Sex on screen: Porn or art?

Updated: 2006-10-11 13:53

Promotional photo from the film "Shortbus"
LOS ANGELES, California -- When a longtime married couple bounces all over the bed in every imaginable position in "Shortbus," or when a particularly limber character bends into a yoga pose that proves he, um, never has to leave the house, that's all real sex, not simulated.

But writer-director John Cameron Mitchell says his intention is to educate, not titillate.

Unlike in porn, the sex in "Shortbus" (read EW's review) and other recent films featuring actors in the act ("9 Songs," "The Brown Bunny") is injected as a means of character exploration. We learn that despite her creativity in the bedroom, the wife in the married couple (Sook-Yin Lee) is incapable of having an orgasm; even more ironically, she works as a sex therapist.

"We have to keep reminding people it's not pornographic -- it's not a film that's meant to arouse," Mitchell told The Associated Press. "We try to de-eroticize the sex to see what kind of emotions and ideas are left over when the haze of eroticism is waved away."

But the inventive filmmaker and performer behind the 2001 critical hit "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" knows some people will merely write off his latest movie as porn. That's why he's purposely placed much of the graphic content at the beginning, to get it out of the way and make room for his intertwined stories about New Yorkers who visit an underground salon to explore their sexual curiosities and relationship hang-ups.

"When they have seen it, my guess is that by the end of the film the last thing they'll be thinking about is sex," Mitchell said. "We always tell people, 'This film isn't a one-night stand, it's a relationship,' and by the end if you're thinking only about the sex, then you have a problem."

All of the recent movies that feature real sex have arrived in art-house theaters, unrated, from independent distributors -- Wellspring released 2003's "Brown Bunny," in which director-star Vincent Gallo was on the receiving end in a now-infamous oral sex scene with Chloe Sevigny; "9 Songs," in which a couple alternates between rock concerts and romping in bed, was released by Tartan Films.

Still others that suggest actual sexual activity -- such as Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers," from Fox Searchlight and "Young Adam" from Sony Pictures Classics -- have gone out with the dreaded NC-17 rating, severely limiting where they can be shown.

Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical distribution for ThinkFilm, said he wanted to pick up "Shortbus" after seeing it at the Cannes Film Festival and finding that "it didn't function as an erotic experience, it functioned as entertainment."