By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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“It wasn’t really the sex that was the deal breaker,” he says. Two actors who dropped out were really young, and they were artists in their own right. They realized they wanted to tell their life stories through their own art rather than mine. They were like 19 years old. Then one of the actors I had to cut because the film was getting too long. Plus, with the two who dropped out, there was a moment of romantic contact between them, which I encouraged the actors not to do. You know, don’t shit where you eat.”
“Is it gross?” a friend asked me after reading a description of Mitchell’s film. Well, no, it isn’t, though the question does raise another: Why do people assume that a movie with a lot of sex in it — and real sex at that — must somehow be dirty?
“Or purely titillating,” Mitchell adds. “Which is the same thing to Americans, oddly. Titillating means dirty. It’s a strange equation, a cultural thing. I grew up Catholic. I was taught about sex by monks, in a booklet thrown at me, pushed into a room where I had to read this booklet. So, right away, sex is dirty. Hidden. Crushed. In a closet. Things do become dirty when they’re not aired out, and some people like it that way. You know, dirty sex is hot sex. The more proscribed it is, the hotter it is. If you’ve ever been with an Amish girl or a Mormon boy, you know it’s hot when they break out, or when I broke out as a Catholic boy/girl. We’re a country founded by puritans and conquistadors and missionaries. So, we’re just one of those countries that’s scared of sex.”
One of Mitchell’s goals for Shortbus is to relax those fears. “It’s almost like sex has been unplugged from everything it’s really connected to — to emotions, to ideas, to humor — and we want to plug them back in,” Mitchell says, noting that, like himself, nearly all of the film’s cast hail from conservative family backgrounds. But some fears are more easily relaxed than others. When the Chinese-Canadian actress Sook-Yin Lee — who stars in Shortbus as a “pre-orgasmic” (as in she’s never had one) couples’ therapist — first signed on to the project, her bosses at the Canadian Broadcasting Co., where she works as a talk-radio host, threatened to terminate her employment. Only after a letter-writing campaign spearheaded by Mitchell, which included contributions from the likes of Yoko Ono and Francis Ford Coppola (who told Mitchell that he once longed to make a real-sex movie), did the CBC reconsider.
“Yoko Ono sent in a note saying that if people were having better sex, there’d be less war,” Mitchell says. “It sounds like a ’60s cliché, but it makes sense — better sex defined as respectful, connected, fuller, free of misogyny, free of homophobia. If you look at the countries that invade other countries, there’s a weird coincidence of sex proscription: Iran, the U.S., etc. I don’t know if it’s causal, but it does seem to be common. I don’t know, I feel like a newborn hippie or something having made this film, or maybe a grown-up hippie, aware that utopia isn’t attainable, but still optimistic.” Or, to quote Shortbus’ grandiose “mistress” of ceremonies, Justin Bond (better known as Kiki of the underground-cabaret duo Kiki & Herb), “It’s just like the ’60s, only with less hope.”
But there is hope in Shortbus, muted yet present, as Mitchell’s characters struggle not just to get their mojos working, but to make meaningful connections with other human beings. And if the film isn’t exactly political (“Shortbus doesn’t criticize much — other people do that better,” Mitchell says), its celebration of community and togetherness nevertheless seems a provocation at a cultural moment rife with feelings of isolation and powerlessness. It’s only fitting, then, that Mitchell chooses to set the film’s euphoric finale — think one of those big, Broadway-style finishes in which the cast rushes back onto the stage for one last number — during a citywide blackout inspired by the infamous Northeastern blackout of 2003. In Shortbus, things really are darkest before dawn.
“I think it’s one of the most beautiful things to happen to New York — the need to connect as personified by that power-grid overload,” Mitchell says. “The feeling of the blackout was exactly the feeling of the film at the end. I was with those people, and I felt so mortal and so moved. People were meeting each other for the first time in their buildings and having parties on the street.
“It’s a very amorphous thing that we’re prescribing: remembering that we’re all in the same boat, remembering that we’re all alive. A lot of these characters are almost numb — there’s a numbness that can set in if you’re thinking about the bad that’s going to happen to you after 9/11, or living in Israel, or whatever. But they heroically push through it and get fucked or get whipped. Whatever it takes to feel something.”