Wednesday, April 10

John Cameron Mitchell: ‘There has been some sexual panic in the air’ | Films

IIt’s been a little over 15 years since John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus blew up (read that verb as lewdly as you like) in theaters and, in a sense, it feels a lot longer. Which isn’t to say that Mitchell’s unabashedly queer, gleefully sexually positive comedy about a female sex therapist seeking the orgasm she’s never experienced in New York’s raunchiest speakeasy is out of date. Rewatched today as it enjoys a re-release in US theaters, it truly hums with erotic vigor and philosophical glee, a prophetically liberated film with an eye toward the future of sexual connection, in all its polynomal possibilities. binary.

It’s just that it’s hard to imagine making a movie so proudly and playfully carnal coming out of the American indie scene. now: We are living through a remarkably chaste period of cinema, perhaps marked by post-MeToo caution and responsibility, as filmmakers reconsider the line between exuberance and exploitation. With its copious unsimulated sex scenes, Shortbus certainly turned heads in 2006, but could well be a lightning rod today, throwing a wrench into debates about who can portray what on screen.

“It’s interesting to see young people seeing it now,” Mitchell says by phone from Los Angeles. “Because they say, ‘Wow, was that it?’ There has been some sexual panic in the air in recent years among young people, and not just because of Covid. I think the digital culture has prevented people from interacting, and there are a lot of young people who are having less and less sex these days. While it was getting higher and higher after the AIDS drugs came along, it started to go back to the levels of the 70’s, but now it’s down. They call it the Great Sex Recession.”

When Mitchell, then an optimist after the unlikely success of his jubilant queer genre musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, intended for Shortbus to reclaim the language of pornography for mainstream art cinema, he feels the gulf between those two branches of movie-making has only gotten bigger. in the last two decades. “The film is now being released at a time when sex has been largely confined to porn – even nudity has been removed from movies and TV shows these days. There is no sex, and certainly no real sex. So in a weird way, porn won.” He pauses, then quickly clears 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.”

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Shortbus, meanwhile, still feels radical in its portrayal of sex on a spectrum from banality to euphoria, sometimes beautiful and often hilarious. You certainly can’t turn to porn to see a scene of a handsome, hard-bodied gay man singing The Star-Spangled Banner on another’s ass – Mitchell’s film took that peculiar gap and followed it. Furthermore, his film was a response not only to pornography, but also to the more severe aesthetics of sex in auteur cinema.

“There was a lot of experimentation at the time, at least in independent cinema, with sex on film,” he says, citing the work of filmmakers such as Michael Winterbottom, Patrice Chereau, Carlos Reygadas and Catherine Breillat. “All those people were pushing him, but I found a lot of the sex to be a little somber, you know, certainly valid in some cases, but lacking in humor. So I wanted to tie it into my New York Chosen Family punk aesthetic.”

The raucous underground sex club in Shortbus was inspired by a friend’s lounge that combined 16mm film screenings, vegan food and group sex. “I was fascinated by the equation of art, food, drink and sex as the important things in life. And all of that is gone. Even the place where we filmed it, which was a strange collective where parties like that happened and bands like Le Tigre started, that no longer exists. People are still there, but the scene has been decimated by digital, by apps, certainly by Covid. I didn’t expect the movie to be a time capsule.”

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

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All of which is not to say that Shortbus was a walk in the park, even in the 2000s. Mitchell explains that it took almost three years to finance the film after it was cast: the independent golden age of the 1990s had already passed. finished. “Literally the year after we got out, the financial crash happened,” he sighs. “I think of our party in Cannes, after the premiere at 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 the movies, especially the small movies. And then our distributor [ThinkFilm] went bankrupt, which is why Shortbus has been out of circulation for so long.”

Raphael Barker and Sook-Yin Lee in Shortbus.
Raphael Barker and Sook-Yin Lee in Shortbus. Photograph: AP

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

He and Kidman hit it off so well that they collaborated again on 2017’s less well-received How to Talk to Girls at Parties, his last film to date, and he’s in no hurry to continue. “In the current environment, I don’t know if small movies are really viable right now. Do I want to seek financing for five years for something that no one will see? I’m not sure,” he says. “Unlike other forms that have always interested me: TV series, podcasts, records, musical theater pieces. I’m thinking of a novel now, and I’m doing more acting. I am happy to diversify my portfolio.”

Sure enough, Mitchell has been busy: In recent years, he’s launched his musical Anthem: Homunculus as an all-star podcast series, released a couple of concept albums for charity, appeared on TV in shows like Shrill and The Good Fight. , and will soon be seen as Joe Exotic in Joe vs. Carole, Peacock’s dramatic adaptation of the documentary phenomenon Tiger King. Despite the challenges he faces specifically in film, it is, he says, a good time to be a queer artist in the mainstream, though even he has found the politics of representation of recent days difficult to navigate. He cites a recent controversy over a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Australia, where protests were held against the casting of a cisgender queer actor in the lead role, as an example of self-defeating conscientiousness.

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“First of all, Hedwig is forced into an operation, with no agency, so it’s not exactly the trans story that some people think it is,” she says. “But we’re in a supercharged moment where we’re trying to put the world right very quickly, and the world doesn’t always accept that, and the intentions are good, but sometimes the execution is clumsy. And then Trump and Boris laugh from above, because we’re doing their job for them.”

John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photograph: AF archive / Alamy

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

Returning to Shortbus, he wonders if he would be criticized today for centering the story on an Asian woman trying to have an orgasm. “Is that my story to tell? Yes, I would say metaphorically and emotionally it is, and so would the actress. But other people would prefer that we only have autobiographies. It was a collaborative film: each actor contributed elements of his life, and that was the joy of it. So I don’t like rules that aren’t contextual. I don’t like to replace one set of authorities with another.”

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

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