All the paints in the paint box: John Cameron Mitchell on “Shortbus”

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By Dan Persons

IFC News

[Photo: ThinkFilm, 2006]

Into a desert of retrograde Puritanism and institutional denial, director John Cameron Mitchell (who made his directorial debut with 2001’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) posits “Shortbus,” a New York-based oasis/salon where a Bush-fatigued populace can converge for art, music, conversation, and, oh yeah, unbridled sex. Into this fictional Eden, he casts, amongst others, a pre-orgasmic sex therapist (Sook-Yin Lee), a gay couple seeking a relationship-cementing third (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy), a dominatrix with intimacy issues (Lindsay Beamish), and a stalker with an uncommonly poignant raison d’etre (Peter Stickles). The film that follows has gained notoriety for the unsimulated nature of its sex scenes — dig past the sensation, though, and one finds no shortage of wit, plus a reassuring empathy towards characters striving, with varying degrees of success, to find the things that will make them whole.

This could’ve been easy: a potted plant positioned just so; a cutaway to an above-the-shoulders C.U. Why go so explicit, particularly when it might open you up to more criticism?

The kind of criticism it might court, I’m excited about. It raises a dialogue about censorship, about erotophobia, about our society, about the powers that be. That, I think, is a healthy dialogue. Originally, it was an aesthetic choice — it was more, why not use all the paints in the paint box? You don’t ask, “Could you have done ‘Hedwig’ without the songs?” Well, yeah, but it’s an aesthetic realm in which to play. And since sex is so revealing and so about our personalities, I really think it connects to a lot of parts of our lives. It can tell you a lot more about people than just looking at them having tea.

For a film so centered on eroticism, “Shortbus” pretty much states that sexual freedom isn’t the complete answer.

No, I don’t say at all that free sex is going to save us. But there are other films that examine people through other appetites or activities. You could say that something like “Requiem for a Dream,” in the way that [the characters] interact through the drug world, that language, through the sharing of the needles and all that, there’s a poetry in that, whether you like it or not. It’s just another language through which we can reveal character. And this is another one. We’re catching characters in moments of crisis, and, in fact, the sex is quite unsuccessful and ridiculous. I found that when we were rehearsing and the sex was going great, it was quite boring… unless you were doing it.

You’ve included the credit, “Story developed with the cast.” Was it always in your plan that the actors would be involved in the creation of the story?

It started with the form: How can I use sex in a new way? Okay, the actors will be nervous; why not do what I’ve always dreamed of as an actor, which is to create a script through improv? Everyone wants to work with Mike Leigh, everyone loves Robert Altman — actors flock to them because they give them leeway and they give them, in some ways, authorship of their own characters. I realized that this was really necessary because of the sex, so the actors could feel comfortable creating their scenes, creating their characters, so that there was a mutual agreement on everything, with me as a guide, a bit of a benevolent dictator.

Did working with mostly newcomers make this process easier?

In the auditions I saw very clearly people who hadn’t done many films or acted at all. Some of them were naturals at improv, remembering what they had to do every take, but as soon as they had a set script, they sucked. I worked that way with “Hedwig,” so it just seemed like another aesthetic exercise: Let’s try something unusual for this unusual film.

What did the actors bring to the story.

They brought their stories, their characters’ backstories, their characters’ names. I asked them to come up with a broad, overarching emotional goal for their characters. They all had goals, and taking those goals and their backstories, I wove them together into a script.

We did this for two and a half years, so there were all kinds of stuff that was emotionally important to them as characters. They would exaggerate elements of their own lives — for example, [Sook-Yin Lee,] when she was young, she didn’t know what to do with her body and didn’t know how to be free and sensual in any way. I just exaggerated that by making her non-orgasmic, made it more interesting. Paul had been depressed in the past. It wasn’t suicidal, but [I turned] it up. I turned it to ten, for all of them.

Let’s talk about Tobias, the Mayor [Alan Mandell]. This clearly is the character who’s closest to a real-life analogue…

I don’t want to say that it’s… you know…

Let’s just say that there are suggestions of a certain, allegedly closeted New York mayor…

Well, we say imagine this very dramatic situation… Might a person who’s closeted and actually affected other people’s lives, what if he acknowledged that in some way and sought some sort of forgiveness? We don’t really point to any person, we let it… you know… we let it percolate. But it was always a character in my mind.

Why was it important to include him?

Well, for many people, that’s the most affecting scene. He starts out as sort of a Greek chorus, telling us what New York is: A place where people come to be fucked and forgiven. He’s not just a chorus, he’s a protagonist, just like all of them, seeking some redemption from a real or imagined sin. A lot of [people] come here [to New York] thinking there’s something wrong with them, and then realize there really isn’t. There’s that chicken-and-egg thing: If you think you’re bad, you do bad things. This is a refuge for the outcast, the persecuted, and those who were branded sinners. [The mayor’s] the… I guess he’s the father of… He’s like a messenger to me. He’s seen it.

I tend to look at the politics of sex as a momentum type of thing: Once you’ve moved forward, you don’t go back. But is that still true these days? Do you feel there’s a regression going on in this country?

There’s more like a lateral movement. You’ve got a lot of people who are really scared about the propulsive movement of the sixties and seventies, that they felt pushed into something they weren’t ready for. The backlash to that is kind of a shutdown, a clampdown for many people. Oddly, I think fear of terrorism is linked to fear of sex. In fact, someone like Falwell explicitly called the terrorists and the sexual minority equally responsible for 9/11 — it’s kind of amazing to hear that kind of clarity about a fear.

Anything that’s a fear of the unknown gets equated, in a weird way. There’s been a sort of crush-down from top-down — from conservatives, government — this crush-down on sex. But it doesn’t go away — you don’t vaporize sexual interest, you just push it into different realms. It goes into porn, rather than something more multivalent or colorful… like life, like relationships, like an openness in a healthier way. It goes into porn — which is sort of flattened sex — but I think it moves around, rather than reduces. And I hope a film like [“Shortbus”] can bring it back into connection with other parts of our lives, for those few people who will see it.

“Shortbus” opened in New York on October 4, Los Angeles and San Francisco on October 6, and expands to other U.S. markets starting on October 13 (official site).


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.