What makes movie sex dirty?

This is the question that looms as the first few scenes of John Cameron Mitchell’s new film, Shortbus, unfold to an escalating tangle of strings and voices that parallel the crescendo of the characters’ synchronized climaxes. One man struggles to fellate himself while his video camera captures the scene. Another performs oral sex on a woman while she slams her hands on the keys of a working piano. Like every bit of the sex in Shortbus, the auto-fellatio and the cunnilingus-on-the-keys — both scenes notorious before the movie even opened — venture well beyond the boundaries of ordinary Hollywood movie sex, and even beyond average pornography. (You can bet that the next time you see a man bent over in the yogic plow position trying to catch his own semen in his mouth, the idea came from Mitchell.) Paradoxically, though, none of this seems the least little bit raunchy. Surprising, yes. Sad, maybe. Dirty, no.

At first there are hints, in the way the scenes have been shot — full on and direct, without moody lighting or suggestive angles — and in the music: Yo La Tengo’s original score has poetic empathy written all over it. That we later learn that none of these naked antics have been particularly satisfying for anyone involved seals the impression: These characters’ attempts to satisfy themselves sexually, in maniacally imaginative, histrionic and sometimes outlandish ways, mirror their efforts to resolve their own roiling internal contradictions. There’s the sex counselor who can’t have an orgasm; the professional dominatrix who can’t reveal her given name; the beautiful ex-gigolo turned lifeguard, beloved by two adoring boyfriends, who can’t seem to feel anything at all. Split down the middle between public and sexual selves, fighting madly to fuse their personas — even if it means dying — they admire the people who can have intercourse on the floor in a well-lighted room, gazing into each other’s eyes while surrounded by gyrating bodies. Getting right with sex, the movie says, makes us whole.

Mitchell seems to be making history with this attitude; never before has so much schtupping seemed so good-natured for so many. It makes you realize that when it comes to sex in movies, we’re all pretty much puritans. Happy, healthy copulation in the movies happens between married people, or at least people in committed, monogamous relationships, while romps between two people who meet in a bar almost always end in disaster. That doesn’t mean coupled-off sex isn’t hot: Certainly, Debra Winger shot from behind astride Richard Gere in an An Officer and a Gentlemen still stirs the hormones of most red-blooded heterosexuals, and Eric Bana in Munich, making love to his sweaty and pregnant wife before he heads off on a dangerous Mossad mission, easily competes with the steamy kimono sex in Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide, and it’s only half as tragic.

But rarely can sex in the movies be happy without a lasting bond: Maggie Gyllenhaal looked cute with her wrists caught in cuffs to play submissive Secretary to the sleepy-eyed James Spader, but unlike the Mary Gaitskill short story upon which it was loosely based, the movie sanctifies their union with permanence in the end. On the other hand, Mario Bello’s Edie can dress up like a teenage cheerleader and seduce her husband, played by Viggo Mortensen, in A History of Violence, but let it be known that her husband may not be the man he says he is, and the screwing gets relegated to the staircase. Even the furtive tent love in Brokeback Mountain, sweet as it was, reverberated with sadness: It may have brought gay love to the Oscars, but it couldn’t make it last. And in casual-dating cautionary tales like Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Basic Instinct, the proverbial zipless fuck isn’t just sad — it’s deadly.

Not even European films cut much slack for shameless extramarital sex. Think of Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, hurling in her young student’s unbuttoned lap, or the beautiful Bibi Andersson as Alma in Ingmar Bergman’s delirious Persona, remembering a ménage à quatre she enjoyed with a friend and two unknown boys on the beach. As much as Alma admits she invited the encounter and declares that she liked it — “I came and came and came” — she holds the moment responsible for all that she lost in life; she believes it has divided her Self. “It doesn’t make any sense,” she tells her mute charge, Elisabeth (a translucent Liv Ullmann). “None of it fits together. Is it possible to be one and the same person at the same time? I mean, two people?”

Mitchell allows little of this kind of talk in Shortbus, and when he does, it’s obvious the split self is something to be remedied, just as the children of the earth in Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, ripped apart by Zeus’ angry lightning bolt, search to find their other halves. In Shortbus, people achieve this fusion not by hewing to the monogamous model, but by having more sex, and more kinds of sex, in more places with more people — preferably with an audience. From the all-male threesome who sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” into each other’s penises and rectums (one is a microphone, the other a megaphone) to the two lingerie-clad women soaking, one of them masturbating, in a sensory-deprivation tank, Shortbus just says no to shame.

“There are a lot of things you can do with sex,” Mitchell told his audience after a recent screening. “It’s more than just despair.” It sure is: Sex in Shortbus is redemptive, affirming, silly and even wholesome. What it is not, however, is erotic. For that you need shame. Or danger. Or at least a thunderstorm of the sort that soaked Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point.

Iwas 10 or 11 years old when my mother, ill-advisedly, or maybe just wanting company at the movies, took me to see David Lean’s 1970 epic Ryan’s Daughter, a retooling of Madame Bovary set in Dingle, Ireland, post–World War I. Watching it again now feels like the first time, but for two things: John Mills’ Oscar-winning performance as Michael, and a flash of Sarah Miles’ breast when the wounded Major Doryan (Christopher Jones) pulls Rosy Ryan (Miles) off her horse and has his way with her in the glade. It is the earliest memory I have of arousal at the movies, and I’m still convinced that, even at 10, I would not have felt it were Rosy not married and the major not off-limits.

In those ensuing adolescent years of birth control and free love, my friends and I would observe more movie sex, including the famous butter scene (we snuck into Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris in 1973) and sex with broken glass and strawberry jam (Mom inexplicably took us to see Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974), but these were stories of power, not stolen passion; tales of detached sex between nameless neighbors (Tango) and the undeniable passion of a concentration-camp survivor for her former captor (Night Porter) confused us more than they turned us on. Tellingly, those films and their defining scenes come off as stilted and ironic today; post–Madonna and John Waters’ mainstream success, sex in the movies has come so far that sometimes the most titillating choice is to not let the protagonists get naked at all. It may have been frustrating when Johansson and Bill Murray parted at the end of Lost in Translation, but a consummated tryst couldn’t possibly have worked to the advantage of any viewer’s libido.

Nor do any of the encounters in Shortbus — which is not, in the end, a bad thing. Mitchell might care as much about horniness as he does about compassion, but by refusing to make one a hostage of the other, he frees his characters to battle over something other than sex. And if the movie doesn’t inspire you to go home and get it on so much as it fills you with love for all humanity, perhaps Mitchell has achieved a higher good: Sex, as we’ve learned in the last quarter of a century, comes easy. It’s love that’s hard.

LA Weekly