John Cameron Mitchell: Let's talk dirty

Hollywood likes it sleek and perfect. Arthouse cinema prefers it ugly and 'difficult'. But in the new film 'Shortbus' the sex is explicit, funny and very real. Jonathan Romney chats up its director, John Cameron Mitchell

It's a hard fact that bums on seats don't necessarily equate with other body parts on screen. Over the last few years, nudity, graphic sex and the kind of imagery traditionally equated with hardcore porn have found their way into the respectable mainstream of art-house cinema. In France, director Catherine Breillat has hired priapic Euro-stud Rocco Siffredi to spout nihilistic aphorisms, while porn actress Coralie Trinh Thi co-directed the very explicit feminist revenge thriller Baise-moi. In the US, Larry Clark has made a career portraying teenage sex and its discontents, most recently in the most successful section of the patchy art-sex anthology Destricted, while the ever-modest Vincent Gallo had Chloë Sevigny perform fellatio on him (or, sceptics insist, a convincing prosthetic stand-in) in his quixotically ludicrous road movie The Brown Bunny.

All this is manna to the media, but it means surprisingly little at the box office. While Michael Winterbottom's explicit 9 Songs caused a flurry in Cannes (where journalists are under orders to rustle up three flurries a week), it barely caused a ripple when the film eventually hit British screens. And surprisingly, even Cannes was only mildly stirred by this year's out-of-competition screening of one of the most graphic films ever to penetrate the gates of the Palais, John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus. But while Shortbus outraged no one, it was admired and certainly well liked - and that seems true to its spirit. It's a film to charm, rather than outrage. Its mission, Mitchell says, was "to respect sex again in films - so many films only associate it with negativity, or only with eroticism and arousal. We tried to remove some of the arousal to see what's left over."

Mitchell's cheerful American independent venture might be described as a polysexual Manhattan soap opera. It's an ensemble comedy about a group of likeable youngish people of all persuasions, who meet up in a sex-and-culture salon called Shortbus - so named because while many American kids ride the long school bus every morning, the "shortbus" is for the gifted, sexually dissident few. There, Mitchell's characters shed their erotic and psychological inhibitions, and generally (since the film carries definite traces of Hair and other hippie-era utopian musicals) let it all hang out.

And oh, how it hangs out and, indeed, spurts. There are few holds barred in Shortbus, which includes a very crowded orgy, a gay threesome that proposes a novel way to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner", an excitable young man adding further splashes to a Jackson Pollock painting, and an eye-popping and extremely uncomfortable-looking feat of auto-fellatio. Yet no one could possibly be outraged by Mitchell's tender, benignly boisterous comedy of sexual manners, which New York's Village Voice called "a triple-X midnight movie with a heart of squarest gold".

When the film was released last month in the US, its distributor, ThinkFilm, was careful to downplay the potential provocation: "We're not trying to say this is a hot movie," was the claim. As a result, perhaps, Shortbus has so far taken only a modest gross of just under $1.5m, and has notably failed to elicit fuming objections, in the nation where Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs once caused conservatives to prosecute arts centres. John Cameron Mitchell admits that he's a little disappointed on this score. "There hasn't been any public controversy. I think the Republicans are just busy with their own scandals. It would probably help the film if there was a bit, but I don't like to argue with people who refuse to see the film."

Even the most fervent moral campaigners couldn't easily find much to object to in Shortbus, if they looked beyond its slightly happy-clappy gospel of orgasms for all: the film preaches a message of tolerance, honesty and good humour. However, in the context of American film's generally neurotic attitude to nonconformist sex, and especially as an example of late Bush-era cinema, Shortbus strikes you as an altogether radical anomaly. Surprisingly, though, Mitchell claims that he didn't set out to make the film in a campaigning spirit.

"It was just an aesthetic exercise. The question was, how could I use sex in a way that I hadn't seen in a film? I knew that it would be New York, I knew that I wanted a diversity of sexuality. Later, what the actors brought, and just living in New York after 9/11 certainly affected it, and Bush affected it - everything that happened to us in the last four years affected it."

Shortbus certainly comes across as the most mainstream-friendly of explicit films: it shouldn't be too forbidding to anyone used to Sex and the City. "I knew the sex would be a challenge for some people, and one way into that challenge is to remind people of the humour associated with sex. A spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, and all that. I use sex as a metaphor for other parts of these people's lives. Hitchcock was the master of metaphors for sex because he couldn't show it - trains into tunnels and boiling water... Since we can show it, sex becomes metaphor for something else. Obviously, a woman not being able to have an orgasm means more than just sex."

Everyone does, however, achieve the desired climax in Shortbus. All the orgasms in the film are real - "All but one," Mitchell specifies, although he won't say which one. "When we say 'unsimulated'," he admits, 'it's a bit of a generalisation - even in life there's a bit of simulation going on. Not every shot of someone's arm or ear is attached to someone with a hard-on." Mitchell found his actors by advertising for people who wanted to make a sex film. He whittled contenders down to a final cast over an extensive period of auditioning and salon-based bonding, having initially eliminated the exhibitionists (basically, he says, anyone who was "just whacking off and talking about how many people they'd fucked").

Shooting the film, Mitchell found that a large part of his job as director was to relax his cast so that they felt comfortable being filmed so intimately. But his performers were in any case fairly free of angst and inhibition: "My sexual life and the life of the actors is, I guess, less grim than Catherine Breillat's or Vincent Gallo's." The solemnity of Breillat's approach - her last essay on sex was called Anatomy of Hell, and boy, she wasn't kidding - is an attitude that Mitchell has little patience with. Sex, he argues, "is the funniest thing there is. It demands incongruous juxtapositions - you're suddenly in this position, what are you meant to be doing? 'I'm a dignified human being!' The best sex is the kind where you're both giggling, where you're aware of the complexity of sex, how it's funny, someone just farted - you don't see much of that in film."

Mitchell doesn't appear in Shortbus himself, but chances are, you wouldn't recognise him if he had. He has been most widely seen modelling a selection of Dolly Parton-esque wigs as the transexual glam-rock diva in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the 2001 film he directed from his stage musical, co-written with Stephen Trask. An off-Broadway hit that became a wider cult success - one of its numbers was even covered by the very un-Hedwiggian Meat Loaf - the show made Mitchell's name after years as a hard-working stage and TV actor. You can't detect much of Hedwig, or hear her foghorn bellow, in the trim, composed figure sitting in a London hotel bar today, his gently sing-song voice barely rising above a polite sotto. He has now cast off her persona, but Hedwig was once an inseparable part of him, Mitchell says. "I think it helped me like myself more, playing Hedwig. I remember being afraid of doing drag when I was younger because I didn't really like my feminine side - most gay guys at some point are told that that's the worst part of you, so that becomes a negative thing. Certainly I don't feel the need to do drag any more - or act any more."

Born in Texas in 1963, Mitchell was the son of a Glaswegian teacher-artist mother and a US Army general, and spent his childhood travelling with them between army bases, in America, Germany and Scotland. A particularly traumatic time was his spell in a Benedictine priory boys' school in Scotland, where he was bullied a lot: "I did take comfort in the vespers and compline. I might have become a monk if I hadn't come out." But his spiritual urgings didn't chime with his awareness that he was gay: "You go to hell for that - we're all going to hell, according to the Pope, because we've probably all masturbated and forgotten to confess it. Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten," Mitchell says dryly, then after a perfectly timed pause, "There's apparently a sex club called Killing Kittens."

It was at the priory school that the seeds of Hedwig were sown: "It was the early Seventies, so I was really into T Rex and Sweet. Top of the Pops was hysterical then: everyone was all glammed out, but there was still, for many of them, this kind of expression on their face, because they'd just come out of Hull and they were ill at ease with what they were wearing. Except for David Bowie, who was another species." Mitchell is shocked when I tell him Top of the Pops has been axed. "Where will the Scissor Sisters play, then?"

But it's clearly Mitchell's experience of the following decade that most haunts the sexual politics of Shortbus, with its apparent nostalgia for a pre-Aids utopia, or proselytising for a new post-Aids utopia. "I actually came out the year that Aids hit the front pages," Mitchell recalls of the early Eighties, "so there was this mixed feeling about it - excitement that life's finally begun, but it was completely tied up with mortality and danger and politics. I decided I'm not gonna stop with sex. That's what I'd been fighting for: romance and sex and the combination of the two."

After Shortbus, Mitchell is likely to turn his hand to something more mainstream-friendly, a children's fantasy film. But he hasn't got sex out of his system, and speculates that he might even get round to making a porn film proper. "Now that I know how to work with people having sex and relax them, it might be interesting to work with something that is actually erotic. But I actually think plot interferes with arousal. So if I made a porn film, I wouldn't be very narrative at all." But it might, you imagine, be every bit as sweetly ebullient as Shortbus. After all, Mitchell says, "Sex is a great thing that gets you out of the house."

* 'Shortbus' is released on Friday

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game