John Cameron Mitchell: ‘There’s been a certain sex panic in the air’

It’s a little more than 15 years since John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus exploded – interpret that verb as lewdly as you like – into cinemas, and in a sense, it feels a whole lot longer. Which is not to say that Mitchell’s brazenly queer, joyously sex-positive comedy, about a female sex therapist pursuing the orgasm she’s never experienced at New York’s raunchiest underground club, is outdated. Rewatched today, as it enjoys a rerelease in US cinemas, it veritably hums with erotic vigour and philosophical playfulness, a presciently liberated film with its eye on the future of sexual connection, in all its poly, nonbinary possibilities.

It’s just that it’s hard to imagine film-making this proudly and playfully carnal coming out of the American indie scene now: we’re living through a remarkably chaste period of cinema, perhaps marked by post-MeToo caution and responsibility, as film-makers reconsider the boundary between exuberance and exploitation. With its copious unsimulated sex scenes, Shortbus certainly raised some eyebrows in 2006 – but it could well be a lightning rod today, throwing a wrench into debates over who is allowed to depict what on screen.

“It’s interesting seeing young people see it now,” Mitchell says over the phone from Los Angeles. “Because they’re like, ‘Wow, is that what it was like?’ There’s been a certain sex panic in the air in the last few years amongst young people, and not just because of Covid. I think the digital culture has kind of kept people from interacting, and you get a lot of young people having less and less sex these days. Whereas it was getting to be more and more after the Aids drugs came in – it started coming back to 70s levels – but now it’s gone down. They call it the Great Sex Recession.”

Where Mitchell – then bullish after the unlikely success of his jubilant genderqueer musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch – intended for Shortbus to reclaim the language of pornography for mainstream art film, he feels the chasm between those two branches of film-making has only grown wider in the last two decades. “The film is coming out again now at a time when sex has largely been confined to porn: even nudity has been removed from films and television shows these days. There’s no sex, and certainly no real sex. So in a weird way, porn won.” He pauses, then hastily clarifies his stance. “And porn is great if it’s good, of course. But it doesn’t really show a lot of the other dimensions of life that sex is connected to.”

Shortbus, meanwhile, still feels radical its depiction of sex on a spectrum from banality to euphoria, sometimes beautiful and often hilarious. You certainly can’t turn to porn for a scene of one gorgeous, hard-bodied gay man singing The Star-Spangled Banner into the arsehole of another: Mitchell’s film took that peculiar gap and ran with it. His film was a riposte not just to porn, moreover, but the sterner aesthetic of sex in the arthouse.

“There was a lot of experimentation at that time, at least in independent film, with sex in cinema,” he says, citing the work of such film-makers as Michael Winterbottom, Patrice Chereau, Carlos Reygadas and Catherine Breillat. “All those people were pushing it, but I found a lot of the sex was kind of grim, you know – certainly valid in some cases, but drained of humor. So I wanted to kind of attach it to my punky New York chosen-family aesthetic.”

The raucous underground sex club in Shortbus was inspired by a friend’s salon that combined 16mm film screening, vegan food and group sex. “I was fascinated by the equation of art, food, drink and sex as the important things in life. And that’s all gone. Even the place where we shot it, which was a weird collective where parties like that happened and bands like Le Tigre got started, that’s gone. The people are still there, but the scene has been decimated by digital, by the apps, certainly by Covid. I didn’t expect the film to be a time capsule.”

With hindsight, Mitchell sees films like Shortbus and Tarnation – the raw, ragged documentary self-portrait by the queer artist Jonathan Caouette, who cameos in Shortbus – as beneficiaries of a last gasp of punk sensibility in American film. “I had thought that Jonathan’s film would launch a million David Lynches on YouTube,” he says, “but narrative film-making has kind of faded out in favour of people even just making a web series. ‘Art for art’s sake’ is no longer a term that’s used by young people; selling out is an incomprehensible term to them. Because they’re just trying to get their clicks and create their brand, even if they’re 10 years old.” He laughs. “Youth used to be the golden moment when you were untouchable and you could try anything and you wanted to change things and you weren’t worried about commercial considerations. But social media has changed that.”

All of which isn’t to say that Shortbus was a walk in the park to make, even in the 2000s. Mitchell explains that it took nearly three years to finance the film after it was cast: the independent golden age of the 1990s was already over. “Literally the year after we came out, the financial collapse happened,” he sighs. “I think of our party at Cannes, after we premiered in the Palais at midnight and Francis Ford Coppola there and we had a concert on the beach: it was expensive and it was fun and it was the end of an era. People stopped going to films, especially small films. And then our distributor [ThinkFilm] went bankrupt, which is why Shortbus has been out of print for so long.”

Not inclined to wallow in the past, however, Mitchell has adapted to changing times. His next film after Shortbus was the tender, solemn Nicole Kidman grief drama Rabbit Hole, adapted from David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-winning play: a director-for-hire gig, and one far outside his experimental queer wheelhouse, but one he remains proud of. “Would it be a little more adventurous if it was my own film?” he asks, before answering himself. “Well, yeah. But I was very happy with the result.”

He and Kidman got on so well they collaborated again on 2017’s less well-received How to Talk to Girls at Parties – his last film to date, and not one he’s in a hurry to follow up. “In the present environment, I don’t know whether small films are really viable right now. Do I want to chase financing for five years for something that no one will see? I’m not sure,” he says. “As opposed to other forms which I’ve always been interested in: TV series, podcasts, albums, musical theater piece. I’m thinking about a novel now, and I’m doing more acting. I’m happy to diversify my portfolio.”

Sure enough, Mitchell has been busy: in recent years, he has released his musical Anthem: Homunculus as an all-star podcast series, released a couple of concept albums for charity, popped up on TV in series such as Shrill and The Good Fight, and will shortly be seen as Joe Exotic in Joe vs Carole, Peacock’s dramatic adaptation of the documentary phenomenon Tiger King. Notwithstanding the challenges faced in film specifically, it is, he says, a good time to be an out queer artist in the mainstream – though even he has found latter-day representation politics thorny to navigate. He cites a recent controversy over a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Australia, where protests were made against the casting of a cisgender queer actor in the title role, as an example of counter-productive conscientiousness.

“First of all, Hedwig is forced into an operation, without agency, so it’s not exactly the trans story that some people think it is,” he says. “But we’re in a supercharged moment where we’re trying to correct the world very quickly, and the world doesn’t always take to that, and the intentions are good but sometimes the execution is ham-handed. And then Trump and Boris laugh from the top, because we’re doing their work for them.”

“I get annoyed when people say you can’t write something that you don’t know, that you must stay in your lane, that it’s not your story to tell,” he continues. “Does that mean I can’t play Hedwig? I haven’t experienced the events of their life, but I certainly have experienced many of their feelings. That’s why I wrote it. So many people who have played that role have discovered a lot about themselves, including their own nonbinary identity. People are all on a journey.”

Returning to Shortbus, he wonders if he’d get flak today for centering the story on an Asian woman trying to have an orgasm. “Is that my story to tell? Yeah, I would argue that metaphorically and emotionally, it is, and so would the actress. But other people would prefer that we only have autobiographies out there. It was a collaborative film: each actor brought elements of their life to it, and that was the joy of it. So I don’t like rules that are not contextual. I don’t like replacing one set of authorities with another.”

Shortbus, certainly, is not a film that bows to any authority, though it advocates strength in community more than rebellious individualism. Mitchell stands by that philosophy. “Identity politics is about fixing unfairness,” he says. “But do you do it in a dictatorial way or do you try to do it in a consensus way? That’s the big question.”

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