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Lust in His Heart

John Cameron Mitchell wants America to stop being scared and start having more sex.

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John Cameron Mitchell has just returned from the Toronto International Film Festival, where he hosted the North American premiere of his movie Shortbus and, after crowd-surfing at the after-party, got laid. “It was actually a little strange,” says the performer and director best known for creating Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Though technically 43, Mitchell projects an air of boyish innocence that makes him seem far younger. “I like the guy, he’s nice,” he continues, speaking in the tone of soft-spoken wonderment that peppers his descriptions of just about everything: his sex life, his hopes for post-Bush America, his small-town upbringing, the delicious foie gras he’s just ordered at La Lunchonette in Chelsea. “But it just felt a little”—he narrows his pale-blue eyes, tilts his head quizzically—“rote. I can certainly have good sex with someone I don’t know very well, but there has to be some level of intimacy, more connection than when I was in my twenties.”

Mitchell is not quoting directly from his movie, but this scene (both the one-night stand and his postgame analysis) would be right at home in Shortbus. The film, in theaters October 4, is a sex romp in the most literal sense, a story about sex (gay, straight, group, solo) in which none of it is simulated. Among the highlights: an orgy, a threesome, and a depressive ex-hustler contorting into a yoga position and fellating himself to the point of, as Mitchell delicately puts it, “self-fertilization.” That Mitchell decided to tackle such audacious material should come as no surprise to fans of Hedwig, a rock musical about an East German transsexual and his/her botched sex-change operation. Conceptualized at drag clubs like Squeezebox, Hedwig had a cult-spawning, logic-defying life span. After a two-year run Off Broadway, Mitchell made the show into a film that won the Sundance Audience Award in 2001 and secured his position as hero (and consummate crush) to a gender-unspecific downtown bohemia. “He is an icon of outspokenness, hope, and humor,” says his friend Michael Warner, author of The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. “The people who respond to John tend to be trannies, rebels, people outside the middle class who don’t see themselves in the image of Will & Grace.”

What is perhaps most shocking about Shortbus is that it is not, in the cheap sense, all that shocking. Whereas many art-house movies featuring graphic sex have been bleakly exploitative (The Brown Bunny), emotionally hollow (9 Songs), or soul-punishing (the oeuvre of French director Catherine Breillat), Shortbus celebrates sex as a playful, galvanizing, gloriously awkward endeavor. “How can you leach it of humor?” Mitchell asks. “Everyone knows there’s this weird element of incongruity between sex and the rest of life. If you take a few steps away, it’s like—wait, look at this position I’m in! It’s pure slapstick.”

In this spirit, Shortbus follows a group of New Yorkers who are overstimulated to the point where authentic stimulation is impossible. There’s a sex therapist who can’t achieve orgasm, a gay couple thinking of adding a third party to their relationship, a dominatrix immune to human connection—all of whom find psychic and physical redemption at an underground salon called Shortbus. The name comes from a surreptitious monthly dance party Mitchell used to throw on West Street. “I love a good party,” he says. “But the dance places here were just drug havens, androids in the mist. They didn’t have that high-school-fun thing about them. This was a high-school dance party for the gifted and challenged”—the ones who rode the “short bus.” While auditioning actors for the movie, Mitchell brought them to the party as a means of conveying his vision and calming nerves. “We had a spin-the-bottle game for 100 people,” he recalls. “Different sexualities were making out with the inappropriate sexuality or whatever. It was great. Everything just broke down.”

Shortbus, then, is a fictionalized extension of this reality—Mitchell’s open invitation to the sort of party he thinks more Americans could use. In his view, our attitudes toward sexuality (the need to label, to compartmentalize, to tease and titillate) say a lot about the oppressive, manipulative nature of American society at large. “To me it is a different time,” he says. “We’re all weirdly single, middle-aged women with too much money who look to fill the void with too much shopping. Consumerism has infiltrated art and politics and sex. Kids learn about sex from porn. They know it’s somehow related to credit cards, to a label. Seventeen-year-old kids are saying they’re ‘barely legal.’ They fetishize themselves.”

Set in the period just after 9/11—in the opening sequence we see the dominatrix reach for a dildo perched on a windowsill overlooking ground zero—Shortbus is a subversively political work. In an early version of the film, one of the characters (an emotionally stunted Peeping Tom) was supposed to be the Bush twins’ personal assistant. “He was always on the phone with the president, who had no one to talk to,” says Mitchell. “The president is like, ‘I’m kind of scared.’ The guy is like, ‘I’m scared, too. Everyone’s scared.’” The film is about banishing that fear—fear of terrorism, fear of difference, fear of sex, fear of AIDS. “We are not trying to fuck anyone up,” Mitchell says. “We are trying to find a way of defusing fear instead of using it. We are trying to find a way of reducing identity politics. I am this, you are not. Why is it that terrorists, illegal immigrants, and sexual outlaws are equated as equally dangerous by the right wing? It’s the same rhetoric, you know?”


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