Could Shortbus(2006) be made today? And even if so, would audiences stand for it? These are the questions John Cameron Mitchell is being asked over and again as his second feature returns to theaters in a new 4K restoration. An ensemble piece developed over a period of nearly three years of workshopping and improvisation—Mitchell cites Mike Leigh, John Cassavetes, and Robert Altman as inspirational models—Shortbus takes its name from a weekly gathering of New Yorkers—including a gay couple thinking about opening up their relationship, a sex therapist who has never experienced an orgasm, and an emotionally disconnected dominatrix—who party, drink, nibble, and have lots and lots of sex.
Shortbus “veritably hums with erotic vigor and philosophical playfulness,” writes Guy Lodge in the Guardian, adding that it’s “a presciently liberated film with its eye on the future of sexual connection, in all its poly, nonbinary possibilities.” But in 2022, we find ourselves “living through a remarkably chaste period of cinema, perhaps marked by post-MeToo caution and responsibility, as filmmakers reconsider the boundary between exuberance and exploitation. With its copious unsimulated sex scenes, Shortbus certainly raised some eyebrows in 2006—but it could well be a lightning rod today, throwing a wrench into debates over who is allowed to depict what on screen.”
Born in El Paso, Mitchell grew up on military bases scattered throughout the country before landing his first professional acting role at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1985. He headed straight to New York, where he appeared in a string of prestigious productions both on and off Broadway. In 1998, working with composer and lyricist Stephen Trask, Mitchell wrote Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an exuberant rock musical about an East German singer forced into a sex-reassignment operation that goes terribly wrong. The off-Broadway production won an Obie and Mitchell won the best director award when he took his 2001 adaptation to Sundance.
Hedwig was a hit, but as Lodge points out, when it was staged in Australia recently, there were protests against the casting of a cisgender queer actor in the title role. “First of all, Hedwig is forced into an operation, without agency, so it’s not exactly the trans story that some people think it is,” Mitchell tells Lodge. “But we’re in a supercharged moment where we’re trying to correct the world very quickly, and the world doesn’t always take to that, and the intentions are good but sometimes the execution is ham-handed. And then Trump and Boris laugh from the top, because we’re doing their work for them.”
Shortbus “was my cheapest project, but perhaps the one that brought me the most pleasure,” says Mitchell, talking to Mitchell Beaupre at the Film Stage. It’s a movie about “the gifted, the challenged, the weirdos, the ones that don’t fit in, the differently-abled, the overly smart—it’s all of the misfits who’ve always been my people working together. That’s why I get upset when overzealous woke culture tries to separate us by looking for trouble and looking for differences.”
Early in the spring of 2003, five years before his first book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, was published, Mark Harris set out to write a book about the making of Shortbus. He tells the story of the aborted project at Vulture, and not only is his piece the one to read about this particular film, it’s also simply one of the best on just about anything that you’re going to come across for a while. Harris vividly sketches the hopefuls arriving in New York for a series of nerve-wracking and ultimately exhausting auditions as well as Mitchell’s frustration when financing falls through—and the camaraderie of the cast that stands by him and the project to the end.
Rewatching Shortbus, Harris decides that the film probably could not be made today, “not because of its sexual explicitness, although that would doubtless be scrutinized through a stern contemporary lens of power dynamics and problematics and representation but could probably survive all that and maybe even wink at it, but because of its optimism. It’s a movie full of joy and delight—not just in sexual discovery and self-discovery, but in the awkward, itchy, uncomfortable, embarrassing stuff, in the fact that sex is messy because people and their feelings are messy. In a way, the movie’s conviction that the mess is part of the fun seems like its most transgressive aspect.”
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