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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."

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