Interestingly, Shortbus deals with AIDS almost by omission, seemingly determined to portray the disease as a past-tense phenomenon (though condoms are shown whenever new partners have sex). One actor plays a nameless former mayor of the city who apologizes for not doing more about the AIDS crisis—a reference, perhaps, to Ed Koch? “I’d rather not say anything on the record about that,” Mitchell responds carefully, allowing that “it’s my favorite scene in the film, I think. It’s very moving to me. There’s not a lot of kindness and forgiveness in films lately.”
Shortbus cost $2 million to make, a sum that required Herculean levels of patience and drive to raise. No stars, explicit sex—this wasn’t exactly a marketer’s dream. (Although Mitchell says part of the reason he wanted to use real sex in the film is that it precluded working with movie stars: “Many of them are very talented, but it’s a lot of baggage.”) Most potential investors worried that the final product would turn out to be porn masquerading as art, but when the film premiered at Cannes in May, it suddenly seemed to have a surprising degree of commercial potential: the first (superficially) pornographic film with an anti-pornographic sensibility. Audiences adored it, investors who initially balked apologized to Mitchell, and there was a bidding war over distribution rights, eventually won by ThinkFilm. (Mark Urman, head of the company’s U.S. theatrical acquisitions, pulled Mitchell aside at the festival and gushed, “It was like watching puppies at play!”) “At first the explicit sex was the thing everyone was scared of,” says Mitchell, “but now I don’t think we would have gotten the distribution without it.”
It remains to be seen whether Shortbus will have the same kind of crossover success that Hedwig did, infiltrating new audiences, gaining a fan base ranging from the burlesque to the buttoned-up. “It’s cool when frat boys say, ‘Yeah, Hedwig!’” says Mitchell. “I’d like to see that same thing happen with Shortbus. Unexpected circles see that it’s okay to go there.” But the victory could be, in some ways, bittersweet. Mitchell has described Shortbus as an “underground love letter to New York,” but in an exorbitantly expensive city that’s growing ever more conservative it’s hard to imagine how long that underground can keep its toehold. Just the other day, Mitchell received an e-mail from a friend at d.u.m.b.A., a 10-year-old arts collective that lent him its Dumbo loft to film the salon scenes. “They would have sex parties and art shows and concerts, just like in the film,” he says. “Apparently some new people in the building called the landlord, complaining about people having sex at parties, and they didn’t get their lease renewed.” His love letter may turn out to be a requiem.