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Berlinale interview: John Cameron Mitchell

The mind behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch brings two antidotes to a digital age to Berlin, discussing sex in his film Shortbus for Berlinale's Talent Campus and bringing his popular Mattachine Dance Party to Monster Ronson's on Feb 14.

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Photo by Walter Crasshole

John Cameron Mitchell on sex in film and his dance party Mattachine, arriving in Berlin on Valentine’s Day

John Cameron Mitchell stormed the world stage over 10 years ago with his funny, touching and outrageous musical, Hedwig & the Angry Inch, then followed up with a daring (for a non-pornographic feature film) portrayal of many variations of explicit sex on screen in 2006’s Shortbus, followed in 2010 by his third feature, Rabbit Hole. Temporarily setting aside work on the much-anticipated sequel to Hedwig, Mitchell visits the Berlinale for a segment in this year’s Talent Campus called “Some Like It Hot – The Power of Sex” with Hagar Ben Asher. He’ll also be bringing his semi-legendary NYC dance party, Mattachine, to Monster Ronson’s on Thu, Feb 14.

Can you talk about “Some Like It Hot”?

My [segment] is about the use of sex in film, so other directors and I are showing clips from our films that have used sex in different ways. We are all showing bits of our films and talking about them—and the issue of using sex in film. I’m sure it’s not just the usual kind of sex –more explicit, or unconventional.

What do you think of sex in contemporary film?

After Shortbus in 2006, I expected more films to use explicit sex. In the mid-2000s there was a burst of these films. They tended to be more serious and maybe the sex had more of a negative cast to it: a kind of a Euro-nihilist, alienated sex that was in a few films. And sometimes it was very interesting – like Fat Girl, which I thought was great. There’s also a film by Carlos Reygadas, a Mexican director, called Battle in Heaven that was very explicit and very thought-provoking. It just seemed like a bit of a cliché though… that sex had to be associated with grim gloominess. It felt a little old fashioned as well as being purely pornographic. We wanted to bust it up a little by working humour (into it) but then going to serious places as well. And it seems like people maybe pulled back a bit. One film called I Want Your Love is a very interesting film. It’s by Travis Matthews whose new film Interior: Leather Bar, which he worked on with James Franco, is coming to the Berlinale.

The film that has something to do William Friedkin’s Cruising?

The idea is that they’re remaking the 40 minutes cut from the movie – nobody knows what that material was. Some of it was sexual activity. Some of it was just plot.

But that’s also dark. Are there still people doing new things with sex?

A few people who are still going there. It generally falls to queers who tend to be at the forefront of thinking about it. Because it was prescribed more in their lives, they tend to use it more in their work. So it seems to have tailed off a bit. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the internet and the proliferation of porn. It is what it is. I mean, I like porn but it’s taught a generation to have sex before they’ve had sex. When I have sex with young people I can see the difference, it’s like they’re imitating porn.

Using it as subpar instruction manual, instead of just as film to get off to?

Yeah. It’s not realistic and it’s like they have to have sex in that order or in that way and it feels like they’re being taught about sex by Sit-on-my-Facebook. It must end in a certain way in a certain kind of shot – outside the body. It doesn’t make much for spontaneity or a conversation. It’s very much transactional – ‘What are you into?’ as opposed to ‘What are we into?’ I came out of the 1970s and early 1980s, just after the era of free love, and there was a feeling of ‘let’s invent it ourselves.’ But of course that was mixed up with AIDS so it was all fucked up. Now unsafe sex seems to be the norm for young people, which seems strange to me. So Shortbus, in a way, was an antidote to digital sex.

Is there any connection between this and the party you’re throwing at Monster Ronson’s on the 14th?

Mattachine is a kind of pre-internet dance party, which is very much about getting people in the same room and dancing with each other instead of the ineffable ‘server’. We’re very much about a kind of high school dance feeling – play the whole song: no crazy mixing or scratching. A lot of the stuff I played when I was a DJ in the 1970s in high school basically: punk, classic rock, alternative, new wave and some modern stuff. We also do slow dancing which was a beautiful ritual that’s been lost. But it’s on Valentine’s Day so we’re hoping strangers will reach out, ask each other to dance and we can turn down the lights.

Are you planning on letting Berlin reach out to you?

We’re there for a total of 10 days and, yes, I’m sure that weekend will be decadent – I’m sure we’ll see the dawn more than once.