At the 59th Cannes Film Festival I stood outside the press conference for Shortbus, by John Cameron Mitchell. Two large plasmas hung on each side of the foyer area leading to the conference room and journalists started huddling around the screens to watch the proceedings. Inside, Mitchell, who was flanked by his producer and the cast patiently fielded questions from the press, his usual good-humored snarl displayed prominently.
This was a noteworthy moment in film history: an American filmmaker who auteurs the most sexually graphic film to date gets to show it in Cannes and promotes it as well his country’s promise of intellectual freedom and laissez-faire (at least among the coterie of American journalists present), this in one of the most sexually permissive societies. The irony of this event was of course not lost on yours truly. I knew Mitchell from Hedwig and also the IFC film series he used to host—he then fell off the TV grid. Shame, I liked the wry humor and boyish naivete, an ambiguity which made Mitchell endearing.
I had barely heard anything about Shortbus, the festival was strife with rumors, it’s an orgy, it’s a porn-film, it’s this, it’s that, ladida ladida ladida. One of the journalists present inside the press conference asked Mitchell about pairing a sexually-explicit scene involving three men with the national anthem. Mitchell’s tongue-in-cheek answer that free-for-all sex is patriotic made me cower. Shortbus was blacklisted forever in my mind.
Several months went by. I got a call from my editor, telling me that Mitchell would be available for an interview and a photoshoot in Manhattan within 48 hours. I had to screen the film and get my brother to sort out studio space quickly. I came out of the screening room with a bewitched smile. Shortbus was full of nuances, like a thick but lean steak with a buttery-soft center. No soporific sentimentality or vacuous attempts at educating the masses. A cast of frustrated New Yorkers who get together at a private salon to engage in various social and sexual activities, it’s rather like the salons littéraires frequented by Verlaine and Rimbaud in the 19th century, where absinthe is substituted with ejaculate.
Yes, Shortbus was sexually graphic but not in an arousing way. In fact, in Shortbus (named after the schoolbus for special children) sex is bestowed a strangely antiseptic quality. Bodily fluids are visible in Shortbus, but eroticism’s ignis fatuus is notably absent. The movie documents New Yorkers’ frustrations well (couples not getting along, etc.) but maintains a certain lightness throughout and we can be grateful for that. There’s a little bit of Mitchell’s own perverse wryness throughout and it’s very funny. In a film like this all, roads lead to a climactic conclusion.