As a teenager encountering “Shortbus” for the first time, I felt a shimmering world of likeminded individuals suddenly open up in front of me. It was a bit like Dorothy entering Technicolor for the first time, only the Tin Man was a goth dominatrix and the Cowardly Lion was a pre-orgasmic sex therapist. Sure, movies had moved me before, but never in such a warm, communal way. Here was a group of artists, bohemians, and queer people who were funny, depressed, sexually liberated in some ways and stunted in others.
Like any queer, alternative, or outsider kid at the time, I knew and loved John Cameron Mitchell from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” but “Shortbus” felt like something completely different. His films are always hilarious, provocative, and deeply felt, but in “Shortbus” he weaves multiple compelling narratives (not an easy feat) into a gorgeous revery of a bohemian New York that was already slipping away. Set in the early aughts, the film has a timeless nostalgia about it, like a time capsule of some bygone era of sexual freedom that maybe everyone feels they just barely missed out on.
Yes, “Shortbus” is unique because it features real sex — some of the most playful, acrobatic, and creative sex you’ll ever witness — but it’s also incredibly moving. Set during the blackout of 2003, the film follows a group of emotionally stunted characters navigating sex and desire in a post-9/11, Bush-addled New York. There’s a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm; a gay man obsessively filming himself as an artful suicide note; and a disaffected dominatrix.
Throughout the years that “Shortbus” was unavailable (unless you had the foresight to buy the DVD), it took on magical properties in my mind. Images of a three-way blowjob, the vegan orgy, and the self-fellatio lingered in my mind, and I forgot how affecting the story is. After years out of print, Oscilloscope has overseen a beautiful 4k restoration of the film, making it available for the first time since its 2006 release.
IndieWire recently spoke to John Cameron Mitchell about his second feature film over a video call from his new home in New Orleans, where he was relaxing after filming in Brisbane for “Joe Vs Carole,” in which he plays “Tiger King” legend Joe Exotic. Naturally, he did not hold back about the state of sex onscreen, queer identity politics, and the current plight of indie filmmakers. That conversation has been condensed and edited below.
INDIEWIRE: How has the response been from audiences seeing “Shortbus” for the first time?
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: It was really fun to see it with a crowd for the first time in years, and to hear those laughs still working, and the young people going, “I didn’t know sex could be like that. I’m so used to Grindr,” which I kind of invented in the film.
I know! That’s so crazy!
I should have been able to make some money, but I never think of that.
You’re like a prophet.
I’m a futurist. I’m a commercial futurist. I think Yenta would’ve been a lot cuter than Grindr.
I always remembered loving the film for the sex and the comedy, and then when I saw it again recently, I was just so moved. I had sort of forgotten how incredibly moving it is.
Aw. I think it is, in retrospect, too. We’re also mourning a certain kind of… It’s not just COVID, but digital culture has worked to stamp out getting in the same room a mix of people, not just your own gender identity or your own political affiliation, but just a bunch of people who are quite different coming to a regular place that’s not a bar. But it honors art, music, food, sex in the same way. The salon, to me, is a perfect model of civilization. It’s where surprise can happen, but also you feel safe. And the blackout, were you in New York for the blackout?
It was the most beautiful moment in New York. The cops let you drink and build bonfires, and people were so kind to each other. There was no fighting, no looting. We thought it was terrorists. When it wasn’t, we were happy to be alive. So that feeling is what moved me most, watching it last night. When the marching band comes, I’m like, “Oh, where is our marching band again?”
Shortbus was a real party, right?
It was a dance party that I did with friends. It sprang from Stephen Kent Jusick, who used to run the MIX festival [New York’s now-shuttered underground queer experimental film festival].
That makes sense. It felt just like MIX to me, I thought you were parodying it.
Yeah, that was definitely… Stephen Kent Jusick was the inspiration for the salon. He had one called Cinesalon where he’d show 60mm films. There’d be vegan food and then sex in his apartment. And it was this queer, radical, fairy-ish vibe that was new to me. After “Hedwig,” I really jumped into it. And many of the people from that scene are in the film, combined with some nightlife people. There was burlesque going on. You see Murray Hill and Dirty Martini and the World Famous *BOB* and the people who were ascendant in that scene.
It feels nostalgic, but not necessarily nostalgic for the early 2000s, because you were going for your own kind of nostalgia, right? So it feels very timeless.
I hope that “Shortbus” and “Hedwig” never feel like period pieces. Even the way they’re shot, I want not to be able to go, “Oh, that looks very early ’80s or late 2000s.” I mean, I’m a creature of the ’70s, for sure, but…I like the timeless feeling about it, because the bohemians of every age had things in common. I feel like sometimes the counterculture of today is more sexphobic than it used to be.
Let’s have some pleasure, and that’s why Sook-Yin Lee’s character of Sofia is so moving to me. She’s a hip, woke person, therapist, but there’s this frozen interior. She doesn’t want to simplify it, but in that crazy flotation tank scene with the dominatrix, you start to see, okay, the male gaze has frozen her to her own self and it might take the gay males to come to the rescue.
The male gays.
They’re like, “Come to the Shortbus.” And Justin Vivian Bond is the guide, is the Virgil to her Dante, and here’s the circles of pleasure, and jump on in. Sofia’s every young person today, as well. I wonder if I could make “Shortbus” today. I think financing and distribution would be very difficult. Because sex has disappeared from film and television. Nudity’s almost gone now. And online porn has triumphed. They own it. They own sex now, and they dice it and slice it so they can sell it, and they make you decide whether you’re a top or bottom when you’re ten years old. …Capitalism won.
Do you think porn owns depictions of sex?
Yes. I’m not saying they should or, in reality, do, but in terms of sex being presented on film, mainstream or even independent film has foresworn it. They’ve given it up, because it’s too scary. There’s too many people saying someone’s being exploited and consent-based issues in intimacy. Imagine an intimacy counselor on the “Shortbus” set. Imagine…a “Shortbus” intimacy counselor would be like, “May he put his arm inside you now? Is that okay?”
How did you handle that?
From the beginning, I said, “Guys, I want to go places that film hasn’t gone…in a way that I like.” Certainly, a lot of films had used sex, but they were pretty grim, and I wanted something more fun and funny, but still emotionally deep. And so I said, “I never want you to do anything you don’t want to do, but I do want you to challenge yourselves so we can challenge the audience.”
“Shortbus” isn’t about sex. It uses sex as a medium, as a delivery system for ideas and characters and emotions, just like “Hedwig” uses music. Sex is our music in “Shortbus.” We really only did one sexual rehearsal. I just went with what they wanted to do. And they preferred to just wait until we shot it. Sook-Yin said, “Maybe we should do a rehearsal where the people behind the camera are nude, as well.” And my DP and I and a sound person were like, “Okay.” And then when it was time to actually shoot that scene, I said, “Do you want us to be naked again?” She’s like, “No, I’ve seen it.”
So it’s funny. I just adapted to what they needed. And ultimately, everyone felt great. We never had any complaints.
I love the character of Sofia, and I know many cis women can relate to her dilemma. There’s a whole discussion now around who gets to tell what stories. Do queer people own their stories?
Now it’s like write what you know. Stay in your lane. That’s not your story to tell. Is my story to tell an Asian woman who can’t have an orgasm? I would argue yes. All of those characters, I relate to. I’ve faked an orgasm. I haven’t been a woman in the world, which is a different thing, with that male gaze on me, but I understand her paralysis. It’s in imagination that empathy begins. If it’s nothing but autobiography, we are a solipsistic society that can never get together, which is what it feels like lately.
You wondered before if “Shortbus” could get made today. It feels like it was both the first and last of its kind in many ways.
I think of the beginning of the end of that golden era of ’90s and 2000s was… Which they say started with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” in ’89 and ended maybe in 2007 with the economic collapse. “Shortbus” came out in 2006, and we had this incredible, lavish opening at Cannes with a huge concert on the beach and stars showing up, and then the next year it was austerity, and the films were fewer and less expensive. Though our film was only $2 million to make. I mean, it was very cheap for a film. Yeah, I think we might have been the last couple of films that fit into that category that didn’t need to be anchored by a star.
Now, any independent film has to have stars in it, unless it’s made for half a million dollars, and then it’s your mom paying for it. But everything has to have a star in it, because that’s how you get an Oscar nomination and attention. And that can be fine, but there’s plenty of people who aren’t [making films] and need to be… But they just turned their eyes to other forms, to television, to podcast, to stand-up, to theater. And I’m happy to do that myself. I’m working on another fictional podcast series, developing a TV series that’s musical.
There’s more fluidity in those forms, you think?
Yeah. Making “Anthem: Homunculus,” which was my fictional musical podcast, felt very freeing. It was like I could work with Glenn Close and Marion Cotillard and Patti LuPone because they could do their parts in three days. And I could really write it the way I wanted.
I think there’s good music being made right now. I’m not quite seeing the narrative real counterculture right now. I see some interesting TV shows, but in terms of real… Where is the David Lynch of YouTube?
I was hoping for more like “Shortbus,” and there really is nothing like it.
No, there was a couple other films that were working with real sex around that time. A friend of mine named Travis Mathews was trying to do a serious story with real sex, Bruce LaBruce. It did go away after the financial collapse. I’m not sure why.
Maybe the artists have to infiltrate porn.
Yeah. I mean, the only place you could see “Shortbus” for years was on PornHub.
But it was the Spanish-dubbed version. But I like that idea. It’s like periodically, when I see porn, I see someone really doing something crazy, some self-shot thing, and it’s like, “Ooh, that’s… Wow. Good editing.” Reminding you that it’s just another form.