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?”
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.
John Cameron Mitchell cast Shortbus through an open call asking anyone interested to submit a video describing an “emotional sexual experience.” Among the 500 who responded was a young filmmaker named Jonathan Caouette, whose compellingly raw entry didn’t get him a role but won him an influential admirer. Mitchell helped Caouette shape the material into what became Tarnation, his cult-beloved 2003 documentary that was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.