Pop Torture: Mother's Day

I watched Shortbus — graphic sex scenes and all — with the woman who gave me life.

By James Brady Ryan

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!

Pop Torture: James prepares and serves the Sandra Lee cake that Anthony Bourdain called "a war crime on television."
Pop Torture: James watches every episode of Band of Brothers in a row, tries not to cry like a little girl.
Pop Torture: James sees Valentine's Day on Valentine's Day, alone in body and spirit.

Commentarium (20 Comments)

May 05 10 - 12:35am


May 05 10 - 12:50am

yikes. that is rough.

May 05 10 - 2:15am

My stepdad and I both liked "serious" movies when I was in high school and college and ended up watching Mulholland Drive together. I thought sitting absolutely silently through the masturbation scene was pretty awkward, but you have conquered new heights of awkwardness.

May 05 10 - 8:48am
Water Tower Man

Loved this. You guys look like you are really sweating in that picture, was it the movie or the weather?

May 05 10 - 9:30am

Your writing is always such a joy to read. I know that sounds a little strange but I can't think of another way to put it. Loved this.

May 05 10 - 10:10am

The first time I watched "A Clockwork Orange" I was about 15 and with my dad. I had no idea what it was about, just that it was a '70s classic and I was in love with the decade. So awkward....

May 05 10 - 10:31am


May 05 10 - 11:11am

Shortbus is one of my all time favorite movies, but I could never imagine watching it with my Mother. I get weirded out if people are just making out on tv when she's in the room!

May 05 10 - 6:52pm

You are very, very brave man. Thanks for doing this and then gleefully sharing it with the rest of us!

May 05 10 - 8:47pm

I had two horrible film experiences with my family when I was in high school ... watching "Ninja Scroll" with my 13 year-old brother, and watching "Pink Floyd's The Wall" with my parents and grandmother. For the record: I come from a fairly conservative family, and each of the times I was planning on watching the movie by myself (without knowing how explicit it got) when my brother/parents and grandma mentioned that they'd heard that was good, so "why don't we watch it together on the big screen in the living room?"

May 05 10 - 10:35pm

One time my dad and I watched American Beauty together when I was a bit older. We had no real idea of what it was about. When he guffawed during the masturbation scene (The main character states his day is downhill from masturbating in the shower in the morning). UGH. UGH. UGH. Watching Shortbus would KILLLLLL ME.

May 06 10 - 12:06am

Wow. That was seriously a brave thing to do with your mom and you both deserve medals. I remember when I was sixteen watching "Unbearable Lightness of Being" with my parents and had to walk out after 5 minutes, saying I could not watch it with them in the room. That was over 20 years ago, and I still can't imagine ever watching it with them.

May 06 10 - 2:53am
Jonathon Moxon

Your mom looks like a hot lesbian.

More mother torture to be found here: http://notes-from-mother.blogspot.com

May 06 10 - 10:25pm

I remember watching The Ice Storm with family. Fortunately my grandmother got bored and left in the beginning.

May 07 10 - 2:12pm

Oh man. I could never watch Shortbus with my family, despite it being one of my favourites ever. They were good enough to watch Hedwig with me and actually make an effort to enjoy it. However, my dad is a HUGE Sook-Yin Lee fan. She was almost fired from CBC radio, where she has a really awesome show, because of her involvement in this project. My dad thought that was completely fucked up. "Jesus Christ, it's just sex." were his words. Go team dad.

May 26 10 - 11:22pm

I can't even imagine, I watched this at home and kept thinking "I should close the blinds". Yeesh.

Jun 02 10 - 11:14am

Okay to be fair when my brother discovered that I was watching SatC he e-mailed my dad to tell him that he was "concerned" about me, his twenty year old sister...I couldn't even let them see the boxes let alone watch the show, I wish I could watch it with my mom because I think she'd like it.

So yeah, I'm not the puritan...

Jun 05 11 - 8:26am

My mom wanted to watch Spanking the Monkey with me because she thought it was about a nice mother/son relationship. I had to talk her out of it without bringing up the real reason why we shouldn't watch it...

Oct 31 11 - 7:15pm
A Guy

I just puked a little bit in my mouth.