2006 FRAMELINE XXX—Interview With John Cameron Mitchell
San Francisco has just wrapped up its 30th Frameline Film Festival. One of the highlights for me was the morning I picked up my phone and heard John Cameron Mitchell introducing himself. I mustered all my resolve not to squeak and calmly said, "Oh, hello John." I was professionally calm but personally, tremendously excited. Here's my transcript of that interview.
Michael Guillén: John, you're all over Frameline 30 this year. You're featured in Katherine Linton's documentary Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig, you're one of the talking heads in Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema, and you'll also be delivering the closing remarks at Frameline's Persistent Vision Conference. Thanks in advance for your strong presence at our festival this year.
John Cameron Mitchell: Sure. It's a free ticket. A good time. The best queer festival in the world. Why not?
MG: Let's start with Follow My Voice. For those who haven't yet seen the documentary, can you synopsize your involvement with both projects, not only producer Chris Slusarenko's Hedwig tribute album—Wig In A Box—but Linton's documentary?
JCM: Slusarenko had the benefit idea and then Stephen Trask and I just did everything we could to help. Then Katherine just appeared, suddenly there were cameras, so I really didn't have anything to do with the film except to be there when she wanted me there. I had a couple of comments on the edit, but, she really did it all and that was fantastic. They were incredibly persistent and ubiquitous which is necessary for that kind of a documentary. Documentary filmmakers are really the saints of this industry because there's no money involved. It's all about passion and to me they are one of the circles of heaven. So I really applaud her and her team for making this. It was very powerful for me because, y'know, when you see the repercussion of one little thing that you did having other good results is very powerful and reminds you that you're doing anything at all.
MG: I'm not sure I'd call Hedwig "a little thing" but I know and respect what you're saying. Do you still have The Breeders singing "Wicked Little Town" on your answering machine?
JCM: Erased it by accident!
MG: Aw, that's unfortunate. As I was listening to The Breeders sing their acoustic version of "Wicked Little Town" in the documentary, I thought of a couple of things. I had read an earlier interview with you where you talked about the music of Hedwig and you made it very clear that the music could be covered and adapted by other musicians so it was neat to see your prescience confirmed. And as I was watching The Breeders singing within the setting of Manhattan, I thought it was sadly ironic that Staten Island, New York City, could still be as provincial and prejudicial a place as a little bohunk town in mid-America.
JCM: Yeah. Yeah, I was too. But, y'know, I'm living in the West Village and these kids are coming from uptown, way out in the boroughs where it's still rough. It's better than it was but all the uptown kids have to come down to Christopher Street, which is no longer a gay center in any mainstream way. Now, Christopher Street and the Christopher Street piers are where the uptown Latino and Black kids go to have somewhere to hang out because they can't uptown, there's nowhere to go. I'm so glad that historically the place of the freaks in the 60s and 70s has become a haven for a lot of these kids. It's unfortunate because all the rich apartment owners down there are trying to get the kids out of there.
MG: Yeah, I remember a documentary to that effect last year or the year before about the kid scene on Christopher Street and the problems they were having. I was reading also that as a young boy you had difficulty coming to terms with your own sexuality, like so many of us, like myself, and obviously this is something that has stayed with you and become a concern and a passion in reaching out to these young kids today. You seem to be relating to young kids a lot.
JCM: Well, yeah. I mean, y'know, coming out in the 70s—well, I guess I came out in the 80s—but growing up in the 70s and the early 80s was such a … it was better than before but it was still a very strange time to come out. I came out as AIDS hit, which is even stranger than the 50s, it actually meant death as opposed to just ostracism. It was a political time. It was a powerful act to come out because it was linked to disease so for me—as it was for many people—the act of coming out was the crux of the gay rights movement in that … because the more people come out, the more common it is for everyone to have someone in their family who's gay and they can't discriminate the same way when it's someone you work with or you love or is in your family. It's just impossible. I'm sure that's why George Bush is sort of half-assed about his marriage amendment thing. Which makes it worse in a way because you know that he doesn't really … you know he'd be quite happy to go to some gay wedding of someone he knew. You just get that feeling. And the fact that he's actually using it as a wedge issue, using people's hatred as a wedge voting issue, is even more repulsive than a Jerry Falwell.
MG: Well, he is playing a lot to his Evangelical fanbase. I'm 10 years older than you, I think, and I came out in the 70s, pre-AIDS, when it was very exciting and we were fighting Anita Bryant and all that stuff, but I often think sometimes when I look back on my high school years that—because no one really talked about it and if you could pass—you were basically safe, you were invisible and that provided a certain safety. With queerness being so much more defined and visible today do you think young people have a more difficult time of it?
JCM: It seems like more and more teenage gay kids feel that they can come out and have a love life and have some kind of acceptance from their peers and family and that is only good. I'm sure there's another group that is … y'know, you don't quite know what your sexuality is at that age so there's a certain … I don't like that kind of, "You must now decide on MySpace if you're straight or gay." There's a freeflowing thing that goes on, especially when you're that age, and it's not just about the fear of being gay to say you're bi—bisexualilty exists—it's something that shouldn't be rammed into a cookie cutter shape. It's something that becomes clearer the older you get. So I think the necessity to label yourself is a little bit limiting and a little bit scarier for some kids, but it always was. Probably in rural areas there's a little bit, maybe even more fear now than there was 10 years ago because of political opprobrium against gays coming from the Republicans. It's like this weird cover for abuse. Sometimes it's very mild abuse, like using the word "gay" as a negative, which is kind of sad, a little bit pathetic, but at the same time what's different now is that if you're feeling like you may be gay and you're suicidal because of it, nowadays you actually with the click of a mouse can find someone to talk to, which was not the case 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago.
MG: Exactly. There's a great documentary in the festival this year called Ugly Ducklings by Fawn Yacker that's about youth suicide based upon bigotry and bias that I found moving. With regard to Follow My Voice, one of my favorite scenes was you helping Yoko Ono record "Exquisite Corpse." I thought that was a sweet scene. Do you have any personal anecdotes from the filming that stick in your mind?
JCM: Well that was, yeah, certainly a highlight. It was wonderful hanging out with The Breeders. We had a lot of footage of me performing with various bands but it was obviously too much. The documentary was very long at one point. So those stuck out in my mind, performing with the Polyphonic Spree and The Breeders, and Yoko was fantastic.
MG: Let's shift to Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema, where you're one of the talking heads. In that documentary you say that the first queer film that truly registered a queer sensibility in a big cultural way in the public's imagination was Andy Warhol's Blowjob. In light of your recent explorations with Shortbus, I was wondering if you're intentionally carrying on what Warhol began?
JCM: Well, y'know, I liked a lot of what Warhol did. I found a good deal of it rather cynical and kind of loveless? He was always more interested in this definitely creative and pushing boundaries and imaginative, but there was this strange kind of lack of affect or maybe a bit of amorality to it and it felt more than anything sometimes loveless. I think Paul Morrissey had, y'know, there was definitely love in some films like Flesh but there was just kind of a bit of a voyeuristic without compassion feeling going on. For me the sexual films that were more our antecedents were things like Un Chant d'amour, which is Jean Genet's sexually-explicit film set in a prison in the 50s, which is full of—suffused with—emotion and compassion and violence. Or Taxi Zum Klo [Taxi to the Toilet], I don't know if you know that one?
MG: Yes, I do know that one. I loved that film, in fact, when I was a young man because I could use it to project myself forward into my adult life.
JCM: It's very much a film about adolescence into adulthood and compartmentalizing parts of your life, with humor, and compassion, you got the feeling that the characters were being very honest and the sex was very much matter-of-fact, it was part of their lives. Above all I would say queer films that really used sex were the most influential on Shortbus.
MG: I also like in Fabulous how you talked about the only thing you have in common when you're gay is that you grow up not telling the truth right away. You're aware of artifice, acting, and exaggeration. And you understand metaphor. You start to understand that—as you were saying—you can watch a man and woman in a love scene on television and identify with the woman or the man, but realize it's not exactly what you feel because it is a woman and a man, but you can project yourself into the situation and it's that projecting, it's that understanding that something represents something else that is the crux of metaphor. In a lot of the reviews I've read about Shortbus you talk about sexuality serving as metaphor. Can you speak a little bit about that metaphorical consciousness and its importance for queers? Or for that matter, people in general?
JCM: It's all pretty much what you said [chuckles], it's all there, but that is the one thing that binds us as people of different sexuality, LGBTQ, I guess. I certainly don't feel like I have a link in terms of taste or link in terms of body culture or whatever else with all other queer people, but, I think we do all understand metaphor. We understand what it means to hide what you really are and present a surface, i.e. a metaphor, in place of you. It's usually how you deal with the world at a certain age. In some cultures—not too many—you didn't have to do that from day one. You could even say that the fact that gender expression is linked tenuously and sometimes strongly with sexuality, i.e. a lot of gay women have masculine energies that are more intense than straight women and a lot of gay men have feminine energies, more than their straight male friends. And that seems to come out of biology, nothing's proven or anything, but we all know about it, it's strongly there. That's a current that runs through queer sensibility, it's an awareness of gender expression and an awareness of hiding behind it, an awareness of using it, an awareness of feeling it. But then there's also queer kids who don't have a big dichotomy of male and female within them, they tend to be more straight and more masculine or more feminine. So the one thing that does bind us is the fact that we had to hide something. That's why there are so many people in the arts from the queer community, because art involves creating constructs to make sense of life. Creating things that weren't there already—beautiful sculptures or hair or whatever—to make sense of all the contradictory feelings within us that can be the conflict between what's in us and what is outside of us, which we have to think about a lot when we're young and in a different way when you're older.
MG: I like what you were saying earlier about how these days with young people it isn't just about being gay or straight or even bi. What Hedwig did for our culture and where I really have to commend you is that it presented an exploration of gender I'd never considered before. As a self-identified gay male, I was having trouble understanding the transgender issues, which have really come to the forefront in recent years because, as B. Ruby Rich stated it in the documentary, for self-identified gay males in the 70s our struggle was about sexuality and sexual expression, and then it changed more into issues and understandings about gender and gender shifting or persona shifting.
As a producer of Tarnation, you've also explored how queers are documenting themselves at a younger and younger age as cameras become more accessible and available. In Follow My Voice it was intriguing to see the four or five kids that they were monitoring using video diaries to process their experiences and to understand themselves. Several of the documentaries I've seen on queer youth at this year's Frameline Festival—including Follow My Voice and Breaking the Silence—have certainly explored this new avenue for young people. What do you think is the importance of video diaries for queer youth?
JCM: Video diaries are the more modern version of looking at yourself in the mirror, which you just do when you're young, especially when you're gay. How do people see me? How do I see myself? If I'm a gay boy, do I look like a girl? Do I act like a girl? Do I hold my books, cross my legs, like a girl? If I'm a butch girl, should I be wearing makeup? You look at yourself more fiercely in the mirror for better or for worse. Now technology is video, it's MySpace, it's presenting photographs of yourself into the web to define yourself, to label yourself, I am this, I am that, MySpace is all about what you are and it makes you feel a little fearless because you have the technological barrier between you and another person, but it also can make you a little bit cruel so that you're less compassionate when you have those barriers. People are meaner to each other when they're communicating on the web. People are communicating through Manhunt, which reduces respect in a way and compassion, it might be kind of hot, but it veers into addiction.
MG: I agree with you there. I know that from personal experience and it's been something I've had to leap over as I've actually entered an asexual phase of my life because I've tired of where those forums lead. Shortbus, then, appears to be an effort to help us understand the generous spirit within sexuality that really isn't being presented to us in the mass culture. It premiered at Cannes, I understand, was it well received? Did you feel you accomplished what you wanted to do with the film?
JCM: Yes, we did. We presented it to the world and it was very well accepted. We had a 10-minute standing ovation at our sold-out 2,300-seat premiere. We had a party and Justin Bond was our emcee and it was really fantastic. We're now sold all over the world and we'll be out here in the fall. It's going fantastically. People are accepting the film the way we hoped they would, which is reminding people that sex is integrated into other parts of our life, or should be. Lately, it's been disintegrated, it's been compartmentalized by religion, but also by gay culture and Manhunt, by consumerist porn, get a credit card, get this, separate that fetish from this one. It's very compartmentalized for all of its availability. Kids are learning about sex through porn now so they're thinking of themselves as consumer niches. "I'm now a member of Barely Legal!" They fetishize themselves through porn. I'm talking about all kids, gay or straight. So I don't think they're learning about sex in the multifaceted way that they should be. They should be learning from their friends, from their relationships, maybe their parents, maybe their schools, the internet porn and other things, to give a broader view. I remember having sex with someone who was younger in the last year and it felt like they were doing it the way they saw it in a porn movie and not enjoying it.
MG: Hopefully, Shortbus will remind people of that compassionate spirit that is within sex and the communion and communication it's supposed to engage. You say Shortbus has gotten domestic distribution? Did somebody pick it up at Cannes?
JCM: We're just finishing it up now, I can't really announce it yet, but yeah, we've had a bidding war so it's been great.
MG: That's wonderful. Congratulations on that. I want to thank you, John, for taking the time to talk with me. I know you're very busy and I really appreciate your time. I look forward to hopefully getting the chance to meet you when you're here in town.
JCM: It was very nice to talk to you, Michael.
MG: Take care.
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Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig had its West Coast premiere on Monday, June 19, 6:00 pm, at the Castro Theater. Completely worth it for its multiple musical performances, including The Breeders, Polyphonic Spree, Yoko Ono, Jonathan Richman and a sultry Rufus Wainwright. Let alone the triumphant opening of Harvey Milk High School, the first queer high school in history.
Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema, likewise had its West Coast premiere on Friday, June 23, 6:00 pm, at the Roxie Film Center. Proceeding forward from The Celluloid Closet, Fabulous! celebrates—not so much the recognition of queer identities disguised in Hollywood genres—as much as queer-created, queer-conscious cinema. John joins the likes of B. Ruby Rich, Jenni Olsen, Marga Gomez, Todd Haynes, Angela Robinson, Rose Troche, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, Alfonso Duralde, and many others, to bring us current and to help us celebrate our achievements.
On Thursday, June 22, 4:00 at the Victoria Theater, John Cameron Mitchell shared closing remarks to Frameline XXX's Persistent Vision Conference with Keith Boykin and festival director Michael Lumpkin.