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Naughty but Nice

Shortbus director John Cameron Mitchell imagines a world free of sexual repression

John Cameron Mitchell, director of the film Shortbus. (Steve Carty/CBC) John Cameron Mitchell, director of the film Shortbus. (Steve Carty/CBC)

At one point in the film Shortbus, a glittering, cross-dressing madam figure sweeps an arm toward the salon she is hosting — rooms crowded with sex, conversation, films, television, music and more sex — and announces, “It’s like the ’60s, but with less hope.”

In fact, director John Cameron Mitchell has made a film that optimistically suggests sex can save us, an attitude that reflects ’60s-free-love far more than the credit-card-enabled online lust of our present age. “There’s more repression top-down around sex from the government right now. Mainstream sex is shutting down, like the Janet Jackson thing, but there’s more democratization on the web, and this generation is exposed to sex early and everywhere,” says Mitchell. “With Shortbus, we definitely wanted to remind people that sex is in all our lives, and shouldn’t be compartmentalized for consumers of porn or bleak art films. If this is a bit of a sex-education film to remind people that sex is part of a whole, then great.”

It is a safe bet to say that Shortbus is the most sexually explicit film ever to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. The surprisingly sweet narrative, about a frustrated sex therapist and the damaged gay couple that points her towards sexual salvation, is pushed forward by hardcore images of sex and intercourse, gay and straight, including a memorable moment in which one of the men in a threesome sings The Star Spangled Banner into another man’s anus.

“I’m a very patriotic person, and America is supposed to be the place where you come when you’re persecuted elsewhere, where you can figure out your own desires without interference,” says Mitchell. “He’s singing the American anthem into another man’s a------, and what’s more American than that?”

The line is delivered with a tiny grin. Mitchell, who is boyish and feather-light in a striped sweater, comes across as both mischievous and deadly sincere. Shortbus is a serious labour of love. A few years ago, Mitchell posted an open casting call online for video submissions from people who were willing to be filmed having sex — and who possessed some special skills, too, like being able to perform “auto-fellatio,” which appears in the film. Mitchell received over 500 submissions. Weeding out “the dumb and the humourless,” Mitchell put together a core cast that met in New York periodically over two years to work together on what was then called the Sex Film Project. Sook-Yin Lee, host of CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera, submitted a tape about her own upbringing in Lynn Valley, a tough suburb of North Vancouver.

“I looked straight into the camera and talked about growing up in this armpit with gangs, lots of s----kicking in Dayton boots. I was the Asian dork girl, all these levels of alienation and then on top of that, exploring my sexuality,” Lee says. She makes a bomb-exploding sound.

Mitchell thought Lee could take that turmoil and turn it into the character of Sofia, a sex therapist who has never experienced an orgasm.

Sook-Yin Lee, centre, with Shanti Carson and Jan Hilmer in a scene from Shortbus. (ThinkFilm)
Sook-Yin Lee, centre, with Shanti Carson and Jan Hilmer in a scene from Shortbus. (ThinkFilm)

“I talked to my friends, I talked to sex therapists, and there are lots of women out there who aren’t having orgasms,” says Lee. The research in New York included spin-the-bottle sessions and field trips. “The whole crew went to an actual salon in New York that’s sort of like the one in the movie, where you have to have the passwords, and it’s full of people, and sex will erupt right beside two people having a political discussion. The Shortbus salon was more like Alice in Wonderland or Willy Wonka — not exactly a utopia but a place where sex and art can co-exist,” says Lee.

Shortbus shares the exuberance of Mitchell’s first feature, the trans-everything globetrotting cabaret Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but Shortbus’s bright energy is darkened considerably by the shadow of 9/11. Scenes are delineated through a camera dipping in and out of a beautiful, three-dimensional map of Manhattan; at the bottom of the diorama is the empty square of Ground Zero.

“9/11 created a pervasive aura of fear that was exploited by certain people,” says Mitchell. “Right-wing preachers explicitly say that the immigrant who is trying to take your job, the sexual minority who is trying to redefine marriage, are equal to the terrorist as threats. These people actually equate a fear of sex with a fear of the other, a fear of the invasion.” For Mitchell, Shortbus — the name of the sex salon in the film, and the school bus taken by outsiders — is as political as an anti-Taliban tirade: “There is an interesting study that says the cultures that have the most laws against sexual expression are the ones that are most violent.”

But after all the preparation, these abstract ideas about the dire necessity of reclaiming sex came down to actually filming it. For Lee — whose character has acrobatic, if unsatisfying, intercourse with her husband in the film’s opening minutes — once the cameras rolled, she had spent so many hours building trust with her co-stars that she didn’t panic.

“I remember thinking, you have committed to an audacious thing in cinema, a scary thing. You have committed to this,” she says. “What you’re seeing is me ditching the mirrors. I didn't look at mirrors, I didn’t look at monitors. I just tried to inhabit that difficult place that my character is at.”

Lee’s bosses at the CBC grumbled when they found out about the part, but a cadre of artists, including Yoko Ono, Francis Ford Coppola and Moby, wrote letters supporting her freedom of expression. Lee says it’s been worked out and there have been no repercussions. “[The CBC] just didn’t understand what I was doing. It was a good lesson in how important it is to communicate honestly about these things, which is part of the movie, too.”

The CBC didn’t need to worry: Shortbus’s sex lacks the erotic cues of porn. No cheesy music, no false pleasure, and all sex is bathed in humour or sadness. One money shot is followed by a man weeping.

“It’s only porn if it intends to arouse, and that was never our intention,” says Mitchell. “Shooting it wasn’t a good-time, big-time orgy, either. Every actor had different needs and different fears. Some were more nervous before, some were more nervous after. Some dropped out. For some people, the emotion in the scenes that were not sexual was almost as difficult.”

Mitchell grew up a Catholic army brat, and stripping down in public is still not high on his own list of fun. But Lee challenged him to follow the lead of his cast, and Mitchell does appear (unidentifiably) in one scene performing oral sex on a woman.

“I thought I’d do something I’d never done before,” he says. And how was it for this gay man to go down on a woman on screen? “It was better than craft services.” He laughs. “I’ve used that line before.”

Shortbus opens in Toronto on Oct. 6, with other Canadian locations to follow.

Katrina Onstad writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

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