News

Sex is real in 'Shortbus,' and inspiring to some

Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press

TORONTO--When asked if he considered sex to be dirty, Woody Allen once famously replied, "Only if you're doing it right."

John Cameron Mitchell, writer and director of the sexually graphic and sex-positive "Shortbus," begs to disagree.

"As much as I love my film being compared to Woody Allen, I believe that sex, in all its physical, emotional, psychological permutations, is a beautiful and spiritual thing," Mitchell says. "And it's the one thing that connects us all - or at least has the potential to if we open ourselves to it."

"Shortbus" attracted attention at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals as "the movie in which people have real sex." And they do, in every way possible and at least one way that might have been considered impossible. But nearly every festival these days has its "real sex "; few of them ever make it out of the festival circuit and fewer still employ the sex for any reason other than to shock or titillate. But in Cannes and Toronto, audiences came away from "Shortbus" with a very different reaction.

"People told me that they found it inspirational," says Paul Dawson. He plays an ex-hustler named James whose relationship with Jamie has reached an impasse of intimacy. The actor-musician who plays Jamie, who appears under the rap-like nom de plume of PJ DeBoy, is Jamie's partner in real life. "'Sweet' is a description I've heard a lot," says DeBoy, who is J Crew to Dawson's Abercrombie & Fitch. "Life-affirming is another. It's been really, really gratifying."

Mitchell wrote "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a rock musical about the victim of a botched sex change operation that was born in a gay cabaret in Manhattan. Eventually it would work its way to Broadway and win a host of theater awards before becoming a movie in 2001. In an interview at the time, Mitchell confided that for his next project, he wanted to make a movie in which characters had unsimulated sex on screen as part of the story.

"The last thing in the world I wanted to do was make a porn movie," says Mitchell. "Not because I have any moral objection to porn, but to me, it's usually boring, and often just ugly. And pretty much always phony. It's about someone doing something to someone instead of with someone. I'm like that judge who says he couldn't really define pornography but he knows it when he sees it. And `Shortbus' isn't it."

Shortly after the release of "Hedwig" came 9/11, and like most New Yorkers, Mitchell was overwhelmed by grief, and by the outpouring of community and comfort he would find "in the least unexpected places. From that, I knew what I wanted the movie to be."

While "Shortbus" has been compared to Woody Allen's New York love letters, the style is closer to sophisticated HBO soap operas like "Six Feet Under" and "Big Love," in which the lives of people seeking love and family interconnect as they deal with individual personal issues.

James and Jamie are trying to heal their strained relationship by visiting a couples counselor named Sofia, played by Sook-Yin Lee, who has a secret. Despite her adventurous sex life with her husband (proved in an opening montage that cuts between the intimate activities of all the characters), she is, as she optimistically calls it, pre-orgasmic. Other searchers include the bored dominatrix Severin (Lindsey Beamish) and her clients, and the proprietor (Justin Bond) of a kind of sex salon that Sofia visits in an effort to find her mojo. Bond's character might be described as a merger of the Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey characters in "Cabaret."

Mitchell recruited performers in the pages of alternative newsweeklies, desperate to avoid anyone who had performed sex professionally.

He looked at hundreds of audition tapes, but ended up mostly casting people he knew, and having them spends months together creating the characters and improvising, just getting comfortable. When shooting finally began - with financing incomplete and no distributor in place - most of the actors were ready for their close-ups, but Lee, a popular personality on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., admits to having "a large case of nerves."

"I wouldn't say I was scared exactly, just worried about allowing myself to be that free. But my character is uptight too, so I was able to use it. Finally it was, `Just get over yourself, Sook-Lin, just go for it.' "

Lee's employers initially had their own fear of exposure; after learning exactly how much she sacrificed for her art in "Shortbus," her employers reconsidered her employment status and decided she would keep her job.

Because "Shortbus" was destined to receive an NC-17 if it were submitted to the Motion Picture Ratings Board or go out unrated - which it did - it made obtaining financing even more difficult than usual for an independent film. Mitchell worried it might never find a distributor, since the number of theaters where it could be shown was limited. Mitchell says the response at Cannes convinced the people at ThinkFilm, whom he calls his "patron Saint and sugar daddy, all in one," that the film would find an audience.

"They're pretty brave to get behind a film like this at this time in history," Mitchell says of ThinkFilm. The company's previous releases include "Half-Nelson," an acclaimed drama about a teacher addicted to crack, and the dirty-joke hit "The Aristocrats."

"We're living in this culture now where we are encouraged to be frightened of everything, including relationships and our own bodies. That makes this a political film. It stands up for joy."

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.

Books

The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.

Music

Siren Songs' Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.

Music

Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.

Music

Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.

Books

Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.

Music

Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.

Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.