If you’ve seen any of John Cameron Mitchell’s work as a writer, actor or director, you’d know that he’s not afraid to be controversial.
His breakthrough performance as a transsexual rocker in Hedwig and the Angry Inch earned him the recognition and adoration of fans everywhere. In 2006, Mitchell went on to direct Shortbus, a film about an exclusive New York City club where characters deal with problems in their sexual relationships. With its graphic, unsimulated sexual scenes, the movie raised questions of where the line is drawn between film and pornography.
Today, Mitchell will appear as a guest speaker for the Technocultural Studies department. The free event takes place tonight at 7 in the TCS Building (formerly the Art Annex).
“In a lot of ways he represents the qualities that great artists have,” said Jesse Drew, TCS director. “He writes, acts, produces, performs and makes work that is really exploring areas that have gone unexamined.“
In a one-on-one interview, The California Aggie asked Mitchell a few questions about his work and his outlook on making great art.
I think that most people know you from your work in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which you wrote, directed and starred in. How has that piece of work impacted your life?
Well, it’s allowed me to meet thousands of interesting people and it allows me to do other work. I always think of everything you do [and] everything you put out is a kind of personal ad, and when you do something sincere, people want to hang out with you. So it’s been an incredible magnet for wonderful people.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch produced a cult following of sorts. How has it impacted people, in your perspective?
People all the time say that it’s affected them. My favorite compliment was when someone said that it helped them get off heroin, so I thought that was pretty good. A lot of people have said it’s helped them if they felt like some kind of a misfit [because] it helped them realize that they’re not alone and that we all make our own person. We don’t necessarily belong to categories, even though Myspace and Facebook try to categorize us. Ultimately, the labels are only useful early in your life and then later you’re a category of one.
Your film Shortbus, which you wrote and directed, was received as controversial for its graphic portrayal of sex. What was the thought behind depicting sex in such a realistic way, and why was it important to you to take that approach?
Every other art form has been as graphic or as un-graphic as they want … It seemed kind of condescending when in Hollywood films, a sex scene would start and then it would sort of cut to the end as if it wasn’t interesting or as if there was something wrong with it or as if it wasn’t as complicated as every other scene in their lives. So why ignore it? Why not use every paint in your paint box?
You’re known for your one of a kind work. Is it important to you to deviate from work found in mainstream movies? Do you feel they’re too limited?
Well, of course. The mainstream by its definition is conformist and it’s not necessarily that interesting. There’s no progress without deviation. There are no new inventions; there are no solutions to old problems without deviating from what has already happened. Certainly there’s a comfort level in things that you know, repeating mantras and repeating rituals, which is important. But if you’re only doing that, then you’re a sheep. You’re not questioning, you’re not seeking answers, you’re not trying to make the world better if you’re just doing the tried and true.
Do you have any advice for hopeful writers, directors and actors that you can pass on?
I would just tell people to combine things that they love, that they haven’t seen put together. I mean, I like hip-hop music and I like narrative musicals, but I haven’t seen a hip-hop musical actually that works, where the songs are actually a part of the story. So a good way to approach things sometimes is to look at things that you love and sort of combine them in different ways. And make sure that what you’re doing, if it’s a big project, scares you a little bit. If you’re spending that much energy on something for years, don’t worry about what other people think of it yet, because that can blind you to your own vision. And make it useful. Think about it as something that someone can use as a tool for [his or her] own lives. If you’re just telling people that life is shit, it might not be worth doing because there’s plenty of evidence that life is shit. And that’s easy to show – what’s not easy is to show what’s to be done about it and what can give hope and give tools to improving life.
JULIA MCCANDLESS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.