April 21, 1963 – John Cameron Mitchell:
“I have seen so few films in which the sex felt really respected by the filmmaker. Hollywood too often shies away from it or makes adolescent jokes about it. Sex is only connected to the negative because people are scared of it.”
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this movie” was all that my husband could say after watching Shortbus (2006), an utterly unique film that is about sex, except that it is more about everything else in our lives. Like porn, there are people engaging in sex; yet we feel the genuine emotions coming from each sex act.
Shortbus is a bohemian sex club in New York where, as one character puts it:
“….people come here to use ‘the motherboard of life’ in order to find the right connections“.
People from all walks of life gather at Shortbus to find something, whether through sex or deep conversation.
At Toys In Babeland, the former feminist sex shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, sales increased 30 percent right after 9/11. A year later, the number of babies born in New York hospitals was up 20 percent. These statistics form the background for Mitchell’s enchanting film, the most unexpectedly honest, moving, funniest film about 9/11 yet.
The film is not a riveting docudrama. Instead, Shortbus takes place in a fantasy post-9/11 New York City played in the film by an ingenious handcrafted miniature straight out of Wes Anderson.
The varied New York characters seek post-traumatic sexual healing in the aftermath of so much death so close to home. Some are looking for an orgasm, or the Little Death, a way to lose their fears and pain in a larger psycho-sexual release. Others are searching for someone or something to make themselves complete, a physical and emotional “other half” as depicted in Mitchell’s musical, Hedwig And The Angry Inch:
But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine
So we wrapped our arms around each other,
Trying to shove ourselves back together
We watch the characters intersect with one another, and help, solve, or simply listen to each other’s dysfunctions. The characters are straight, gay, bisexual and transgendered, the labels do not matter, they are just people trying to relate to one another through the wonders of sex and love.
Shortbus is full of wounded, fractured people. Just as Hedwig personified sex as the new Berlin Wall that was also a bridge, the characters in Shortbus focus on sex as a way of getting through to each other while getting in touch with themselves. It’s a randy romantic roundelay, in the tradition of Max Ophuls‘s serially sexual French comedy La Ronde (1950). Polymorphously pornographic, yet it doesn’t feel the slightest bit obscene. That’s not easy to pull off. Shortbus‘s sex isn’t a metaphor for something else; everything else is a metaphor for sex, the lens through which this porn is viewed and realized.
The eternally youthful Mitchell, who wrote and directed, appears briefly in an orgy scene, developed the stories and characters with the help of his cast, who were chosen for their willingness to open up and engage in on-camera sex of all sorts. And that they do. Yet, how often does sex in a film make you laugh out loud? Intentionally? There is a woman who tries so hard to have an orgasm that each strenuous effort puts her that much further from her goal. How about three intertwined naked men performing a pornographic version of The Star Spangled Banner using orifices that would have sent Francis Scott Key to an even higher note.
Shortbus is a poignant, playful pleasure. By the time the great Justin Vivian Bond warbles Everybody Gets It In The End for the closing credits, the cleansing, melancholy humor, has rewarded you with something quite magical, moving, and even healing. I think you will probably be deeply moved by the sadness, honesty, and compassion of the interweaving plots of this film. I know I was.
Some critics and every religious conservative harpy insisted that the film is “pornographic”. Mitchell says that the dictionary defines porn as:
“…material created and viewed for the primary purpose of sexual arousal; the sex in Shortbus is often purposefully de-eroticized to remove the cloud of arousal to reveal emotions and ideas that might have been obscured by it. Sex, like music, is a universal language. We want to use it to introduce character, evoke emotion, propel the plot.”
Due to her participation in several unsimulated sex scenes in the film, Sook-Yin Lee, who plays Sofia, a professional dominatrix was nearly fired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where she hosted a radio program at the time. She previously played Kwang-Yi, the electric guitarist in Hedwig‘s original band. CBC relented in the face of support for Lee from the public, and from Gus Van Sant, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Stipe, Moby, Julianne Moore and Yoko Ono.
Mitchell’s first professional stage gig was playing the title role in Huckleberry Finn, a 1985 Organic Theater adaptation in Chicago. His first New York acting role was again as Huck Finn in the big Broadway musical Big River (1985). He originated the role of Dickon on Broadway in The Secret Garden (1991), and he appeared in the original cast of the Off-Broadway musical Hello Again, based on the 1897 play La Ronde. He received Drama Desk Award nominations for both roles and can be heard on the original cast recordings of the two shows.
He appeared in the original cast of John Guare‘s Six Degrees Of Separation (1990 – 92) both Off-Broadway and on Broadway, and starred in Larry Kramer‘s Off-Broadway sequel to The Normal Heart, The Destiny Of Me (1992), receiving an Obie Award and a Drama Desk nomination.
Mitchell has done a ton of television. He played an e-book editor on the 2013 and 2014 seasons of HBO series Girls, and as Andy Warhol in the 2016 season of HBO’s Vinyl. He is especially juicy as a character based on the despicable fascist queer Milo Yiannopoulos on CBS All Access’s The Good Fight opposite Christine Baranski and a recuring role in Season Four of Amazon’s Mozart In The Jungle opposite Gael García Bernal, plus he has had major film roles, such as a homicidal musician in Band Of The Hand (1986), a Polish immigrant violinist in Misplaced (1990), and a teen poet in Book Of Love (1990). Mitchell had a single line (“Delivery!”) in Spike Lee‘s under-appreciated Girl Six (1996) as a man auditioning for a porno film.
Mitchell is a founding member of the Drama Department Theater Company, for which he adapted and directed Tennessee Williams‘ Kingdom Of Earth with Cynthia Nixon and Peter Sarsgaard.
As a filmmaker, he directed one Academy Award-nominated performance: Nicole Kidman in the devastating Rabbit Hole (2010). How To Talk To Girls At Parties (2017), a sci-fi rom-com is directed and written by Mitchell based on the 2006 short story of the same name by Neil Gaiman. It stars Elle Fanning, Kidman, Ruth Wilson, and Matt Lucas.
In 1998, Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask wrote a little musical, Hedwig And The Angry Inch, and Mitchell played the lead role. The Obie and Tony Award-winning show is about a genderqueer East German rock musician chasing after an ex-lover who plagiarized her songs.
Mitchell directed and starred in the film version, winning Best Director at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. He was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actor. Both the play and the film were big hits and have spawned cult followings around the world.
The 2014 Broadway production of Hedwig starred Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall It was directed by Michael Mayer, and won four Tony Awards, including for Harris and Hall, and Best Revival of a Musical. Mitchell reprised his performance in the role of Hedwig on Broadway for a limited run in early 2015. He received a Special Tony Award for his return to the role.
In 1985, at just 22 years old, Mitchell came out as gay to his family and friends. He came out publicly in a New York Times profile in 1992.. He is a Radical Faerie, which was influential in the making of Shortbus. During filming of Shortbus, Mitchell had his first sexual encounter with a female, performing oral sex on one of the female cast members in the orgy scene.
During the pandemic and with the political and social upheaval, Mitchell produced a “distance-defying, community-built benefit album”, New American Dream, released last fall, it benefits a trans justice group, Intersex Justice Project and the Dr. MLK Scholarship Trust Fund.
Up next: Joe Exotic, a limited series for Peacock, has Mitchell playing the infamous Tiger King, Joe “Exotic” Schreibvogel with Kate McKinnon as Carole Baskin. In case you were asleep during the quarantined summer of 2020, Schreibvogel is the larger-than-life zoo owner in Oklahoma who loses himself in his hatred for Baskin. Mitchell:
“I’m thrilled to take on the role of this modern folk antihero. Joe and I are the same age and like him, I grew up queer in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas so I feel like I know a little bit about this guy and his desperate attempt to conquer an inhospitable world.”