting that I can be wrong. Please note that my reasons listed below will likely seem scattershot and disconnected, because I'm writing them down as quickly as I can recall them.

My biggest complaint about Shortbus is that at every opportunity it expresses the view that if you do something shitty to someone, you don't have to actually do anything to make amends; you can just assume forgiveness by admitting that you're kind of fucked up. There is no violation or betrayal of trust that can't be forgiven and forgotten as long as you make it clear that, hey, you've got problems.

The movies starts with this theme. Two guys are having problems, so they go see a therapist, who slaps one of them in the heat of the moment. When you're a therapist and you slap one of your patients, what you do is immediately step down from your position and hope that they don't press criminal charges. What you do not do is tell them about your own personal problems (there are some professional and ethical boundaries that we're starting to cross here) and then go to a sex club with them (we are now so far past those boundaries that we can't even see them on a clear day with the aid of a telescope).

Of course, that assumes that your reason for slapping said patient comes from a place of deep personal trauma. If someone set off a triggered response that you're carrying around as the result of a childhood of physical abuse or a rape, you should give up being a therapist, but at least it comes from a comprehensible place. Sofia's excuse is that she's never had an orgasm. LOTS of people have never had an orgasm. I personally know women who have never had one. It's frustrating, for sure, but it's hardly open license to go apeshit on the nearest chatty gay guy, particularly when said chatty gay guy is paying you to help him through his own personal difficulties.

Next big problem is Caleb. Fucking Caleb; I want to step on his throat and never stop. Imagine the same movie, but make "the Jamies" women. Suddenly, there's no way that Caleb could be presented as anything other than the local stalker/rapist, which is precisely what he is, but somehow he's forgiven because (back to the main theme again) he's kinda fucked up. He spends his life obsessively watching his neighbors. Sure, he saves Jamie, but then later when Jamie is clearly suffering extreme trauma, he attempts to coerce him into having sex repeatedly after Jamie refuses, until Jamie reaches the point of total emotional breakdown. The next time them, they're having sex. That's rape, but apparently it's fine, because Caleb manages to somehow fuck the depression right out of Jamie. Good job there, I guess. There's a theme that sometimes shows up in media that I like to call "horrifying shit that's supposed to be either funny or charming when a gay person does it". I'll say this in my capacity as a guy who has been known to suck a dick or two for a good cause: It's not ok, and Caleb personifies it.

Which leads to Jamie's suicide video. God, what a bunch of disjointed, nothing bullshit! What, was the kid filming the plastic bag from American Beauty not available? And then James watches the video and tearfully nods because now he somehow UNDERSTANDS. If my partner committed suicide and left me that video, I'd spend the next twenty years of my life trying to uncover its meaning, because I'd refuse to believe that I'd slept with someone who had left me a suicide video that inane. Then one day I'd figure out that it didn't have any meaning, and I'd have to spend the rest of my life visiting my partner's grave so that I could piss on it.

I'm going to take a brief aside here to say that I'd probably hate Shortbus even more if I were a submissive man, since the movie really seems to love showing its contempt for that particular set of people. Your choices for representatives there are the unemployed loser who can't sexually satisfy his girlfriend or the trustfund hipster douche. I believe that they're also the only two straight men who have any lines of note in the movie, which I think is a little bit telling.

Final note on Shortbus: Given that so much of the movie is focused on great quantities of sex with many anonymous strangers, I would have expected a little more focus to have been given to safer sex practices. Unfortunately, condoms are mentioned ONCE, they're turned down, and then promptly forgotten for the rest of the film. Maybe safe sex lacks the edginess that John Cameron Mitchell was going for, but it would have been nice, particularly since he thought to include a dialogue about the former mayor's response to AIDS.


That list of complaints is a lot more acidic than my feelings towards most things in life; I'm usually pretty good at disliking something without needing to feel angry about it. There's just something about Shortbus that strikes a nerve with me, and it is exacerbated by the knowledge that a great number of people whose opinions I genuinely treasure and admire seem to love it.

Man, does it feel good to get that out of my system.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 12:25 PM on January 28 [10 favorites]


I haven't seen the movie since 2006 so I can't say how it holds up, but I imagine all those flaws would stand out to me a lot more now than they did then. What I remember most of all is the sense of liberation, which I hadn't really run into before and haven't seen all that often since.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 3:49 PM on January 28


After everything I said mentioning that I like the soundtrack feels like damning with faint praise but the soundtrack is legitimately quite good.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 4:13 PM on January 28


I haven't seen the movie since 2006 so I can't say how it holds up, but I imagine all those flaws would stand out to me a lot more now than they did then

I'm wondering the same thing. When I saw it I found it partly interesting but overall surprisingly boring for a film about sex; reading the article and the comments here, I suspect the problematic parts might stand out much more clearly now for me.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:18 PM on January 28


I would say Parasite Unseen's comment, while totally valid and understandable, makes it clear why Shortbus wouldn't work as a movie made today. Modern audiences seem to want movies to be either hyper realistic or the complete opposite, with very little room in the middle for the momentary suspension of disbelief, the acceptance of whimsy (Jamie's video) or acknowledging that something unrealistic (a therapist slapping her client) serves a broader narrative. JCM's story is definitely flawed in places -- Caleb is definitely not as sympathetic a character as JCM seems to think he is -- but coming at it from a "this needs to be totally 1:1 with my understanding of reality" viewpoint is always going to find it lacking (similarly to Hedwig and those weird dream sequences).

Unfortunately, condoms are mentioned ONCE, they're turned down, and then promptly forgotten for the rest of the film.

It's been a while since I watched the whole thing, but if this is regarding the scene at the orgy, they're turned down because the person they're offered to isn't participating. It's clear that safer sex supplies are present, normalised, and being offered around throughout that scene, however.
posted by fight or flight at 4:39 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


This movie has a special place in my heart: My girlfriend and I watched it together in college. That night was the first time we said "I love you" to each other, and now we're married.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:49 PM on January 29 [4 favorites]


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