I wonder how many times John Cameron Mitchell will have to answer a variation of “If you’re going to have real sex in a movie, why don’t you have real violence?” when he does press for his excellent new film Shortbus? It’ll probably come up in most interviews, and I can’t decide if it reflects poorly only on the interviewer or on society as a whole. Probably both.
Shortbus is JCM’s long awaited follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch; it’s about a group of New Yorkers whose paths cross because they attend the sexual salon known as Shortbus. There’s a sex therapist (she prefers calling it ‘couples counseling’, FYI) who has never had an orgasm; there is the gay couple whose relationship is inexplicably tinged with sadness; there’s the dominatrix who is unable to make a human connection. And there are others – a lonely male model, a strange voyeur, the flamboyant operator of Shortbus, the drag queen who is an expert on the female orgasm. Many of them have very explicit and very real sex onscreen.
There have been a couple of films that have real sex onscreen, but most of them have been terrible. Shortbus is not terrible. It’s pretty great, in fact, and the sex isn’t there for shock. You could take the sex out and you would still have a movie, but with the sex in you have a much deeper and better movie. The sex is part of the characters and the sex reflects what’s going on in their lives. In one scene there’s a gay threeway and one of the characters sings the national anthem into another man’s asshole – the scene fulfills the “show, don’t tell” dictum of moviemaking by giving us an in action example of how these three men interact, but it also reveals deeper aspects of each man’s character plus it makes a political statement about sex and freedom. It’s also very funny – what else could you want out of a movie?
Shooting people for real, apparently. The “why not have real violence” thing comes up whenever a movie with real sex is released – that old chestnut has already shown up on our message board in a thread about Shortbus. The thing is, that question is barely worth answering – what kind of a sicko equates sexual intercourse with violence? Honestly, if your mind sees the two things – someone really ejaculating and someone really being injured – as similar or related, you probably have very deep and very serious emotional problems. No snark here, just a plea for you to get help before you hurt yourself or someone else.
But the question keeps coming up so it does need to be answered beyond “What the fuck is wrong with you?” I prefer when the question is asked in a more value neutral way, like, “Movies are about illusion, so why do you need the reality of sex in your film?” It’s almost a decent question, although it still reveals a double standard. Here’s the reason: we applaud when an actor gains or loses weight for a role. Christian Bale and Robert DeNiro are both very serious actors because of their ability to gorge on and/or completely avoid donuts. Brad Pitt became much more respectable when he chipped his teeth for Fight Club – look at the dedication this prettyboy has for his role!
Of course not every actor goes to those extremes when playing a role, but many do try to enhance their own reality. You’ll always hear actors complaining about films with a lot of blue/green screen work because they have to imagine that much more, while you’ll often hear actors being rapturous about location work or great sets. The goal of acting is to create reality, and many actors will grab at anything that helps them get into that reality. In many ways that’s the whole basis of Method acting, which isn’t as in favor today as it once once but which I think has infiltrated the mainstream of acting in its own way. A lot of people think that acting is about pretending, but it’s a little more complicated than that – it’s about placing yourself into the character’s shoes. Some do that by projecting themselves, but many do that by dredging up feelings and events from their own past that will give them an emotional reaction that approximates what their character is doing.
It’s also very common to hear actors claim that they do their own stunts. It’s usually a lie – insurance would never allow Tom Cruise to do half the shit he claims he does in his films – but there’s a nugget of truth in there. The fact is that while movies are about illusions, all the best illusions need to have believable component parts – it’s why a stunt done live is always going to work better on film than a stunt done in CGI. It’s why stuntmen still risk life and limb on movie sets – they want to make the illusion as real as possible.
It seems obvious that an explicit sex scene would fall into all of these categories. In a film like Shortbus, where the sex is about character and emotion, the reality of intercourse creates an emotional truth on film. By having the actors actually fuck, JCM removes the level of artifice in the usual sex scene, lending a layer of reality to everything else. But honestly, when it’s all said and done, fucking is a great thing. It’s a fun thing, and it can be an aesthetically beautiful thing. Too many Americans view fucking through two distorted prisms – either the vulgar exploitation of porn or their own sexual life, often pitted with self-esteem and body issues.
Our society lives in unhealthy fear of the sex act, and that fear escalates to sheer hatred when it comes to any kind of “deviant” sex act… like homosexuality. It’s an insane situation, especially when it comes to narrative art. I’m not advocating rampant sex in the street – I don’t even like when people make out in public – but I see all sorts of things on movie screens that I don’t necessarily encounter in the every day.
Not every film needs to have explicit sex, but when the filmmaker feels that it’s necessary, why should that be off-putting or scandalous? The only time I feel comfortable in comparing onscreen sexuality with onscreen violence is when I wonder why it is that we’re completely OK with one depiction – the one where people get hurt and killed – and not OK at all with the other one.