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The return of
free love

The return of
free love


Queer auteur John Cameron Mitchell's new film Shortbus depicts graphic sex, but it's not porn--it's a political manifesto.

You've not fully experienced the national anthem until you've watched a naked guy warble it to another nude dude during a certain sex act that shall remain nameless here. That's what happens--plain as day, aided by several close-ups--midway through Shortbus, writer-director John Cameron Mitchell's genius, romantic, unapologetically sexual new film, when a male couple who are considering having an open relationship bring a cute young thing home for a threesome. The impromptu rendition of Francis Scott Key's nearly 200-year-old tribute to America comes at the young guy's request--he asks for some music to defuse the awkwardness of sex with strangers--but the singer's choice of material is so absurd that he and the boyfriend can't help but join in, and all three soon collapse into laughter, coitus interruptus.

While conservatives, if not most Americans, will surely be shocked by the no-holds-barred scene, to a certain sophisticated, progressive audience--sick of the Bush administration's divisive politics, blatant fearmongering, and policy disasters ranging from the mess in Iraq to the ongoing effort to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage--the moment will be exhilarating. That's how it felt for me, a 28-year-old gay man who was in New York City on 9/11 and has watched in dismay as Republicans have wrung every last drop of political gain out of that tragedy (including calling my right to marry a threat to the nation). And that's how it felt for many of the people who attended the Shortbus press screening with me, jaded media and artistic types all, who burst into applause when the scene ended--the same reaction the scene received at this year's Cannes Film Festival (where the movie also received a prolonged standing ovation upon its conclusion). In an enthusiastically perverse manner, joining our nation's cherished "Star-spangled Banner" with a sex act that some would be repulsed by is a wonderfully inspired way to reclaim the basic American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--at a time when reactionary forces would like to snatch them away from us.

"When I can get French people applauding the [U.S.] national anthem, it's progress," Mitchell says with a smile one September afternoon, reclining on a long gray couch after being photographed in a downtown Manhattan studio for this story. Then, turning serious, he adds, with an intent look in his eyes, "It's certainly no mistake that the film opens on the Statue of Liberty," referring to an extreme close-up of the icon's face before the camera pans out to reveal the statue in all her glory (and, a few scenes later, the footprints of the World Trade Center's twin towers). "It is a patriotic film, a reminder that America was the place where people who were persecuted came, who were looking for a place of their own where they could have freedom."

Which is not the case now, he says--and many would agree. "We are in an era where fear is being manipulated into political gain by the powers that be, and the terrorist, the immigrant, and the sexual minority are all considered equally dangerous by the Right." And that, Mitchell asserts (quoting an unlikely source perhaps), is "at the root of a great deal of pain, violence, and war. Yoko Ono said, If people were having better sex, there'd be less war. And studies have shown that societies that are afraid of sex are the ones with the most violence--sexual violence, domestic violence, and even war."

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Sean Kennedy