INTERVIEW: John Cameron Mitchell

Posted by · 6:00 am · September 29th, 2006

John Cameron Mitchell might be one of the few true artists working in the film medium today. In his much celebrated feature debut “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the actor/director pealed his own creation from the stage and molded it into a cinematic experience that became one of the most accomplished films of 2001. His electric performance as a shafted transsexual (let’s say almost transgender) rock star reached new heights on celluloid, claiming a lion’s share of critical honors, while his efforts behind the camera announced the arrival of a promising new directorial talent.

Now with “Shortbus,” one of the best films of 2006 and undeniably one of the most thematically potent, Mitchell has found his groove as a speaker to the metaphors of primal and cultural humanity. Glaring through, yet paradoxically past the cardinal sexual characteristics we share as frail co-inhabitants of a wicked world, he has tapped into a method of creativity that reawakens the senses to a commercial medium’s true potential.

“It’s a film about the question we all have to ask of whether we’re going to be alone,” Mitchell explains with a staggering intellectual delicacy. “And sex is just one of the languages we use to not be alone.”

Indeed, if unsuspecting viewers make it beyond “Shortbus”’s riveting opening sequence, they will find a central nervous system of artistry that speaks to deeper truths than the most well-intended of artfully-minded cinema. A bona fide explosion of sexual expression that dictates the film’s themes in vivid detail, the scene climaxes with a puzzling moment Mitchell describes with measured confidence and candor.

“You meet James…who is sucking his own dick. It’s kind of comic but there’s this element of poignancy there, too. Who is someone in their 30s who would try that? Why is he trying to be self-sufficient at this point, to self-fertilize? And then burst into tears? That is my way of introducing the character. Sex can be used as metaphor.”

Therein lays the workings of Mitchell’s unique genius. It’s the standard assumption that inter-character relationships are meant to reveal and reflect the themes of a given film, but to comment upon the human condition through a character’s relationship with him or herself is another level of artistic thinking altogether. Such a motif abounds in “Shortbus”’s eclectic ensemble.

Mechanically, the film is a dissection of community, largely the result of collaboration and improvisation from amateur thespians. It looks at individual and group reality through the lens of sex, detailing an array of characters Mitchell is quick to admit ultimately represented various facets of his own personality.

“There’s a part of me that’s like a stalker,” he admits. “There’s a part of me that’s like a non-orgasmic woman who can’t connect. And I’ve had a part of me that feels like I’ll never be with anyone. But everyone sort of brought their own stuff to it and I just directed it.”

He continues: “We started working on it in 2003, which was when we had our website with our mission statement and our audition to send tapes. It was open call. We avoided agents. [We were looking for] people who could work in an improvisational way, who were smart, who were funny, who were charismatic in some way, a diversity of sexuality and gender.”

The result was a meaningful interface of creative input, one the director found quite different from the experience of his first major creation.

“‘Hedwig’ was kind of developed gig by gig,” he explains, “sort of a solo show with a composer. ‘Shortbus’ was through improv, borrowing a page from Mike Leigh and John Cassavettes. I’d love to work with a very tightly-honed script and very virtuosic actors next time. I’d like to do an opera some day. I’d love to write a novel, make an album. I like to work in a lot of different ways and I love to keep it diverse.”

Set in the culturally booming setting of New York City, “Shortbus” also makes light of our society’s post-9/11 consciousness. One line that sticks out is “You’re taking a picture of yourself at Ground Zero. Do you smile?” It’s a delicate stick and move that actually speaks modestly to what Mitchell describes as President Bush’s favorite weapon: fear. And wrapped up in the natural reaction to what has been considered by many to be an emotionally oppressive regime, Mitchell identifies another pitfall altogether.

“Cynicism seems to be the currency of the day,” he begins, “especially in such a weird, ‘Bush-whacked’ country. It’s like the only comfort some intelligent people have is cynicism, and certainly humor, but kind of a fatalistic humor where you’re powerless and you think nothing’s going to change, which is just as dangerous. I think there are incredible cultural critics today who point out the absurdity brilliantly – ‘The Daily Show,’ Steven Colbert – but the odd thing is there are not a lot of people presenting alternatives. Though our film has a very small audience and doesn’t provide solutions to problems, it provides perhaps a way of thinking that makes sense, which isn’t based on fear, and which is based on this understanding that we all ‘get it in the end,’ in many ways, and we’re all in the same boat.”

Through a delicate assembly of organic ensemble interaction, Mitchell makes his points of love and acceptance, emotional necessity and the power of discourse at every step of the way. From his vantage point, there is hope in community, however one chooses to define it.

“All of these characters are heroes, in a way,” he declares, “because they’re trying to connect. Those who don’t try, those who hide away behind their technology are ultimately not people I’d want to share a drink with. It’s like all this technology that is meant to connect us seems to separate us and just create another shield. The advantage of growing up a sexual minority is you can see there’s surface and then there’s what really is there. You understand metaphor at a younger age because you had to hide something. So art naturally is a refuge for sexual minorities, and all minorities, really, because you’re an outsider and you see it from the outside point of view: satire. Oscar Wilde, Dave Chappelle, all these people have an outsider’s point of view, which is the artist’s point of view.”

There is a murmur of concern in the already growing positive critical assessment of “Shortbus” that the film will struggle to find an audience. Leaving alone the effort a true independent film has to make to stay above water in this era of faux indie excursions fronted by “dependent” arms of major studios, the sheer sexual intensity of the film will keep many at arms length sight unseen. Mitchell seems to understand his film’s place, however, with somewhat minimal concern for his film’s ultimate fate in the vast marketplace.

“I try to have low expectations,” he offers. “There are some people who didn’t like ‘Hedwig.’ Some people won’t like this. Some people won’t like it because of the sex, and some won’t like it because it’s soft-hearted. It’s pretty warm and fuzzy compared to most films. But from my point of view it’s an awareness of gender and sexuality being things that unite and divide us and the humor that comes from that. It’s ultimately a boring thing, your sexuality – inherently neutral and kind of dull. It’s what you do with it that’s interesting.”

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