This article takes the recent success and notoriety of John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus (2006) as the occasion for an overview of “real” sex as a recurring motif and practice of commercial, nonpornographic cinema of recent years. Diverse in their generic modalities and, even more crucially, in their national and cultural origins, these films constitute a cinematic “counterpublic” along the lines Michael Warner prescribes for human and textual communities, recalibrating the relations among sexuality, visuality, and representation as they play out for public audiences and in the emphatically public, innately collaborative medium of cinema. “Counterpublic” also emerges as an apt descriptor of the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s, and indeed, Shortbus owes much of its uniqueness to its overt (indeed, explicit) interbraiding of New Queer tropes and intertexts with the formal and political dispositions of other “real sex” films. If, however, the film's felicitous coalition of these two lineages accounts for part of its utopian merriment and subversive zeal, Shortbus also reprises some of the cultural and political myopias (particularly in relation to gender and race) that the New Queer movement often had trouble transcending. The complex reflections and critiques of an American public that are embedded in the film's script, mise-en-scène, and processes of production are essential to the film's compatibility with other “real sex” films, where the invocation and interrogation of the “real” so often bears national and social as well as sexual weight. At the same time, in its very internationalism and stylistic heterogeneity, this cinematic counterpublic refuses any single model of the public, the political, the sexual, or the real, and sets ever-new horizons for the subversive potential of sexual images in cinema.

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