“Music and sex are the two universal languages.”
So says John Cameron Mitchell, filmmaker with a cult following, a latecomer to directing whose long history as an actor is readily apparent both onscreen and in person. Speaking during the Q-and-A session after the screening of his film Shortbus at Images Cinema as a part of the Queer Film Festival, which runs through tomorrow, Mitchell was winningly, slyly candid, peppering a great deadpan with attention-getting shockers and illuminative personal statements. Both Shortbus, a film known largely for its graphic depictions of sex, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which he wrote, directed and starred in spectacularly as an East-German transsexual rock singer, evince a fascination and familiarity with performance paralleled by his eminently quotable responses.
Mitchell referenced the importance in Shortbus of the “male gaze, or gay males,” sneaking in insights under the cover of cleverness. His films work to break down that distinction, making the edged wit of delivery commensurate with the content. In Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hedwig’s performance constitutes her character – her history is inseparable from her music, and the glory and fascination of her persona are defined in the fierceness and sensationalism with which she stakes a claim on her identity. The whimsical tone of both films toys with authenticity, swinging from heartfelt confession to mocking insouciance. The films and their characters struggle towards truth and shield themselves with armored wit, the play of “I’m not serious – but I am – but I’m not – but I am” becoming a mantra and a buffer to live behind.
“If you’re going to spend years on something, you better be little scared of it,” Mitchell said, a claim which resonates with the lengthy process by which he arrived at his two finished films. Hedwig and the Angry Inch was a hit off-Broadway show long before the movie was made, and the final cut of Shortbus was the culmination of three years of labor. The time and care invested in the projects’ developments are evident in the final product – both films are imbued with a sense of deeply sympathetic humanity and characters that feel organically evolved instead of written.
For Shortbus, Mitchell posted a call for audition tapes online, making sure to be clear about the openly sexual nature of the project. He received 500 tapes, called back 40 people and cast the movie. Mitchell then worked with the actors to find in their own lives inspiration for their characters, and together they developed the characters and the script over the next two-and-a-half years.
If he had to choose, said Mitchell, he prefers the process over the end product – “because that’s the part that’s your life.” He called Shortbus a “perfect experience in that way” and remains good friends with all the actors from the film. If you don’t like the people with whom you work, Mitchell said, “Then you lose the point. You have a piece of celluloid but two years of hell.”
When watching Hedwig and Shortbus, this approach makes sense. These are films that feel not only cathartic but therapeutic, a way to give life to the characters and work through the audience’s problems alongside their own. These are films that revel in their themes rather than developing them, that take their time in creating worlds that are ends in themselves.
That said, Mitchell is a director with a very specific sense of what he wants to achieve. The sex in Shortbus serves several purposes. One of those, by Mitchell’s own admission, is marketing. Another, in his own carefully chosen metaphor, is “to break the audience’s hymen.” But mostly, the sex exists to induce a sense of community. “When you go through it, by the end, you’re all laughing and realizing it wasn’t that scary after all,” he said. “When you feel after a movie like you don’t want to be alone, like you’re grateful to be around others.”
Shortbus also offers a joyous celebration of the power and the possibility of sex, a worldview that stands in stark contrast to most mainstream American films. Here, sex is funny, awkward, frustrating, surprising and finally, a tool for healing. In Shortbus, sex is the mechanism around which physical and existential problems pivot, change places and resolve.
Shortbus animates its world, showing a fairy tale-like rendition of New York City during the 2003 blackout. This New York both lends a touch of immediacy to the film and unites all of its characters in the same slightly fantastical world. Mitchell confessed to growing up fascinated by fantasy and comic books, a sensibility that plainly makes its way into his films.
But he also continually returns to another source for his work: his strict Catholic upbringing. He cited its influence primarily in two ways: first, in creating a potentially repressive mentality where release becomes all the more imminent and necessary; second, its mythology. Mitchell drew parallels between the ritual, theatrics and fantastical elements of Catholicism and his work; myth and metaphor, absurd but beautiful.
“It doesn’t always make sense, but it forms you in some ways, for better or for worse,” Mitchell said. “The miracle of strangers sitting in a darkened room and feeling similar things is a different experience than watching it alone. Not necessarily better, but I think necessary. Some people associate it with religious practice, with sports, but they all serve the same purpose: to unify and ease the burdens of living.”