I watched Shortbus — graphic sex scenes and all — with the woman who gave me life.
Welcome to Pop Torture, in which I embrace my pop-culture masochism and search out the most painful ways to experience the movies, TV, and music that fill our lives with such ecstasy and agony. (Needless to say, I’ll mostly be focusing on the latter.) Each week I’ll take on a new challenge, and each week I’ll share my adventures with you, provided I survive them.
The Challenge: To honor Mothers’ Day by watching Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell’s non-simulated, jawdroppingly explicit sex dramedy, with my mother.
In college, my puritanical friends were horrified when they found out that my family watched Sex and the City together. But in truth, SatC is relatively tame for a comedy about doin’ it, and it just never seemed weird. I can’t really remember ever being grossed out by watching something with my parents.
But what if I tested the limits of my family’s viewing tolerance? If there was ever a movie to do it, it’s 2006’s Shortbus. Intended to feature real, hardcore sex in a non-pornographic way, the film follows a group of flexible New Yorkers who are all connected through the titular sex-party/salon. All my mother knew of the film was that it was about lonely people. She was more than a little nonplussed when I informed her there was a lot of explicit sex and that it was all real.
"Well," she said after a moment, "I guess lonely people have to get it any way they can."
The Screening: Unfortunately for me, my mother, and my sanity, the movie starts off with a bang. Well, really the movie starts off with three bangs, each uncomfortable in its own unique way. One involves a married couple in about a thousand different positions. Another man, to put it diplomatically, contributes to a Jackson Pollock painting. The third guy achieves an auto-erotic feat of which most men can only dream. (There’s that flexibility I was talking about.) We were exactly three minutes and thirty seconds into the film when my mother put her hand on the remote. "Oh, I don’t know…"
She didn’t finish her thought, but I’m sure I could fill it in. "I don’t know… if I can keep watching," perhaps. "I don’t know… how this got made," was also a possible. "I don’t know… what I did wrong when I raised you," maybe the strongest contender. All I could do was assure my mother that the opening is the most shocking part, and promise that once we made it through she would actually find the film very heartwarming, very thoughtful, and a beautiful exploration of how isolated one can feel even in a city of millions.
"Oh, lovely, they’ve involved a piano," she said in response.
I wasn’t lying when I said the opening is the most shocking part, but it’s not because the movie gets any less explicit. To my mind, as we get to know the characters and their feelings and their stories, the sex scenes lose some of their shock value. And this did hold true, for a little while. Once you’ve watched a man fellate himself, it’s hard to get very frazzled over some plain old masturbation. (I’m pretty sure Mark Twain said that.)
But there was one scene waiting for us that I knew it would be just as bad as the opening, if not worse — specifically, a gay three-way featuring a spirited rendition of the national anthem sung into someone’s ass. There is no way to sugarcoat this. During other scenes, I could provide myself with a bit of distance by thinking, Oh, those crazy straight people and their sex antics! I know nothing of this! But there was no escaping this scene, because these were my people. I blushed furiously. I could not look at the screen. I thought about blinding myself with a broken beer bottle, but that just got me thinking about Oedipus.
"I think I’ll get you and your mother some more to drink," said my father, rising from the corner of the room where he had immersed himself in a gardening book.
The Results: I would like to state for the record that I love my mother. (Of course, so did Norman Bates.) She is an intelligent, mature woman whom I greatly respect, and when I asked her opinion of the film once it was blessedly over, she didn’t disappoint. "This was a serious film. It was very disturbing. Not because of the sex, but the depth of the need in the characters. And I think it was very sad." And what about the experience of watching it with me, her son? "I’d say that was very sad as well."
In the end, getting through this film required several glasses of wine, a bottle or four of beer, and at least three cigarette breaks. It also required what I would call a healthy amount of dissociation and at least three feet of space at all times between me and my mother. Because we are both adults, we were able to make it through to the end without jumping out a window in a fit of white-hot embarrassment, but let me say this: no one can ever — ever — question my family’s enjoyment of Sex and the City again. Because I have seen the true face of awkwardness, and it looks like a man singing into an erect penis as if it were a microphone. Happy Mothers’ Day!
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