John Cameron Mitchell comes baring a warning, especially targeted at people who haven’t seen his second movie Shortbus and particularly the younger people in that group. “You’re going to be triggered by this film—and I like that,” he said in an interview with Jezebel last week regarding the 2006 movie he wrote and directed, which is being rereleased in theaters Wednesday in the form of a new 4K restoration by Oscilloscope Laboratories. “There’s good trigger and there’s bad trigger.” Shortbus, undoubtedly, falls into his vision of the former.
The writer/director/actor/musician’s follow-up to his beloved 2001 musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has lost none of its audacity in the more than 15 years since its release. What that comes down to is what audacity frequently comes down to in art: unfiltered sexual expression. Many members of the Shortbus cast of largely unknown and/or first-time actors and “sextras” had sex on camera—the genitals in motion and the different depicted forms of penetration were technically hardcore, and yet the film isn’t porn, per se.
“I’ve always felt that porn, which I enjoy if it’s good, just didn’t have enough bandwidth to handle the complexity of sex,” Mitchell told Jezebel. “Sex is connected to so many parts of our lives that are traumatic but also joyful. And it’s an absurd thing. Aliens coming down, seeing us in those positions would really wonder what’s going on. Are we feeding on each other?”
In the past, Mitchell described Shortbus’s sex as “de-eroticized.” It was presented in such vivid detail, at least in part, to provide emotional clarity in the characters his film followed: Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix who yearns for connection; Jamie and James (PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson), a gay male couple opening up their relationship; and Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a couples counselor who’s never had an orgasm. His characters convene and explore their bodies and those of others at a salon/sex party called Shortbus, emceed by New York nightlife legend Justin Vivian Bond. With lightness and mirth, the film explores the unending process of self-discovery via sexuality that can occur when one is engaged and open to it.
But the on-screen sex also consciously revised mainstream (and mainstream-ish) cinema’s tendency to gloss over the sexual connection of its characters. Mitchell described the sexless depictions of relationships one often sees in Hollywood films as “lying,” “hiding,” and “scared.” “They go to bed and then they cut to the morning and you’re like, ‘Are you implying that that wasn’t interesting?’ What are you scared of?” he said. Mitchell’s refusal to pan away was as critical of film as it was as our cultural impulses to downplay the importance of sex.
“If we can educate our kids earlier about sex, even with films like Shortbus, that have a loving and comic point of view, maybe you would have less abuse of sex,” he said. “I’m not saying repression is the only cause of abuse because there’s certainly cycles of it that have not to do with just repression, but repression fans the flames. When you say it’s a bad thing and hide it away, people believe that.”
Still, looking back he concedes that, “We were a certain time capsule—I was hoping we’d be a bit more of the future.” If there was little like it before (like Nagisa Ōshima’s 1976 sex-drenched arthouse classic In the Realm of the Senses, to which Shortbus pays explicit tribute in the form of a sex toy used by one character), there’s been less even after. In terms of incorporating actual sex into their narratives, only a few arthouse favs of recent years come to mind: Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake in 2013, Gaspar Noé’s 2015 movie Love, and 2014’s Nymphomaniac by Lars von Trier.
The making of Shortbus was as unconventional as its finished form suggests. Mitchell cast via an audition website that went up in 2003, specifically calling for people who were comfortable having sex on camera. His concept was inspired by time he spent at Radical Faerie gatherings (“which have a feeling of a bit of a queer Burning Man”) and his friend Creamy’s CineSalon, where, Mitchell explained, “he’d show films and there’d be group sex.” Shortbus was designed to capture the post-9/11 spirit of New York, during which Mitchell recalled “there was a strange solidarity in New York.”
“There was a kindness for a while there,” he said. Looking back, he described Shortbus as “a bit of a last gasp.” To his point regarding the time-capsule nature of the project, Mitchell observed, “Digital culture and covid has crushed getting into the same room and sex in general.”
Mitchell whittled 500 responses to the audition website down to 40, which was then cut to nine who had major roles in the film. Over the course of about two and a half years, Mitchell worked with his actors on their characters. “I was like, ‘Bring what you want to bring to the character. I will tell you what is interesting if you’re willing to go in that direction,’” he remembered. “And if they didn’t want to: Fine, we go somewhere else.” A structure and script were developed, but once the cameras rolled, the actors were encouraged to absorb the screenplay and then put it into their own words. Mitchell previously described this effect as “more like paraphrasing” than proper improv.
Mitchell, who grew up Catholic, described Shortbus as “my own little therapy, as well.” He “grafted [his] own stuff onto” the character of Jamie (played by Paul Dawson, who famously ejaculates into his own mouth during the opening scene). “I really had complexes about sex and the character of Jamie, who has never been fucked and never let someone inside metaphorically, comes from that,” he said. A gay character who describes himself as a former mayor of New York City, Mitchell said, was inspired by Ed Koch, the allegedly closeted mayor of New York during the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, which ravaged the city (its gay population, in particular) during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Mitchell pointed out that during one of the movie’s salons, a character forgives this former mayor character “whether he deserved it or not.” But did Mitchell forgive Koch, whose inaction was widely interpreted as contributing to needless suffering and death?
“I don’t know. I don’t know him,” answered Mitchell. “Perhaps I was forgiving self-hatred.”
Notions of forgiveness and its apparent absence were clearly at the forefront of Mitchell’s mind during our conversation, which was rather relaxed and open-ended. I pointed out that though Shortbus is very much about sex, the overall effect of its presence suggests that even after the age of supposed full development, people can change and/or learn new things about themselves. Mitchell mused on this, drifting over to the topic of cancel culture and the perceived current societal imperative of ideological purity. “I’m not a cancel culture person,” he explained. “I believe in taking people out of action who need to be taken out of action. But generally, that involves due process.” He recalled being hit on and harassed as a young (perceived) gay man in Hollywood, “the way a young woman would [be],” and said that at that time, in the mid-‘90s, it was just something one accepted. He’s noticed a paranoia amongst straight friends who worry that they’re toxic, and, responding to this notion, Mitchell suggested that there’s all kinds of toxicity out there: “toxic femininity,” “toxic transness,” “toxic non-binariness.” The last one he apparently felt uniquely equipped to observe “being nonbinary myself.”
“It’s funny. I guess I always was,” he said a bit later regarding his non-binary identity. “I mean, most people, if they really think about it, are. I was terrified of my feminine side till Hedwig, and then Hedwig just kind of loosened me up. My male and female energies are flowing in tandem now. Society, of course, calls them male and female. You might define them the way you want. I’m just not a binary person, you know? Hedwig was more of a plea for non-binaryness than for transness because the character is, you know, mutilated. I am too old to change my pronouns because I can’t remember my phone number, you know? But I applaud the movement. I think young people very get very rigid about labels and the appropriateness and the pronouns. I think as you get older, you forget about it. Just like, ‘Oh yeah, okay, whatever. Call me what you want.’”
Mitchell’s off-the-cuff vibe seemed to be guided by the deep sense of security that comes from being allowed to be outspoken without being punished for it. “I’ve been playing nothing but queer villains over the last few years, and that’s paid for my pool,” he joked (he’s played roles on Hulu’s Shrill and HBO’s Girls). He doesn’t actually have a pool, but he said that he did buy a house with the money he made from the upcoming Peacock series Joe Versus Carole, a narrative based on the events portrayed in Netflix’s lockdown smash The Tiger King. “He’s an anti-hero,” said Mitchell of the real incarcerated man he’ll be playing. “He’s someone who is reprehensible and admirable at the same time. I love those roles.”
Acknowledging that his movies tend to be flops during their theatrical runs but accrue followings over time, Mitchell said that he paid no real cost for making a movie as brazenly sexual as Shortbus—save being referred to as a “fringe filmmaker” at one point, which he said he didn’t care about, anyway. Looking back, he doesn’t even see weaving actual sex into a narrative whose heart is at least as swollen as its genitals to be any kind of risk.
“I don’t think of spending your time doing things you want to do as a risk. It’s a risk to not do that,” he said. “It’s a risk to sell your soul. It’s a risk and to do stuff that you’re not proud of. If you make a half-assed film, half-assed people call you. You build it, they will come to it imitating it.”
He continued: “Your soul can shrink and you suddenly go, ‘What was I doing this for?’”