Out of the Celluloid Closet

How Art Saved John Cameron Mitchell

@if ($featuredImageMeta && !empty($featuredImageMeta['_wp_attachment_image_alt']))@endif

The minute I saw the first tweet about a re-release of John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus, I screamed. Was I alone in my apartment? Yes. Was the effect felt halfway around the world? It sure was. 

Because the thing about this movie is, if you know, you know. Devotees of Mitchell’s work—most famously the 2001 musical masterpiece Hedwig and the Angry Inch, as well as the recent musical podcast “Anthem Homunculus”—are well aware that his 2006 film Shortbus, a frank, queer-as-fuck film about sexuality and loneliness, has been just about impossible to stream for years. Until now: for the film’s 15th anniversary, Oscilloscope released a new 4K restoration in late January. In theaters across the country, for the first time since the pre-Internet age, fans could delight in the tender, aching heartaches and sexcapades of a group of New Yorkers trying to connect with each other and find a way to cum, often against tremendous odds. 

We spoke to John Cameron Mitchell about how much as changed between then and now, from sex to Internet literacy to storytelling itself.


John Cameron Mitchell: It’s funny Henry, I just had someone say to me, “How dare you invent Grindr,” in ShortbusAnd make no money from it.

INTO: How dare I have this idea and then make absolutely none of the, yeah, none of the profit. Yeah, it’s true.

I never run after money when I, when I should sometimes. I just. Maybe I’m an old socialist, I’m embarrassed by it. 

That’s a good thing. I think. 

I know. I just. When you get older, you want the money. Tiger King’s the money for last year. So that was fine. That helped me out.

I was watching the Fran Lebowitz documentary that came out last year and she’s just like “I’m broke. I have this apartment.” It’s just like the best people who you’d think would be rich by now and are just…not. 

Well, because she won’t write anything. 

That’s also true. If we want to get really real.

I love hearing her talk. And I met her and her buddy Lisa Robinson at a party and they were mean girls. They were mean. 

NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 26: John Cameron Mitchell attends the after party for the THINKfilm premiere of “Shortbus” directed by John Cameron Mitchell on September 26, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Oh, no. That doesn’t surprise me at all, actually.

I thought they would have liked Hedwig or something. But it was like they were just bitchy. 

Fran Leibowitz has an interesting relationship to queer culture, which is like a little bit old fashioned. She was saying like, “People come up to me and they’re like, ‘Thank you for gay rights.’ And she says “I’ve never been activist.”

No. She’s a connoisseur. She’d talk about how her friends were connoisseurs. And she had, she loved hanging out with gay men. She was the lesbian fag hag intellectual. You know. And fag hag, which I think of as a positive term.

Absolutely. 

I mean, I was a dyke mike.

That’s a good one, I have never heard that!

Dyke mike or dyke tyke I’ve heard, too.

Yeah, I’m definitely both of those things as just like, a trans weirdo who is, just. 

Works all the rooms. 

Precisely, But that’s yeah, that Grindr comment is hilarious. Because I just saw a short film today about how before the World Trade Center, went down it was like, a huge cruising spot. 

Really? 

Yeah like, the cops never went down this one staircase, so you could hook up there. And then like talking about how Giuliani, you know, at the height of the AIDS crisis, was just closing down back rooms, and that like the World Trade Center was like this spot. And that now that’s completely lost. And then I was thinking about Shortbus in terms of like, the moment that it occupies, and not only is it likem the opposite of COVID, it was also kind of like pre- the internet’s first boom, and pre-cell phone literacy.

In every way. Pre-internet porn being everywhere. Pre-hook up apps. It was a liminal time. 

L to R: Paul Dawson as James, Jay Brannan as Ceth, PJ DeBoy as Jamie, Raphael Barker as Rob.

The movie is very predictive of all the, all the ways in which we sort of like, pursue sex or talk about sex now. And at the time, it seems to have been considered porn or something. Iwas watching all the interviews and people were like, “So is it porn or not?” Like that was the thing people were interested in.

I know, back then it was like, it’s just funny. And we didn’t have a lot of pushback either, back then. It was welcomed. It wasn’t on the right-wing radar, so, you know, it was fine. The most interesting thing, culturally, apart from just people’s personal experiences with it, was Korea. The just, the film was banned. And the distributor took it all the way to the Supreme Court who un-banned it, changed the censorship rules. So we changed the law there about, you know, sexually explicit material. And, but what cracked me up most was that the Supreme Court of Korea all had to watch Shortbus

They became lifelong fans, everyone in Korea is now. 

I think someone even said, “This film is distasteful, repulsive but has a right to exist.”

It’s just so interesting to see a film that is about sex, but it’s largely about how people are alone within sex or people are alone within their bodies.

Well, when you have the internal life, obviously a novel works very well for that. And film uses different techniques to break that open. Sometimes it’s a therapy session. Sometimes it’s an autobiographical film, like James makes, which turns out to be a strange suicide note. And that was somewhat inspired by Jonathan Caouette, the man who filmed Tarnation, who has a cameo in Shortbus as the guy who’s taking all the brownies and saying: “These are not all for me.” And his audition tape had bits of Tarnation, which, have you seen Tarnation?

A very long time ago, I should rewatch it. 

It’s a beautiful film. You know, he survived his mentally ill mom by videotaping his whole life. So imagine this character James so depressed and preparing a suicide, but also not wanting his boyfriend to be alone. So, you know, kind of pushing the three-way relationship because he doesn’t want him to be alone after he kills himself. It’s so sad. 

But I feel that that film did crack open his mind’s eye. You see him trying to literally crack open a piñata when he’s a little boy, you know, it’s like “What’s inside?” He puts his hand inside this piñata, and the film for me is him cracking open himself or his boyfriend, which is a strangely aggressive and tender act. 

“I’m like, no one’s touching her clit, who wrote this?”

And there’s Sook-Yin’s character who cannot, who is happy in the self-help therapy mode finally cracks open herself and finds the therapist in Severin, and talks about the male gaze and her father watching her. You know, between the male gaze and the gay males, she’s squeezed. And then she finds out more about Severin, who also needs therapy. 

Who doesn’t!

And they even experiment and Severi has an orgasm almost in a little date rape-y way. In the filming, we were trying to forge ahead while being sensitive. So saying to the actors, “Tell me what you need.” I would explain to the actors that I never wanted them to do something they don’t want to do, but I wanted them to challenge themselves, sexually and otherwise, to challenge the audience about their own fears. And to remind them that sex can be scary in a certain context, but in and of itself, it is a mutual thing. It’s what you do with it. It’s not something that’s inherently going to destroy you. It’s a tool. It’s part of us. And just as, you know, I’m using sex the way I use music in Hedwig. You know, a delivery system to propel plot, personality, exposition, and, in effect, the beginning of the film is a sexual overture, right? You get to know all the hits, you know, all the characters before we enter and they’re all having an orgasm or a fake orgasm at the same time.

Very ahead of its time.

I faked them too, honey. It’s not just a female thing.

I feel like everyone does. And it’s under-discussed. Or that the part of the problem sometimes with trying to film sex scenes, at least in more conventional Hollywood movies, like it does sort of have this very traditional structure where it it ends with like the dude coming. 

Coming, and then the woman never came. It’s done for him, so it’s done for both of them.

And it’s always like, three seconds long, and up against a wall.

Or doggy-style, and I’m like no one’s touching her clit, who wrote this? 

Yeah. Propaganda. Right. It’s all penetrative sex. 

And young people have become, I think, more conservative about sex lately. Certainly young people are having less sex, and I blame the internet for that. You know, it’s like, it’s messy, it’s IRL, you know, it’s scary. People are breaking up by text. They’re having sex by sext, you know. Young people are getting a little puritanical. And sometimes it’s getting conflated with their wokeness, so it starts to feel a little Andrea Dworkin. If anyone’s having sex, someone is being exploited.

Right, like all sex is,

Penetrative and therefore dangerous. 

Like all porn is bad at the source or something. Or, yeah, all sorts of voyeurism. Which was another thing I appreciated because it’s like, usually the character of the voyeur is such a like damning archetype, like a “peeping tom” or whatever. And like in this movie, it’s just like, no, voyeurism is like a pretty common thing that we participate in.

And it is sex. It is. It’s like, young people are now defining sex as only penetrative, you know, vaginal or anal sex. I’m like, “Guys, are you, are you your grandparents?” Come on. You’re not Bill Clinton, ‘I had no sexual relations with that.’ But we all know sex is a lot of things. And you start to get a kind of commodification of sex which comes out of digital culture, comes out of branding and social media, and there’s a little bit of my proto-hippie-punk origins of sex that have started right before AIDS and were certainly affected by it was like, “make your own sex.” You know. There’s things that some people do that could be fun. But teach. Learn. Don’t copy. Nowadays there’s a kind of transactional “What are you into? This is what I’m into, I will not deviate.” I’m like, I’m not in the stock trade on this. How about, “What are we into?”

I think someone even said, “This film is distasteful, repulsive but has a right to exist.”

Right. Like how do you know? It’s always different depending on who you’re with. 

It’s always different. And the joy of it is in discovering that, and the surprise. Not just, you know, ticking the boxes. In Shortbus I ate pussy for the first time. And it was fascinating. It was really it. I thought I was doing it wrong, because I thought the clit was gonna get as hard as a penis. I don’t know if it, maybe it can sometimes, is that possible?

I feel like every clit is different. Like that’s the thing. I mean, obviously, every dick is also but like, you know, it’s more blunt.

Usually it’s the hardness of it. It’s kind of like a, but it felt like a kind of slightly deflated water balloon, which was a nice texture. That’s probably more normal, right? But it was time to try new things. It’s a safe place. I was the intimacy counselor. Everyone was the intimacy counselor. Even nowadays, it would be like “How dare you make this film, you’re a white, cis gay guy, she’s an Asian woman. That’s not your story to tell.” I’m like, it is my story to tell. Metaphorically all the characters I can relate to. And every actor should be able to relate to their character whether they are them or not. Cancel acting if you really believe you can only tell your own story. Cancel all narrative art except autobiography. 

And even then it just like boils it down to like, “Oh, you have this one story to tell and it’s the story of your life as this identity.” Like no. People have multiple stories.

That’s one of many.  It is true. Ultimately, we just have a bunch of people who are branding themselves, no matter how deep they go. And, to me, the greatest things in my life have been due to going places I’ve never been, writing characters I am not, getting to know people who are moved by that to make their own pieces. I’m not Hedwig, but I understood the feeling of finding your other half. And it saved me from a proscribed life, a limited life. Art really saved me. 

And Shortbus was in some ways the most perfect experience in the making of the film. Hedwig was hard, it was too hard because I was directing, it was not fun. Shortbus was a perfect experience. It was sadly in the middle of it my boyfriend died the year before we shot.

Oh God, I’m sorry. 

So I was pretty wrecked person. But the experience held me up. It kept me afloat. And I love when people say that it was useful to them at a certain time of their life, you know. That’s a beautiful compliment.

And the fact that now, like, for so long it’s just been impossible to see Shortbus.

Yeah. I like that it’s a pent-up, blue-balls need. ♦

Read More