John Cameron Mitchell interview: Though he’s a New Yorker at Heart Hedwig creator thinks Portland is a model for the future

While John Cameron Mitchell, creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch was in town for a screening of his new film Shortbus (see review below), I was able to sit down with him and keep him from having fun while in Portland. I’m sure a half an hour with me from worth it.

Me: Why did you feel it was important to make a film that included explicit sex? Could this film have been made without or would it have been pointless?

JCM: People don’t say, “Could Hedwig have been made without the songs?” It’s aesthetic choice. It’s interesting that that is a common question because it implies that we’re scared of it. So yeah I could have. I don’t think it would have been as involving, as penetrating, literally, and as emotionally bracing. I could have put drops in an actor’s eye to make him cry when he couldn’t actually feel it but I think an audience knows when you’re not being honest. Granted all acting is simulation but in this case I didn’t want to patronize the audience. When I see films with adult themes and emotionally mature and suddenly it dissolves out of the sex I feel like I’ve been treated like a child. It’s condescending. I know people will come to the film expecting to be titillated but by the end of the film it’s the last thing you’re thinking about. There’s so many layers and other things going on that if you’re only thinking about the sex at the end I actually think you have a problem.

So it’s almost as if sex is the score?

It is. It’s the music.

And yet other films tend to use music to over-dramaticize a moment. Whereas Shortbus felt more real.

Or they use it to idealize. When you’ve cut away from the sex in a sex scene you automatically assume it was good unless immediately they talk about how bad it was. So Hollywood sex is always good and the same and never seen. Or it’s porn, where they’re clearly not having a good time.

And yet couldn’t that make your film more titillating for some, in that its real?

It could, but were you?

I wouldn’t say the point was arousal but I think because it’s real it can be sexy in a way that other films or porn can’t be.

It wasn’t my goal. Most of the sex is either rather desperate or funny. No good sex, except maybe when Sofia sees the beautiful couple. Because watching good sex is more for arousal than drama. Some day I would like to make a porn film from what I learned with this.

Did the characters’ final self-discovery come from sex or somewhere else?

I’d rather let an audience decide that but I wouldn’t say sex will save the world. Sofia’s inability to orgasm was connected to other things in her life. Sex is always about something else. I don’t see that as a cure-all. It’s the prism through which I tell the story. James [becoming the receptive partner] does not save him. Maybe some people assume it will save them and that’s sad because it’s got to be connected to something else.

How did 9/11, as well as the big blackout, affect the characters decisions both sexually and otherwise?

Everyone in the world is affected by 9/11 whether they know it or not. Facing mortality ennobles people. It can also destroy people. I try to hang out with people that it ennobles. When the blackout happened everyone thought it was another attack even though it wasn’t. But it made for a beautiful, harmonious moment. In our case it’s a metaphor for a blackout caused by the characters trying very hard to connect. That contributes to a national power grid overload. Everyone’s got email and cell phones and we’re all trying to connect and its blowing up the system. The characters are trying to get over the numbness in their lives and feel something by connecting, and the system fails because of that. And yet everyone had to stop and just look around and see what was there, no cell phones no lights, just the people you’re with, and a flashlight or a candle. You could see the best in each other.

These things seem to connect together in a way that could say that NYC has the possibility of imploding that can be a bad thing on the surface but in a way that might bring people together? Is NYC heading for something big metaphorically?

The country is. And New York is just a metaphor for the country in many ways. As is Los Angeles, but in a more dehumanized way. Places like Portland are anomalies, a very healthy anomaly. Places like Portland are models for the future. But as the cultural capital of the world [New York] has a future. I’m an optimist about New York, and in general, but I’m a worried optimist.

Do you think that Shortbus is the first in a line of movies that will use explicit sex without being pigeonholed?

I can think of 35 films in the last 10 years that have used explicit sex. Mostly foreign. There’s nothing groundbreaking about that. What’s unusual is that it’s audience friendly in a more commercial way and its American. The others are also often quite subjective and negative, but that’s their vision. I’m more of a crowd pleaser. I don’t want to pander but I come from theater, Broadway, so I want to have a good time and think and laugh. So maybe it will usher in some crowd pleasers.

Or portray sex more positively…

Or more complexly.

What kinds of responses have you seen from various communities within the queer community?

I wanted a diversity of sexuality and gender but not as many lesbians auditioned. Maybe that’s because I’m a guy, maybe because the history of lesbian sex portrayal on film is for titillating straight men. There’s a certain suspicion. And I think guys can separate sex from other things so much easier. Otherwise there’d be female glory holes. I wanted to have as much variety as I could but obviously you can’t cover everybody. My straight brother told me I didn’t have enough straight characters. But as a sexual minority you are aware from metaphor when you’re younger. You’re aware of surfaces and what’s behind them when you’re queer. Often you have you lie. So when you lie you’re aware of other lies. And in a way what is art but a beautiful lie? So a film isn’t a thing, it just represents it. I grew up watching straight love stories and I’m quickly able to identify with one or more of the characters, whereas straight people don’t have that advantage. They aren’t asked to look at a queer couple and identify. But when their girlfriends drag them to Brokeback Mountain they can say, I’ve felt like that sometimes. When something was denied me and terrible things happened…That’s called metaphor. And queer people understand them better.

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