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Yearning to Breathe Free 

John Cameron Mitchell and the huddled masses of Shortbus

Wednesday, Oct 11 2006
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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.

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“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.

Taking a few pages from the Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes playbooks, Mitchell decided to forgo a conventional screenplay and instead developed Shortbus in concert with the cast, alternating weekslong improvisational workshops with marathon writing sessions until, after two and a half years, the cameras were finally ready to roll. During that time, actors came and went, some by their own choice, others by Mitchell’s, though none, he is quick to note, over reservations about the film’s sexual content.

“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.”

“So does that mean,” I ask Mitchell, quoting the lyrics warbled by Justin Bond over the movie’s final images, “that we all get it in the end?”

“Somebody else said it best: Death ennobles life. When you know it’s going to end, you live it differently, and you should. In the face of that, in the face of 9/11 or the blackout or any other specter of mortality, I think most people are at their best. So yes, we all do get it in the end, and the happy interpretation of that is that good things are coming too. That might be false optimism, but optimism is never rational. And neither is sex.”

And as for “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

“It doesn’t quite make me cry anymore,” he says, laughing. “But in Cannes, it was exciting to hear a French audience applauding the American national anthem for the first time in I don’t know how long.”

Shortbus is now playing in Los Angeles ­theaters.

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