As a boy, John Cameron Mitchell used to cry whenever he heard “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When the national anthem makes its indelible appearance in Mitchell’s new film, Shortbus, it’s not likely to bring a tear to many eyes. Here, Francis Scott Key’s immortal paean to the land of the free and the home of the brave is sung by a former child actor named Jamie (PJ DeBoy) into the asshole of a handsome young model named Ceth (pronounced “Seth”), while Ceth engages in his own tangled bit of coitus with Jamie’s longtime lover, James (Paul Dawson).
But don’t get Mitchell wrong. “I really am very patriotic,” he says, recalling his youth as an Army brat, growing up on the military bases throughout Europe where his father, retired U.S. Army General John H. Mitchell, was stationed. Those experiences informed the East German episodes of Mitchell’s now-legendary off-Broadway musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the 2001 film version of which begins with an electric-guitar riff on “America the Beautiful.” And long before it arrives at its red-white-and-blue three-way, Shortbus opens on the image of a lovingly animated Statue of Liberty, holding her torch high into the New York sky, welcoming the huddled masses to her teeming shore. The only difference is that, in Shortbus, the masses huddle a little more snugly than usual.
Yes, Shortbus is the “sex movie” you’ve probably heard about through the Internet grapevine — the one in which the actors really “do it” on camera, by themselves, with a partner, in groups and with battery-operated assists. The film’s title — a winking homage to the diminutive school transport used by special-needs students — is also the name given to a “salon for the gifted and specially challenged,” where a galaxy of lonely, lovelorn and sexually frustrated New Yorkers come together, in every sense that implies. It’s a fictional place, but one inspired by New York’s real bohemian underground.
“I had been to salons like that,” Mitchell says. “Stephen Kent Jusick — the guy you see passing out condoms in one scene in the film — ran something called Cinesalon in his house. He would screen 8 mm and 16 mm short films. He would have brownies, and, later at night, there’d be some group sex going on, which was really surprising and kind of shocking to me. But then you’d forget about it, like being in a sauna without towels. You know, somebody’s bumping into you having sex while you’re just having a conversation and eating a brownie. It all evens out.”
Yet if Shortbus is, as Variety proclaimed from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry,” it’s also more thoughtful and sweet than it is titillating or shocking — a bighearted fuck-for-all in which the line between young and old, gay and straight, butch and femme is repeatedly blurred beyond recognition. It’s a movie, Mitchell has said, born out of admiration for the openly sexual Hollywood movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Midnight Cowboy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Carnal Knowledge) and as a corrective to today’s increasingly chaste Hollywood climate. Indeed, that the sex in Shortbus is real may be less remarkable than that it is simply there.
“So-called indie films hew much more to the Hollywood mainstream now, because they’re financed by the studios too, so there’s no chance that any of those will ever bare any flesh,” says Mitchell, whose own film was co-financed by the international sales conglomerate Fortissimo Films and the gay cable channel Q Television and will be distributed theatrically by the genuinely independent THINKFilm. “That was already starting to happen in the ’90s, when Kids was dropped by [Disney-owned] Miramax and Happiness was dropped by [Universal-owned] October Films. That was the end of that, for studio films. I mean, if Janet Jackson’s tit can’t be shown on TV, why bother pushing the envelope?”
It’s a Tuesday morning in mid-September, and Mitchell is sitting in the lobby of the Le Meridien hotel, where he scoops foam off the top of a latte as he speaks in a soft, low voice. He’s still dressed in yesterday’s clothes (his luggage was lost en route to L.A.), and, were it not for the thatch of salt-and-pepper hair atop his head, the 43-year-old filmmaker might risk getting carded at a screening of his own movie. It’s the second time we’ve talked about Shortbus; the first was more than two years ago, at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival, where Mitchell had come to support Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical documentary, Tarnation, on which he served as executive producer and all-around creative godfather. Back then, Shortbus was still far from a sure thing — despite its low budget, the financing had yet to fully materialize — but Mitchell was nevertheless well into an intensive rehearsal process with his largely nonprofessional cast, most of whom had been recruited through an Internet-promoted open casting call.