Sex and the CBC host: it’s definitely not PG

By Simon Houpt, Globe and Mail

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CANNES, FRANCE — Sook-Yin Lee, the artistically brash CBC Radio host who ran into trouble in late 2003 when her bosses caught wind she would be starring in a sexually explicit film, held out hope on the weekend that the public broadcaster’s management will side with the press and a midnight crowd of film buffs who applauded the movie’s comic exploration of sexuality at the Cannes film festival.

"There’s a big heart in this movie and hopefully they’ll be able to recognize that without giving in to other puritanical fears," she said in an interview on the day of the world premiere at Cannes, where the film is playing out of competition.

Lee, the host of the Saturday afternoon Radio One pop culture show Definitely Not the Opera, may be asking a lot. Shortbus, which follows in the sexually frank tradition of recent European fare like Nine Songs (2004) and Romance (1999), may be the most sexually graphic feature film ever intended for North American release. An exploration of the role that sex plays in contemporary relationships, self-identity, and even sometimes love, the film features an encyclopedic array of un-simulated sexual practices.

It opens with three intercut scenes: A dominatrix unpacks dildos in a hotel room overlooking Ground Zero and proceeds to whip a male client; a man videotapes himself masturbating and then ejaculating into his own mouth; and a married couple have sex with the kind of physical flexibility usually associated with prepubescent Romanian gymnasts.

Audiences doubled over in laughter during one scene in which three men perform oral sex on each other while singing a rousing version of the U.S. national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

Lee is the central character, a couples counsellor named Sophia whose own marriage is in crisis because she has never achieved an orgasm. Embarking on a quest to overcome this, she is sucked into an ad hoc community of New Yorkers who gather at a private sex club in Brooklyn called Shortbus, where orgies and intense conversation help them move through their own personal blocks. Other notable players include a dour dominatrix who’s incapable of love, a gay couple experimenting with an open relationship, and a gay voyeur with an apparent aversion to personal intimacy.

As a drag queen and Sophia observe an orgy, he says wryly, "It’s like the sixties, but with less hope."

Writer-director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) developed the $2-million (U.S.) film with his cast over the span of more than three years, creating characters and storylines out of a series of improvisational exercises held in New York, many of which were conducted naked. Mitchell himself, who is gay, plays a cameo role in an orgy scene, performing oral sex on a woman. "As my actors said, if they’re going to do it, I have to try it too," he said yesterday. "I went somewhere I’ve never been before."

Though the two press screenings were entirely full, many U.S. reporters skipped the Saturday press conference because they noted its subject matter would preclude the film getting wide distribution in the U.S.

Asked about the original controversy back home, Lee explained to the international reporters that the CBC had been roiled by "confusion and fear on the part of my bosses" when she was cast. "The most fascinating thing to me was to see all of my different bosses — it’s a corporate hierarchy — and each individual would say, ‘You know what? This movie sounds amazing, I want this movie to exist in my world. But I’m afraid that the guy on top of me is going to put on the brakes and I’m going to get in trouble.’ "

"There was this basic culture of fear," she added. "The fear was the public would be outraged that we would be talking candidly about our sexuality, about our desire to connect, about all these things, and they thought, ‘Okay, the world is not ready for this,’ that there was going to be a backlash."

After a lineup of high-profile artists — including Francis Ford Coppola, Moby, Atom Egoyan, Douglas Coupland, and Julianne Moore — wrote letters on her behalf, the CBC relented. The peace activist rock star Yoko Ono reportedly wrote a letter to the CBC stating simply, "If people were having better sex, there’d be less war," one of many themes explored in the film.

Lee said, "In reality, the backlash was people coming to the fore and saying, wait a minute, this should exist, this should happen, and it was the most beautiful thing because in the end my bosses just went: ‘Phew, you are allowed to do this, go do it. There are no restraints on you whatsoever, and we’re really proud of you.’ " Lee will get a sense of whether they regret that decision when she returns to work next Monday.

Mitchell said he was inspired to make the film by European directors, who have a different way of treating sex than in the purely commercial, consumeristic fashion favoured by U.S. directors. "I wanted to use sex as a metaphor for things that were perhaps more universal: themes of connection and love and fear. And we felt that the language of sex could be used the way the language of music is used in a musical."

Noting that the sex is rarely erotic, Mitchell added that he doesn’t consider the film to be pornographic. "I define pornography to be devoid of artistic intent. The purpose of pornography is to arouse, and I don’t think anybody got a hard-on watching this film."

One Canadian critic admitted to having been briefly turned on.

Mitchell also said he and his cast are troubled by the notion of labelling what’s on screen as ‘real sex.’ "Obviously, there’s nothing completely real about sex, even when you’re having it in real life," he said. "There’s an element of performance, an element of projection, an element of fantasy, maybe. We just amplified that situation with having cameras and lights and sound around. I don’t know how much fun the actors were really having when we were doing anything sexual."

One Canadian actor admitted to having had a little bit of fun.

The film does not yet have a distributor in either the U.S. or Canada. If released in the U.S., it will certainly go out with an NC-17 rating, which makes marketing the film a challenge — some newspapers still will not accept advertisements for such films — but is no longer the mark of Cain it used to be at the box office, now that a few films including Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers have overcome the stigma to reap acceptable receipts.

Mitchell said he was looking forward to submitting the film to the sexually conservative ratings board, even if they responded with the dreaded NC-17. "I really want that ratings board to have to watch this film," he quipped. "I just want to be a fly on the wall in that room when they see it."

Sex on the brain?

In Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s (Donnie Darko) epic comic-thriller-musical apocalyptic vision of 2008 Los Angeles, Sarah Michelle Gellar stars opposite The Rock as Krysta Now, a porn star trying to develop a reality show who sings a song called Teen Horniness is Not a Crime.

At a press conference for the film yesterday, the Southland Tales cast and reporters seemed to have been infected by the sexually free spirit of Shortbus, which screened on Saturday.

Asked how she felt being on the red carpet in front of an international audience, Gellar quipped, "You want to see the nail marks that I put into Dwayne’s [The Rock’s] arm this morning from grabbing onto him?" The Rock winked and said, "You should see my back!"

Question for Gellar from a U.S. journalist who hadn’t yet had his coffee: "After kicking butts for so many years as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is playing a porn star a step up?"

Question from a perky Colombian TV journalist who’d definitely had her coffee: "You play a porno actress. Would you like to make this kind of film?" — S.H.

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