John Cameron Mitchell How to Talk to Girls at Parties Playboy

The Oppression of Real Sex

For Playboy's ongoing Pride series, the celebrated indie director examines his fearless take on sex

It’s interesting how the actual existence of sex and its place in our lives has changed so swiftly just in 10 years. With [my 2006 film] Shortbus, criticism tended to be more of a right-wing objection to the idea of sex—of real, explicit sex anywhere. We had been taught that the only place for sex on-screen was in porn. I like good porn, but to me, most porn was limited in emotional scope. And certainly with heterosexual stuff, you’re wondering if anyone’s really having a good time and who might be being victimized. But in the best of porn, people are having a good time, they’re being respected, they’re being treated well. So for me, I wanted to detach [on-screen sex] from porn.

Often in the 1990s and 2000s, when you saw a lot of films with explicit sexuality, they tended to be extremely grim and dark, in a kind of depressing way. Sometimes they were beautiful films like [Catherine Breillat’s] Fat Girl—that’s the one that comes to mind right away—but others just felt like they were following a trend. In our case [with Shortbus], I wanted to get into our somewhat Hedwig world, where the comedy and the humor were a way to relax, both the characters and the audience, into a place of more emotionality. We made the calculation to start off guns blazing with our sexuality in the film, and it became less and less explicit as the story deepens. Like in a relationship, the sex changes and becomes deeper. The sexual scenes in the end are very un-explicit, and you don’t notice because, in a way, your artistic hymen has been broken, and you’re hopefully in the world [of the movie].

The idea for [my latest film, How to Talk to Girls at Parties,] is that everyone is an alien when you’re in love, and in fact, everyone’s an alien, period. Who knows what it’s really like to be someone else? So for a story about heterosexual teens, I look at it from a pretty queer perspective. Even though it’s about how to talk to girls at parties, in some ways, the most powerful characters are women and the matriarchs. Nicole [Kidman’s character] has created her own queer punk enclave in the suburbs, and Elle [Fanning’s character] becomes her own kind of queen bee in her own colony. It’s my YA high school romance, but the one that I wanted to see at age 16—and at 55. I want it to be for a lot of people.

When we did Shortbus in the early 2000s, it was a different time; Bush was in [office], and it was kind of more of a panic on the conservative side about the idea of sex in the story. My peers in the theatre and film world wouldn’t see my film because it had been drummed into their head that sex equaled porn and therefore didn’t have the dimensionality of a narrative they might like. Which is funny because they were trained that way, but in their own lives, their own sex was much more dimensional, and they couldn’t imagine that in a story, which was odd to me. Of course, I grew up very Catholic and conservative, so I was interested in exploring my own fear of sex that was drummed into me, and [Shortbus] was a way to go there that felt safe and collaborative, with the actors creating their own characters through improv.
Because sex is a hot-button issue—not issue, but part of our lives—that if you’re going to go there, the first thing people think of now is, "Who is being oppressed? Who is being violated?"
But I don’t think we could do it now. One of the reasons is that we did it in the pre-digital age so that people’s audition tapes were safer: They were on VHS, we could throw them away—there was less of that panic about, "Oh, my God, the tape is out there." I still think there would be people who would want to [audition], and trust me that I wasn’t trying to do it for some creepy reason or sensational reason—I was doing it to truly explore places that I was scared of, but also in a way that was loving and respectful. The process, everyone felt great about it. I never had a complaint about the whole process, since or during.

But now, I think the pressure would be more from on the left, like if there’s sex happening, [critics think] someone is being oppressed, whether because I’m a man or because I’m a gay man, or that I wouldn’t be representing enough people in the film. [They might ask,] "Why don’t you have this kind of sex and that kind of sex and have more people of color?" And it’s like, I can only get so many characters, I only have an hour-and-a-half movie. There would probably be some kind of "someone is being exploited here" [backlash]. Because sex is a hot-button issue—not issue, but part of our lives—that if you’re going to go there, the first thing people think of now is, "Who is being oppressed? Who is being violated?" I think there would be more objection to it being seen, being made—there would be some online resistance to it before it was even seen.

There’s a sensitivity right now in the Trump time that comes out of frustration with not being able to do anything about our stupid government, so we start to try to correct all wrongs very quickly. It’s like, "Let’s fix it all now because everything is going to hell!" It’s very intense, and certainly the grievances are real, yet there's breakneck speed with which we are not only trying to correct all wrongs, redress ills, but also predict them before they’ve happened.

It must be delightful to the Steve Bannons of the world. While they change every fucking law to make it easier for rich people to make more money, allies are looking for trouble among their friends. Looking for purity—which is what we all want. We all want to do the right thing. God knows there has to be sins expiated, but it sometimes exhausts me, the kind of accusation culture that justifies itself just by accusing, as opposed to creating the next step, the alternative to it. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean forgiveness, but it has to mean, "How do we move on? What do we create that’s an alternative as opposed to just looking for trouble?" Because there’s plenty of trouble.—As told to Jennifer Swann

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