Sex and Tears: Shortbus and A Hole in My Heart (Ett Hål i mitt hjärta)

by Jon Davies


“There's a dream in your head that will never come true. There's a stickiness all over and it didn't come from you.

You wish your dad had been there but more oftentimes he was not. You can't put your arms around a dirty gang-bang cum shot.

But that's all you get. Do you ever take drugs so that you can have sex without crying? Yeah, yeah.

There's a hole in your heart where the sorrow pours out. There's a hole in your heart where ambivalence sets in....

All the penises in the country, all the penises in the world, all the penises in the galaxy, won’t fill your heart hole up.”

- Sarah Silverman, The Porn Song (excerpt)


In John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006), sex and tears are never far apart. The sex isn’t necessarily bad—in fact, the film is extremely careful to present sex as essentially good and right throughout—but the crying is a lazy shorthand to signify that the sex is important, irrevocably tied up as it is with one’s emotions, one’s very soul. In Lukas Moodysson’s A Hole in My Heart (Ett Hål i mitt hjärta, 2004), the characters don’t cry nearly as much as they should. Even if they are enjoying it, Moodysson knows better: it is bad, ugly sex, a metaphor not of community, relationality and democracy as it is in Shortbus, but of the alienation and waste of humanity. In Shortbus, the characters cannot have sex without expressing their feelings, while in A Hole in My Heart, the characters cannot help but destroy everything and everyone they touch.

To borrow a page from Foucault, these two films are both examples of attempting to produce the truth about sexuality. Despite this being a long-standing practice, in the twenty-first century sex is still a problem that needs to be solved, and these films want to do it. They do so via the discourse of pornography: One engulfs you in a gruesome parody of what porn is in order to erect it as the embodiment of all evil. The other stages real sex in an effort to liberate us from our inhibitions and restrictive categories, while trying to distance itself from porn by employing all the psychobabble that porn wisely eschews. What makes both films so irritating is the aggressive fervor of their pedagogical missions: both Cameron Mitchell and Moodysson plead for you to open your eyes, drink in the radical vision they are revealing to you, and go forth a transformed soul. What these preachers exhibit most shamelessly is in fact their own propagandistic desires to make sex a metaphor, a manifestation of either the greatest good for the greatest harm.

Much has been made of Shortbus’s infectious sense of hope, optimism and free-to-be-you-and-me, erotically democratic zeal, but much less has been made of its lackluster character arcs, dramatic clichés, often appalling acting and wildly uneven writing. (Ironically, some of the same weaknesses that stereotypically characterize the much-maligned porn genre.) The problem at the heart of Shortbus is that we are essentially watching its unseasoned actors undergo therapy. Cameron Mitchell takes them through a baptism by fire—or in this case baptism by New York radical queer avant-garde—to liberate them and we are privy to watch the sparks fly.

Shortbus’s genesis was an open casting call placed online soliciting video audition tapes. A shortlist was formed and those on it were gathered together to watch each other’s tapes and to gauge their attraction to those on screen to help narrow down a cast list. When the final cast was selected, the actors developed their characters and the storyline through workshops. There is much to admire about this process, but after so much labor to develop these characters we find that very few of the participants had the skill to transform their characters’ psychosexual hang-ups into the stuff of compelling drama, and so we have nothing but pat truisms, sexual hurdles that each character must leap through in order to become free individuals. We have Sofia, a couples counselor on a quest to experience her first orgasm—“physician, heal thyself!” we are practically begged to exclaim—and whose relationship with affable husband Rob is becoming strained. We have Sofia’s clients Jamie and Jamie, one a dopey and gregarious former child star and the other a smoldering depressed former hustler. In the ridiculous finale, the latter literally has the desire for suicide fucked out of him by a healing round of anal penetration courtesy of Caleb, a voyeur living across the street who is obsessed with the Jamies. Suicidal Jamie, who tries to start going by the name James to assert his independence, constantly films himself (his first subject in the film is his cock in the bathtub, a stand-in for Narcissus’s pool). Also thrown into the Jamies’ lives is Ceth, an adorable but conceited model and musician who joins them as their third when they seek to open up their relationship. Then there is Severin, whose cynicism is a welcome antidote to all the mushy talk spewed around her, until she eventually succumbs to the soft side herself. She is a professional dominatrix who takes Polaroids of people at their most vulnerable and lives inside a storage locker-cum-studio apartment. Finally there is Justin Bond—Kiki of legendary cabaret duo Kiki & Herb, who do more to advance queer culture in the time it takes to down a cocktail than Shortbus manages in a logy 102 minutes—as the ringleader of the eponymous Shortbus salon. Here the characters can immerse themselves in the curative powers of a liberated, post-everything queer community featuring, among many others, a scene-stealing performance by Ray Rivas (as Shabbos Goy), Stephen Kent Jusick of the MIX Festival, Le Tigre’s JD Samson and several local queers-about-town imported from my home of Toronto. Amongst all this color, Cameron Mitchell is suggesting, in the polysexual orgy room or the lesbian processing chamber or the performance-art den, is where we can all learn to be better people. The result: Shortbus is like cough syrup, good for you but sickly sweet.

Shortbus succeeds best when it is not trying to liberate you, talk about feelings, or further along a character’s struggle for self-actualization. It works in the genuinely hilarious lines that come out of Bond’s mouth when he’s allowed to just riff, or in a wonderful sensory deprivation tank tête-à-tête where Severin’s irony pokes some much-needed holes in Sofia’s earnestness, and by extension in the entire film’s project of mealy-mouthed, therapeutic “honesty.” Paul Dawson as James is just plain awful, with utterly embarrassing attempts at conveying emotional hurt and a permanent puppy-dog sulk. Characters like Rob and Jamie who are not angsty (and who lack Severin’s brass) fall by the wayside and don’t leave much of an impression other than Ceth, full of charm but with nowhere to go (only hints of a past sin that is never revealed). Like everyone else, he is rewarded with a touchy-feely happy ending that offers an unmotivated cameo by a marching band to accompany Justin’s sung refrain that “we all get it in the end” and everyone shacks up and finds what they were looking for in a magical few final moments (it is essentially an orgasm, that other meaning of “happy ending.”) The near-mystical optimism of the finale is foreshadowed by several scenes where sexuality is spoken of as a circuit that connects us all, while Sofia’s adventures in orgasm-hunting are synched to the nation’s electrical grid: Her most spectacular failure at coming sparks the massive 2003 blackout, while her cathartic film-end climax blasts the power back on.

Critics were intoxicated by the apparent radicalism and generosity of spirit of Cameron Mitchell’s film, but as a cinephile and fellow traveler of the real-world queer utopia that the director presents here, it felt like the worst aspects of Hollywood-formula narrative grafted onto an under-represented subculture. That sex is vital and messy is nothing new, and the idea that it can liberate us from our hang-ups—which in most narrative cinema are usually the result of “bad” sex—seems woefully naïve at best. (There is no more comfortable plot device than the individual brought low by a history of abuse or the dehumanization generally believed to be innate in prostitution, archetypal examples of bad sex.) But this is where context comes in. Beginning with close-ups of the Statue of Liberty, Shortbus is set during the time between September 11, 2001 and the summer 2003 blackout. These events were both ruptures in the fabric of everyday New York life, the first was one of tragedy, plunging the city into chaos, the second was one of (unexpected) harmony, uplifting New Yorkers back to a state of grace. Shortbus was heralded as the film that we needed about 9/11, a love letter to New York and its self-image as a place of hope, individual free will, and forgiveness, all values flogged by a grotesquely winsome and wise old man claiming to be the former closeted mayor of New York—ie. Ed Koch—who frequents the salon and gets to briefly mentor and lock lips with Ceth (but they never get it on, any sex not involving cute and toned people is relegated to brief, fleeting shots or only described verbally). Then there is the legendary scene of Jamie singing the national anthem into Ceth’s ass. Certainly it has a sexy, carnivalesque appeal, but rather than enjoying the gay boys laying claim to their piece of the American pie, I was merely struck by the willful ignorance in the belief that, no matter how marginalized you may be, America the beautiful idea is still something worth fighting for, regardless of how high her death toll rises.

If Cameron Mitchell is too drunk on the grid-frying karmic energy of a city’s libidos to notice that his film insults the intellect with its oh-so-suffering hotties and its glib solutions to their glib crises, Moodysson is high on his own rage at the world. A Hole in My Heart, and its much more effective and even more uncompromising 2006 follow-up Container (a proper discussion of this strange but fascinating creature will have to wait for another time), were made during a period when one of the darlings of European art cinema turned his back on his trademark exhilarating naturalism, wide-ranging empathy and dynamic clarity of vision to stab all his champions—and everyone else—in the eyes (his 2002 Lilya 4-ever was more of a thematic and tonal departure from his first two features than a stylistic one) . Moodysson essentially abandoned narrative cinema for a few years, and here made a film wallowing in such fierce ugliness and bitterness that it could only have come from someone convinced they were the first filmmaker to ever pull back the façade of reality and expose the cruel, beating heart of a rotting society beneath (as if no Klimov had already urged us to Come and See, as if there were no Pasolini, no Fassbinder, no Haneke, nor even his fellow Swede, Bergman, before him). Moodysson wanted to make good and sure that everyone in his audience felt as terrible as he did about themselves and their collective contribution towards tearing civilization asunder.

Moodysson sought to stage the fall of man in miniature by confining four characters—and more important, several cameras—in a cramped apartment over one day. Rickard is a grotesque specimen of doughy Nordic manhood filming a porn movie in his living room starring his thuggish friend Geko and twenty-one-year-old Tess, blonde anonymity (certainly not blonde ambition) personified. Understandably cowering in his bedroom is Erik, Rickard’s Goth teenage son, whom Moodysson aligns with the lad’s pet earthworms or the fish that inhabit the bottom of the ocean where no sun can reach. Either way, he shuns light and all that it illuminates: his hideous father, his father’s hideous plot to have a good time, the immeasurable shame of simply being human. Erik does not want to grow up into a man but into a butterfly.

Like Cameron Mitchell’s screed, Moodysson’s non-linear gross-out is shot in urgent, shaky-cam vérité, but any pretense of realism is constantly shattered by its abrasive sound and image editing, not to mention its harsh, show-no-mercy porn lighting. Thus footage of open heart surgery and the labial reduction operation that Tess claims to have undergone recur frequently, as do scenes of the actors playing out an exaggerated version of their collective meltdown with Barbie dolls and prosthetic sex parts (here doll-Tess can have her legs split far enough apart that they snap off), as well as all manner of flickers, pulses, shivers and extreme close-ups intent on shaking one’s retinas out. This visual abuse is intensified by a soundtrack that features a low-level, anxiety-inducing drone, oozy sex noises and jarring screeches. Moodysson also blows our ears out with caustically upbeat pop music that complements the inanity of the household’s conversation and the desperate juvenility of their horseplay and their rare but usually thwarted sex-play. Essentially, we are in a state of temporal and spatial confusion, unmooring us to more easily feel the disgust that Moodysson contrives.

A Hole in My Heart is bookended by Tess urging Erik to “close your eyes and tell me what you see,” which frames the entire exercise as a nightmare, and it is one without end for the film’s start and finish mirror each other. The self-described “three losers” are presented as emotionally, intellectually and physically monstrous people, explicitly coded as human waste. Brief, reality television-style “confessional” interludes that present them shoving childhood photos of themselves pleadingly into the camera or discussing their secrets and dreams—Geko, for example, passes out every so often and, while unconscious, tells us about UFOs or his hateful mum—only makes their ultimate descent into pure depravity more painful to watch. (Similarly, the stylistically quiet and contemplative moments lull you into a false sense of serenity before blasting you once more.) With his deformed hand, Erik is the damaged witness, the wan and shriveled conscience. He is the only individual capable of ethical will because he has sequestered himself in his cocoon (with headphones over his ears) away from the toxic culture outside. You see, Rickard, Geko and Tess have all been poisoned by porn and its descendants: reality television, video games and everything else that twists human relationships into commodities of zombifying fantasy and therefore forces a wedge between each one of us. A Hole in My Heart shares an origin myth with Cameron Mitchell’s glorious 2001 debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch: we all began as four-legged, four-armed, two-headed creatures who were torn apart, forcing us to spend eternity searching for a partner to complete us. For Cameron Mitchell, such a quest is love, sex, life, for Moodysson, it is lack, alienation, schizophrenia: The missing pieces of Tess’s labia are floating in a jar, bought by a pervert on the Internet. The three losers are such victims of this poisonous society that they cannot help but track the mud indoors with them; they are irrecuperably tainted with vulgarity and barbarism. For example, a key scene is sparked by the men callously telling Tess that her vagina has a stink that only gets worse the more she tries to wash it away (“out, damn’d spot!”).

For all of A Hole in My Heart’s feverish technophobia, dehumanization still finds its purest expression through the old stand-bys of abjection and violence, in scenes that resemble the poor man’s version of Vienna Aktionism. Tess diddles herself on the bathroom floor before puking, Erik gives his father toilet water to drink (while Geko cuts out the middle man and pisses directly into a glass at one point), and Erik fantasizes about shooting his father and confronting his corpse about dad’s latent homosexuality (an unexpectedly affecting scene of mutual psychoanalysis between father-corpse and son, though it is later revealed that Rickard is so fucked up because his father raped him, a chestnut straight out of Shortbus’s Plot Devices 101). In reality, Rickard’s ideas of father-son bonding—mother, in case you are wondering, is dead—involve allowing Erik to hold the video camera during their shoot, and desperately coercing him to shoot an air pistol at a poster of a naked woman (come on, flay her vagina with that automatic rifle just like uncle Geko!). No wonder Tess searches desperately for the anesthetic cream to numb her bum for anal sex—rare has an ointment carried such a heavy metaphorical burden.

In the most horrifying scene—which warrants comparison to some of the more skin-crawling episodes in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer—the two men burst in on Tess wearing masks, Geko brandishing a baseball bat and Rickard the camera, naturellement. They proceed to describe in excruciating detail how they will torture and kill her with the weapon, and begin to rough her up a little and shove her terrified face into the camera. Then it all falls apart when a hysterical Erik rushes in and the men immediately insist it was all in fun as Tess dresses and flees. After bumming around a grocery store and its parking lot—shot guerrilla-style with everybody’s faces blurred out in post—Tess does the unthinkable: she voluntarily returns to the apartment in a moment that inspires genuine despair, particularly as it is emphasized by a round of peppy high-decibel dance music. She’s brought this upon herself, and her excuse is that “everyone’s so boring out there.” (Soon after, her return to Sodom is further rationalized by the revelation that she’d just been rejected as a potential contestant on Big Brother, porn is presumably the next best thing.) She’d rather be torn apart by two malevolent goons than face a tedious outside world. From then on things only get worse, as they start drinking and the shopping cart full of junk food she has bought is soon covering the living room and the gruesome threesome themselves, most distressingly being shoved messily into Tess’s maw for the camera’s delectation. The spectacle is utterly sickening. The great climax of all the debauchery comes after a lull in activity, when all the characters enter a hazy, post-binge slumber. Chronology and reality break down entirely as we enter what are presumably their short-wired fever dreams. Some of the most intense moments include a brutal montage of anatomical dissolution, and an enraged Rickard throwing furniture after his abuse at the hands of his father is revealed to the group. Right after, as Geko retches nearby, an unwitting but game Tess is led to the couch by director Rickard, who forces her mouth open and holds the camera close. Geko comes over and vomits—a little, not a lot— into her mouth as the final chorus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion strikes up. In this protracted, torturous and shockingly quiet scene, Moodysson concretizes our own feelings of nausea at their behavior and confirms our own debasement for watching. Perversely, the three hug afterwards, while Erik covers his eyes with Band-Aids, blinding himself in protest against Rickard/Moodysson’s violation of our orbs.

It is a few minutes later, after all this mess that Moodysson clearly needed to get out of his system, that there is a moment of hope, if not redemption. Not for the characters—it’s too late for that—but for Moodysson himself. The final major scene features Tess and Erik—who in another life could have been friends—heading to the laundry room to wash the sheets together, and each take their turn squeezing themselves inside the dryer for a ride. However, like in his celebrated earlier work, Moodysson keeps things energetic and engaging: With no stylistic pyrotechnics to fall back on, he shows his past mastery over pacing and executes the scene perfectly. For lack of a better word, Moodysson’s oeuvre had a soul until A Hole in My Heart, and this one scene seems to suggest that he knew what he was doing all along, that he needed to go somewhere completely unexpected—hateful, misanthropic, irredeemable—but that his art came out intact. He got his hands dirty, and that’s more than can be said for the Pollyannaish Cameron Mitchell, whose great descent into the dark side consisted of capturing fleeting shots of ground zero and of himself performing oral sex on a woman.

What ultimately unites these films is their construction of sex as a metaphor for a dysfunctional society, and how our skins mediate between the fragile human body and soul and the puncturing violence inflicted by an unfeeling outside world. Every individual is wounded, and sex can either damage one further or offer the possibility of healing. Shortbus values the permeable and the plugged-in against close-mindedness and fear, penetration permits openness and union. The bodies in A Hole in My Heart, however, are perforated through-and-through by Western cultures’ decadence and savagery. They plug themselves up with all manner of junk in order to fill the hole left by an authentic subjectivity and meaningful citizenship. Both Cameron Mitchell and Moodysson promise to lead us into freedom with a roadmap for redemption that begins with a group hug or with acid in the face respectively. Unfortunately, both their films are merely symptoms and not the cure.