Maggie McMuffin uses John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus to get deeply personal about connection, play parties, sex as the extension of emotional needs, and the constantly shifting, lifelong journey that is sexuality.
I’m gonna be honest: I wanted to review The Departed but it, and several other movies, were taken.
It’s not because I don’t have fond memories of Shortbus. I do. But, well, it’s one of those movies for me that I think exemplifies one of the true meanings of this site, which is to see how we’ve grown and aged with films. In looking at my timeline for viewing this movie, well…
I first saw it my sophomore year of college (it came out when I was in high school and couldn’t access it) before I had ever been to a play party or orgy. I was a baby slut, coming into her reputation as such, and still figuring out how to explore my kinks without scaring people off. I had never been in love or allowed my sexual relationships to even involve friendship. I watched the film because whoo sexual adventure and it quickly turned into a movie I watched on repeat as background noise. It wasn’t titillating so much as oddly comforting. But I always watched the finale and listened to the song “In The End” whenever I rode my bike. I wanted the feeling of living in that world, knowing those people, belonging. I wanted a cool life like that, surrounded by sex.
I last saw the film almost two years later, after going to many munches and parties. I had developed a jaded view of the BDSM community and was about to start doing the same for poly and sex positivity. I had been abused and raped by my first partner, who was also my first top, a few months prior. I even got to cry on the Savage Love podcast over it.
I distinctly remember watching the movie after Thanksgiving dinner with my two much older girlfriends, a husband of one of them, and my sister-friend. I think one of the girlfriends hadn’t seen it and then me and the other proclaimed, “Oh you must you must!” We had a dance party in the living room. It was lovely. One of those women would eventually break my heart. One I would hurt with my youthful inability to differentiate what you want from a person in your life vs just wanting a person in your life. Looking back at that memory I remember feeling so adult, so mature and worldly. This intersected with feeling like I was healing because hey I could still be sexual. I was free. It had not been taken from me. Looking back, I think, “You child” at myself and try not to condemn her for still being vulnerable and responding to pain by reaching for love instead of shutting herself off. Cynicism is the easiest way to feel adult after all.
But where am I now?
Well. I spent the summer crying over the end of my first real adult relationship. A relationship which I’ve only recently (as in days ago) been fully able to admit was toxic and emotionally abusive. It was also the most fulfilling sexual relationship I’ve ever had. It was the most loved I ever felt. It has destroyed me. (Don’t worry, new and improved Maggie coming soon! Date TBD.) My response to the breakup was to shut down. To relinquish all hope I had of being loved. To notice just how many of my friends are coupled up.
It’s been a rough four months and I have been trying to dig myself out of this hole and move on, coming to terms with the end of the ‘maiden’ phase of my romantic and sexual lives and what that means. I’ve also stopped having sex. My body has not felt like mine for a long time and frequently I was entirely disconnected from it. I could feel nothing. This has been compounded by my being a sex worker. You think going through a dry spell is bad? Try going through a heartbreak-induced one where you still have to act attracted to people you aren’t and constantly have men ask why a hot, intelligent, funny girl like you is single. It’ll fuck with you.
I’ve also been trying lots of forms of therapy and have had more than a few people recommend sensory deprivation tanks. Oddly enough this movie was the thing that introduced me to the concept so I’ve been thinking about it a lot this summer while also thinking, “What the fuck do I do now?”
Well, last week, for the first time in over a year, I went to a play party.
I went by myself, knowing one friend. And I made myself be social. I didn’t have to play with anyone or have sex. I just had to not shut down. Not cry. I watched scenes and interactions. I joked about comic books. People were delighted by my bee-covered jumpsuit. I ended up doing a platonic scene that turned into an on-site chiropractor appointment. That was what was right for me. I drove home at 5 a.m. elated at the time I had had, thrilled by my time as a non-sexual in a sexual environment. It didn’t make me feel young again but it did make me feel happy. Hopeful. Strong.
Last night I went to another party. Everyone was paired off, the friend I went with was scooped up by a couple, and a woman laughed at me for being a lesbian. I sat in a corner and took selfies. Later I found the cats of the house and napped with them. That was the best part of the night.
I don’t know what the point of all that is except to say that sexuality isn’t always a fixed thing. We think of experimentation as a young person’s sport but it can be a lifelong journey (says the 26-year-old). Maybe that’s why so many of the people we meet in Shortbus aren’t young people flouncing about half-naked. They’re largely thirtysomethings in established relationships using sex to figure out other things about themselves.
And, well, here I am crying between the anniversaries of two major relationship issues and dealing with current woes.
So let’s just dive right in, shall we?
Okay there’s no segue to this because I am having far too many feelings.
It’s been a rough day. Watching this 102-minute movie took me forever because of computer issues. Interspersed with watching was a lot of crying, practicing some clown face, going out to run errands, and discussing a vampire ballet. From my apartment, I spent the day either trying to watch this movie, crying my eyes out, or working on weird art.
I just finished the movie (finally) and I am crying again. I don’t know why. I can’t really explain what this movie made me feel but all I can think is this is: This is my life now.
Eight years ago I dreamed of knowing people like the ones in this film and now, aside from knowing Justin Bond is just a straight-up real person, I also LITERALLY KNOW PEOPLE IN THIS MOVIE. I’ve worked with them. I’ve discussed art that involves pulling things out of your ass with them. And that’s just the people! We haven’t even gotten to the events!
I have been to sex parties where sex happened and ones where my clothes stayed on. I have been to sex parties where there’s a small corner of women talking about hating men. I have been to parties where the host ran around trying to take care of their cat. I have been to parties where a marching band showed up and we all danced. I have had more than one partner hand me a remote controlled vibrating egg and then be disappointed when it didn’t result in orgasms. I have been that person who tries dressing up and seducing themselves in the hope that maybe this time masturbation will work. I have been that person who goes off somewhere with a stranger and winds up having a heartfelt conversation with them that does not result in any further contact.
And I realize that when I was younger the reason this movie was background noise is because I wanted sex to be the point and it wasn’t. Because even when sex is the point, when sex is a big deal thing, it’s not really the point. It’s an extension of emotional needs, whether that need be simple fun or a physical representation for opening yourself up.
Younger me spent this whole movie thinking, “I want this life.” Current me spent it thinking, “Oh god, this is real. This is too real.” Because you know what a full life has in common with a full understanding of this movie?
Sadness. Depression. Loneliness. A sense of feeling broken because you can’t seem to have fun like everyone else. Needing to actually work to get what you want and having to communicate with your partners.
You can’t have a fantasy life without living in reality. You have to build your escapes. You have to make space for being happy. And you have to give your other shit room to move through that space, too. Life isn’t compartmentalized, as much as we (by which I mean I) would like to be.
Don’t get me wrong, this movie is dated as fuck in a lot of ways. It’s very concerned with 9/11 and references its emotional effects on the young more than once. (Only the young, oddly enough.) There’s also a hilarious moment where a character needs to check his hair and has to hold out his flip phone, turn it around to take a photo, and then check the photo. The same character also carries around a separate device called Yenta260 that plays matchmaker with other people who bought a separate device to carry around. Tindr is so much more convenient.
But the devised script and stories really carry a timeless humanity: Sofia’s quest to orgasm that gets tied up in the cracks in her marriage; James’ struggle with depression and how to leave something good for his boyfriend Jamie; Severin’s search for a real human connection.
And all of these people navigate sex and sexuality in pursuit of a greater happiness. Some for themselves, some for those around them.
Sofia and Severin, two people who otherwise never would have met each other, decide to hang out outside of the Shortbus salon and chill in sensory deprivation tanks in order to help each other with their problems. Severin coaches Sofia through masturbation by reciting a scenario involving a cafeteria. Sofia uses her counselor skills to help Severin feel at ease with herself enough to have “Like, a real human interaction.”
The latter scenes are just as touching as the former; Severin crying in a steam room carries the same emotional weight as Sofia going to town on herself at the beach.
In James and Jamie’s story, you have someone with depression trying so hard to be happy and recognizing that they should be. The whole movie features James making a weird film that he’s going to surprised Jamie with. It is revealed to be a suicide note of sorts that he wants to leave behind, “So he knows it’s not his fault.” James even suggests opening the relationship up, which Jamie supports and continually thinks is because James wants to get laid. The truth is that James doesn’t want to leave Jamie alone after he’s gone. Which is still kind of shitty and most likely won’t keep Jamie from being sad, but the slow reveal of the James’ depression and how much he wants to feel all the love Jamie gives him is done so truthfully that you at least understand where he’s coming from.
Even the subplots of Ceth’s involvement with the Jamies, James’ stalker showing up as an effective plot device, Severin’s attempts to date a client, and Sofia’s husband having his own unvoiced issues, showcase different needs humans have and how those can manifest sexually. We also just see plenty of people looking for a good time in a sexual environment. There’s a pair who have no lines who are credited as “the beautiful couple.” We have no idea who they are and they only show up in two scenes, but both are pivotal for Sofia. What’s their story? They’re happy. They have good sex. They’re beautiful. That’s it.
And sometimes at sex parties all you get is bare bones. You don’t always get to know someone fully but you can still have an amazing experience with them that stays with you for the rest of your life. That helps you through something or carries you forward on whatever emotional journey you’re on at the time.
So all these people who flit in and out during our time at the salon, who all amass there at the end during the final citywide blackout, we know they have stories going on but those aren’t the stories we are following. We’re just getting glimpses into their lives as they move through Shortbus. Everyone’s stories are connected, whether deeply entwined or just briefly. I mean, every extra in every movie has a life. We just don’t get to see it.
Or we do. In the case of James’ stalker, we see him A LOT. He’s skulking in the background in most of the early party shots. Then he breaks into the story when he thinks Ceth will fuck up The Jamies’ relationship. While he does end up having sex with James, that’s not his goal. He just cares about him and his happiness while envying he and Jamie’s life together. He’s even the only one in the movie to refer to the couple as James and Jamie (James prefers this) and not The Jamies. It’s the largest example of people in the film forging connections with other people despite not being a part of their lives. Stalking is definitely not okay and there’s no excuse for it and this movie doesn’t treat it seriously, but within the weird pseudo fantasy what is time feel of the film, it helps cement that feeling of community being a broader thing. None of us have any idea of all the connections we make.
And that’s what the core of this movie is: connecting. The overarching metaphor is stated by Justin Bond, who compares the body to a circuit board and everyone in Shortbus an additional connection to it. This metaphor is backed up by continual brownouts throughout the film that eventually leads to the giant blackout that causes everyone to get together for a sing-along. The very end of the movie is Sofia loosening up and everyone around her doing the same and living their truths with those around them. She orgasms and the lights come back on.
During the last half of the film, I texted a friend about feeling excluded from last night’s party. I included the phrase “So, what’s even the point?” and he asked what point I was hoping for.
“Not feeling alone?” I said. “Not feeling like something is wrong with me and like I’m never gonna be able to connect with people?”
Because it’s not about sex. Sofia doesn’t want an orgasm because sex sucks for her; she wants it to “be welcomed into the secret society of women.” She wants it to save her marriage because her husband will be sad if he knows. She wants it because telling people she can’t have one leads to invasive questions about if she was abused and unsolicited suggestions on how to achieve one.
And even now when I got to sex parties it’s because, yes, I would like to have fun sex again, but also I need physical touch and I’m lonely and I need to know my body is mine and can be used for my pleasure and not just someone else’s.
Watching this film, I actually feel like that’s possible. It’s just gonna take a lot of work. I had to work to get my magical life and I have to work to keep it going.
Because everything is a journey and sexuality is a continuous adventure. There are always breakthroughs to be had, talks to take care of, and connections to be made. So maybe the whole night won’t be perfect and maybe that person you get locked in a closet with won’t become your new best friend, but if you can have moments of reaching out to other people and seeing even a piece of one another clearly, then maybe the party’s worth it.
— There’s a former and current sex worker in this film and for once I have no strong opinions about it. But I do love the one scene they get together where James calls Severin out for having a client and they commiserate over sex worker stuff.
— “New York is where everyone comes to be forgiven” is such a good line. I had a… a really special time in New York in May and this line hit me. There’s a lot of other New York stuff in this film that I think might be meaningful but wouldn’t know as a one-time visitor.
Also, they mention a subway suicide and is that actually a thing that happens a lot? I feel it gets referenced in half the things that take place in New York.
— I feel the same about all the 9/11 references. To it “being the only big things that’s happened to [people under 30]” and to it shaping people. I understand the impact 9/11 had on some people, but I was 12 and living in a small town on the West Coast. So the concept of it making someone move to New York and living outside their means makes zero sense to me. Also, this movie was released five years after it happened so I also can’t see how someone who wasn’t in New York at the time or more directly connected to it would still be so affected by it. But that’s probably due to my age and my specific experiences with life post-9/11.
— While the main cast is largely pretty white people, the actual salon is diverse as fuck. Different gender identities and presentations, non-conforming trans and cis people, different sized bodies, a good age range, lots of racial diversity. I wish that the main cast reflected that.
— Time in this film make no sense. People are just suddenly different places and relationships seem to form in a week. I think this is intentional. A lack of continuity in party shots, such as people just disappearing, or Dirty Martini’s dress being removed and then being worn again, were probably not.
— The soundtrack to this is a perfect indie movie soundtrack.
— Okay one thing my life does not have is a house like this. Oh my god Shortbus (and yes that is not the best name and I wish it were different), the space is so colorful and awesome. I want to live in a colorful and awesome house or at least visit one weekly.
— The settings on the vibrating egg are the perfect level of dumb sexy marketing and I took a picture with my phone because I’m too lazy to screenshot.