Writer/director John Cameron Mitchell's follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch is also a hilarious, often touching film about people who dare to be different in post-9/11, pre-blackout New York City. Sure, its unabashedly overt sexual content is bound to repel some, but Shortbus isn't designed to titillate or to challenge (well, maybe a little) those who might be offended.
Sex is portrayed as the organic, everyday occurrence it is. (See a review of Shortbus.)
The film's title refers to a weekly underground salon where various artists, cross-dressers and boho types gather in a Brooklyn loft to express themselves in ways both colorful and carnal. It's a nurturing, communal utopia of sorts, Mitchell's stand-in for what he calls "old New York, for chosen family values: the values of Walt Whitman, Garcia Lorca and Punk Rock."
(The film's music, courtesy of veterans like Yo La Tengo and newcomers like Scott Matthew, is uniformly phenomenal.)
"It's like the ’60s, only with less hope," says the salon's pansexual maestro (Justin Bond) in what's become the film's signature line.
Yet Shortbus is not a perverse, queer-centric hipster version of Sex and the City -- it's about real people with real problems, people aching for an emotional connection amid a cultural climate that seems more fractured by the day.
Mitchell's collaborative film (more on that later) centers on a pair of couples; one gay, one straight, both intertwined. Looking to spark their faltering relationship, James (Paul Dawson) and his boyfriend Jamie (P.J. DeBoy) seek the guidance of Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who, despite creative and lengthy lovemaking sessions with her husband (Raphael Barker), is unable to have an orgasm.
(Contradiction being one of the film's central themes, she initially fails to tell him of this unfortunate irony.)
Three others rotate amid the central couples' orbit: Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a lonely dominatrix who, unlike Sofia, can have an orgasm at the crack of a whip but is unable to form any type of meaningful relationship; Ceth (Jay Brannan), an impressionable young stud who falls for James and Jamie; and Caleb, a peeping, mysterious neighbor who has relationship issues of his own.
All begin to find their way via the Shortbus salons.
'Deep need to connect'
John Cameron Mitchell is the product of a devoutly religious military family, not the easiest of circumstances for an artistically inclined gay kid with a penchant for musicals. Not surprisingly, sex was a taboo topic.
"Coming out of a very conservative Catholic background, the more you try to eliminate it culturally the more you're interested in it," Mitchell says by phone from New York City. "Guilt was certainly associated with sex when I was growing up. It is for many people in this country, and kind of artificially so, because sex is a morally neutral phenomenon that can be attached to all parts of our lives."
Mitchell speaks in calm, knowing tones, his voice rife with the sense of a life lived. Born in El Paso, Tex., in 1963, he was a typical military kid, moving often, picking things up at each stop along the way. He eventually migrated to New York City in the mid-'80s, when he began acting in a variety of small television, stage and film roles.
The character of Hedwig -- a glammed-out East German Rock singer whose botched sex-change operation inspired the name of his backing band, The Angry Inch -- emerged in the mid-'90s, the result of extended workshopping at New York's Squeezebox Club. Mitchell refined the role during an Off-Broadway run before adapting it into a 2001 film, an energized, thoroughly fascinating and funny extravaganza that was even more effective in its transfer to the big screen.
An unexpected Sundance hit largely due to its creator's passionate and oddly touching lead performance, Hedwig turned Mitchell into a hot commodity almost overnight.
Well, instead of cashing in with a star-driven studio vehicle, Mitchell went in the opposite direction, embarking on a project that raised many an eyebrow and more than a few whispers: Is he nuts?
Shortbus is a bold, idealistic film that attempts to create something joyous via a cinematic topic -- real sex -- that's often portrayed as anything but.
"I had been inspired by a lot of European films that were using highly explicit sex," Mitchell says. "I thought, 'That's a very interesting language, just like the musical is an interesting form.' I've always been interested in pushing boundaries just for personal reasons, going places where I was a little bit scared."
Of course, Mitchell isn't the first "legitimate" filmmaker to inject explicit sexuality into his work; he's just the first to do it in such a funny, unabashedly sentimental way. Recent films exploring the topic come off as either dark and violent (Irreversible, Fat Girl, Baise-moi) or creepy and disaffecting (9 Songs, Brown Bunny).
Shortbus emanates from a much different place, its carnality spiked with sweet-natured optimism.
"In American film, sex was (presented) either in porn or in prurience," Mitchell says. "Or it was giggling or juvenilia, or it was death and destruction or mutilation, which is what the European films had going. It was very dark and it didn't have much humor. I thought, 'There are more colors here.' Sex is very funny. Sex is attached to all kinds of emotions, joy and sadness."
Sure enough, Shortbus elicits as many laughs as it does gasps, from a hilarious sequence in which a guy sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" into another dude's anus to a jizz shot that synchs perfectly with the content of an abstract, Jackson Pollack-like painting.
"Why not use sex as a palette and at the same time question perceived notions about sex in our society?" Mitchell says during one of his many extended riffs. "Sex is compartmentalized and thought of as something dirty and bad or something that's an unnecessary pleasure, something that's only useful for procreation or is attached to addiction and abuse.
"It seemed like it's a lot more complex than that. In our case we wanted to de-eroticize the sex in the film to clear away some of the clouds of arousal that might get in the way of seeing what else is there -- like this deep need to connect."
Letting the actors breathe
Given the film's content, a conventional script and production schedule were out of the question. So was the use of recognizable actors.
"I was very aware it was going to be hard to cast," Mitchell says. "In fact, that was kind of a relaxing thing to me, because after Hedwig there would have been many people who wanted to do something with me. Though many stars are talented, many are not, and they don't have time to rehearse. Maybe unconsciously I was working with sex so I wouldn't have to deal with stars."
Mitchell took out ads in a variety of alternative weeklies, asking potential cast members to send in audition tapes consisting of a sexual experience that was emotionally meaningful to them, with the idea that the content would eventually be incorporated into his script. Of the nearly 500 submissions, 40 were chosen to audition in person as well as to attend an actual "Shortbus" salon. An extended, start-and-stop rehearsal period followed as the production scrounged for money, much of which was provided by Pop musician Moby.
Multi-talented Canadian actress Sook-Yin Lee, who had a bit part in Hedwig, was onboard from the get-go.
"John really knew that in order to have the actors invest intimately and emotionally and sexually we would have to be co-creators of our characters," she says during a recent phone interview. "He wanted that psychological safety net for us. As opposed to him writing everything, we gave him the raw material."
Lee didn't shy away from Shortbus' invasive nature, fearlessly imbuing her character with material from her own life.
"I could see what an incredible artist he was," she says of the highly collaborative experience of working with Mitchell on Hedwig. "He was very inspiring to me because he really creates a wonderful environment to make a movie. It's a very friendly environment, a very community-based environment. He's got good instincts when it comes to working with people, and he's also very generous. He just somehow really brings out the best in people."
For Lee, the Shortbus experience was as much about the creative process as it was the finished product.
"Like my character in the movie, I was never in the Brownies," she says. "So this was my membership into art/love/sex camp, and he was our Cub Scout leader. We weren't sure if this film was ever going to be funded. A lot of people were interested but very few people were willing to put money down on it. And so I was quite happy with the notion that this would never be made into a movie and that I would forever be able to go down (to New York) and visit my friends and do fun experiments. I was totally into the process of it. I never really wanted it to become a movie because that would mean it was going to end."
Lindsay Beamish, who plays the film's emotionally closed-off dominatrix, a counterpoint to Lee's orgasm-challenged sex therapist, agrees.
"My school of thought has always been that the most important thing is the outcome of the art no matter how much I torture myself or other people in the process," Beamish says during a recent phone interview. "Working with John, the process is the most important thing. The fact that everyone has an incredible experience is more important than the outcome, which, of course, informs a great outcome.
"Working with him was amazing. There was so much freedom and I trusted him so much, and you just want to do right by him. Not out of fear or intimidation, but just because you want to be good for him and his vision."
Mitchell's actor-friendly ways should come as no surprise -- he's an actor himself. He's also a movie buff who's incorporated traits of his favorite directors into his own work, including British filmmaker Mike Leigh's improv-informed, script-shaping techniques.
"I love all kinds of directors," he says. "John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen when he was good. They're all actors' directors in that they love when actors surprise them and are partners. They don't just try to control them. I can admire people like Bresson and Visconti and even Godard, but his actors are a bit pawn-like and I always feel a little of (his) arrogance in not letting the actors breathe and be loose and partnering with them. I can admire the themes and cinematography and stuff, but I really like directors that let their actors breathe."
'Good sex might actually help us'
Shortbus debuted to a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival in May and was well received at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. More surprising has been the seemingly nonexistent opposition to the film's explicit content.
"Any negative reaction, for the most part, has to do with people not having seen the film," Beamish says. "Once you see it, it's pretty hard to think it's pornography or to be scared of it, because the film has such an enormous heart."
Lee concurs, saying the film is just what we need at this uncertain moment in time.
"Fear bombards us from all sides," she says. "Fear of terrorism, fear of war, fear of the other, fear the immigrant, fear of chickens, fear of spinach. We're afraid of spinach! I really feel right now, especially in light of some of the darker aspects in our culture, that the type of embracement, the search for connection, celebration of community and celebration of humanity in this film is necessary now more than ever."
Mitchell takes it a step further.
"The film doesn't say that free sex is going to save us all, but I might argue that good sex might actually help us," he says. "I think Yoko Ono said it best: If people were having better sex there'd be less war. I really believe that's true. It sounds like a hippie thing, but there are actual studies that say that countries with the most legal and social proscriptions of sex have the highest rates of violence.
"I mean, think about countries that invade other countries and you'll actually see countries that have problems with sex. And I'm not saying it's causal, but it's definitely associated. It's strange, growing up really conservatively Catholic where sex was a horrible thing not to be discussed made me think about it more and made me scared of it and made me want to investigate it in my life and in my work and see how it connects to these other parts of our lives."
As a child of the Midwest (he spent time in Kansas as a teenager), Mitchell is eager to see how Shortbus will be received in the heartland -- it opens Friday at the Esquire Theatre. And Lee is heartened when informed that the film is opening in a city known for its prudishness, exactly one of the reasons she was attracted to the project in the first place.
"John's a populist as far as I'm concerned," Lee says. "This is probably going to be a cult movie -- it's not going to be like the latest Scorsese film -- but I think plenty of people are going to see it, and there's something about his story sensibility that is inviting. It's inclusive rather than exclusive.
"At the same time, he incorporates subversive and social and political ideas in the work. But he also has a real desire to entertain people. I love that sort of combination. It's a lot more useful than preaching to the converted." ©