Naked on the set! Part 3

Wherein I learn that it's not a good idea to teach your mother how to Google and that good chamber music is like doing it onstage.

Read Part 1 and Part 2

Published March 18, 2003 8:02PM (EST)

The night before this diary went live on Salon, I started sounding the alarm. First I e-mailed a heads-up to my employers at an online newsroom where hyperlinks to things like Salon serials are forwarded with hyperactive efficiency. Then I poured myself a stiff drink and dialed my mother's number.

This was not our first conversation about the Sex Film Project. I had given her a vague explanation of my New York audition after being invited here, then received an e-mail from her assuring me that she knew I was an adult, but that she had just searched on Google for John Cameron Mitchell and was extremely concerned about what she'd read on his Web site.

Never teach your mother how to Google.

My next line of defense, after vagueness, was hagiography. Listen, Mom, I said, John Cameron Mitchell is an extremely accomplished and brilliant actor. He was totally amazing in "The Destiny of Me" and "Six Degrees of Separation" (a stretch on my part, as I never saw either play). Had she seen "Hedwig"? My straight roommate, a grown man in his middle-late 30s, blasts the soundtrack in his room until even I can barely stand to hear any more of it. And then there was that girl at Tower who, when I rented the "Hedwig" DVD, volunteered the story of seeing the director having drinks on the balcony of a Market Street bar, and hollering up to him at the top of her lungs, "Hey, John Cameron Mitchell -- YOU ROCK!" Look, Mom, I said reasonably, this isn't some sleaze-bag pornographer. He's the voice of a generation. OK, so it's a sleazy generation. But in addition to all his professional qualifications, he is a mensch.

How I knew this about JCM at that point I'm not entirely sure. I suppose hearing him interviewed on the radio and also thinking that his commentary on the "Hedwig" DVD revealed his lucidity, the benign self-possession hidden under Hedwig's lacerating tranny wit. But I also knew it a decade ago, just from that cover photo of "The Destiny of Me," because an expression of such generosity of spirit couldn't be summoned by even the greatest actor if he didn't possess it himself.

Even if my mother bought my pitch that JCM was a saint among sinners, however, I had the additional problem that the first episode would spell out for her exactly what it is that I've been writing about these past two years. This seemed like the kind of bomb one had to drop personally.

"It's a book sort of based on -- well, pretty exactly based on an affair I had with this couple who resembled you and Dad." I swallowed hard. "It's this whole sort of self-parodying, Freudian excavation thing. Kind of."

"Oedipus Schmedipus," she replied. "A boy should love his mother."

Having survived that confession, I turned to the last one on my list -- the married couple. They were even less nonplussed than my mother. "Cool," said the husband. "When do you find out if you get the part?"

I don't actually know the answer to that question. The process of casting and making this movie is shrouded in some mystery, not least because, as the filmmakers are quick to acknowledge, they're pretty much making it up as they go along. The rough idea was to submit the casting call via the Web site, audition New Yorkers first, and then mix them up with us out-of-towners, cull a handful of actors from that group to participate in a monthlong workshop in the spring, and send the director away to write a script based on the material derived from the workshop. Filming is scheduled for the fall.

That broad outline left plenty of ambiguity. The filmmakers have scheduled six days of social and professional events this week, but which is which? Take the first official event in what they are somewhat lewdly calling Action Week (I had to ask whether this was some theatrical term of art, which it isn't) -- JCM's Wednesday night club in the West Village called Shortbus, "a sweaty teenage dance party for the socially challenged." We were asked to show up at 9 p.m., an hour before the general public was admitted, for an hour of Sex Project-only drinking. Then "the largest game of spin the bottle you've ever played" was scheduled for midnight. Manning the DJ booth afterward would be JCM as his alter ego, DJ Dear Tick ("You're gonna have to burn me out!").

I walked down West Eighth Street past expensive shoe stores and discounted expensive shoe stores trying not to think too hard about what might be expected of us, or about how those expectations might conflict with those that go with my supposedly monogamous relationship. Were we supposed to get laid? Would the filmmakers be monitoring chemistry between potential castmates as the evening went on, and would they spot-check us in the morning, to see who was waking up alone?

After our chaste interview the previous night, I knew I was at no risk of waking up the next morning with the director. This was no reason not to flirt with him, though, so I decided to greet him at the party by reenacting a scene from one of the movies he'd assigned us to watch, "Stardust Memories," in which a young female fan approaches the legendary director played by Woody Allen.

"Would you sign my left breast?" I asked him airily, holding out a Rub-a-Dub laundry marking pen and pulling up my shirt.

He laughed. "No, wait -- do you really want --"

I cut off the question with a step toward him. He smiled. He took the pen. Then I felt the cold ink circling my left nipple in an outward spiral, followed by the slow-motion flourish of his signature above it. "Love from JCM," read my breast.

The event turned out to be less a sweaty teenage dance party for the socially challenged than an overheated reunion of tricks and ex-lovers for the chastity impaired. I can't quite bring myself to count them, but the Shortbus succession of Ghosts of Liaisons Past stretched to the late 1980s and spanned, as Sade so mystically put it, coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago. These were happy reunions, for the most part, with the crushing exception of seeing "Ramon."

Ramon and I met about 13 years ago, when we were both 20 and he was enrolled in a summer academy for gay activists organized by AIDS Quilt founder Cleve Jones. The academy brought together queer collegiate firebrands from all over the country to learn basic organization, media manipulation, protest and civil disobedience skills, with the perhaps not unforeseeable result that the camp devolved into a queer activist version of "The Lord of the Flies," or what the mutual friend of Ramon and me described as her "summer pogrom." While the queer Savonarolas ate one another alive under Jones' feckless supervision, the skinny, bottle-blond, coal-eyed Ramon and I had a lot of sex, an activity we resumed once or twice when we were both in New York a few years later. Since then my only contact with him has been to read about his modern dance career in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section.

When I heard that he was auditioning for the Sex Film Project, I began entertaining elaborate fantasies about our appearing in it together. We had known each other practically as kids; we had history. But more than that, we had art in common, and so in my fantasy Ramon, the acclaimed dancer, and Paul, the injured and obscure but nonetheless brilliant violinist, would be portrayed negotiating their careers as collaborating downtown artists whose already charged sexual relationship would take on the added electricity of their performances onstage. It would be the perfect narrative reflection of JCM's larger mission, the marriage of sex and art.

"Honey, listen," Albert Fuller said when I related my casting fantasy. "When people get together and play good chamber music, it's like watching people fucking onstage." Albert paused and swirled his glass of Boodles and ice with his pinkie. Then he added: "Certain other things may apply."

Albert's simile of onstage fucking had long appealed to me; it perfectly explained the paradoxical eroticism conjured so often by wizened old men in sweat-soaked tuxedoes. It especially appealed to me in this context: Why shouldn't John Cameron Mitchell put full frontal artistry in his movie? Not John Garfield's expressionless head grafted onto Isaac Stern's fat fingers in "Humoresque," or Leslie Howard bow-syncing to a record of Jascha Heifetz in "Intermezzo," but the real thing. Why not portray Ramon dancing down Albert's staircase (giving said staircase a silver-screen comeback after a 24-year hiatus) while I play the violin below him in the flickering obscurity of the studio, and Albert ambles in silhouette before the brightly lit 20-frame map of Paris that takes up a two-story wall of the duplex?

Maybe Ramon felt the weight and turgidity of my motives; perhaps he resented me for describing our oldest mutual acquaintance, who is no longer a friend of mine, as the "evil and horrible 'Jane Jarman.'" Whatever the reason, Ramon didn't seem interested in collaborating with me on even a cocktail, much less a shared lead in a movie, and ended the evening with a breezy "I hope I see you again sometime."

With the Ramon fantasy lying before me in shards, I recognized that it was also my defense against the party, against the producer's ominous e-mail asking us to keep our evenings free for undefined tête-à-têtes with potential castmates, against the whole creepy agenda of Action Week, which seemed to back up my boyfriend's original suspicions about the Sex Film Project's quasi-professional relationship-building requirements. With Ramon, in other words, I could have bypassed the guilt-inducing cruising and dating, and along with them the lurch back into that miasmic realm of single gay urban life from which I had been quite happy to escape into my relationship with the monogamy-minded 25-year-old philosophy Ph.D. candidate.

Oh, the party was fun -- my face ached by midnight from smiling and laughing, and JCM had signed my breast and later kissed my nipple in front of the cameras (manned by Oscar-hoarding documentary filmmaker Rob Epstein, shooting a "making of" special in development for HBO). There was the goofy spectacle of the director emceeing the massive game of spin the bottle, and the heady moment when he told a friend of mine that I had an "incredibly promising" career ahead of me as a filmmaker.

There was so much to be happy about, and yet as Ramon made his frigid farewell, I fell into a depleted gloom amid the hordes of marauding homosexual men looking to get laid with the weird ulterior motive that it might help them get cast, all sharing the knowledge that two or three or four of us were destined to proceed in tandem, naked, fucking and sucking one another out of pseudo-celebrity's waiting room and into a peculiar beam of limelight, pretending to be in love, transformed by the experience.

All I could think at the launch of this thrilling, sex-soaked, weeklong gamble was the unhappiness I had found assembling this collection of tricks and lovers in the first place. Now, with a boyfriend back home in San Francisco, it seemed depressingly forced and unsavory to be augmenting or recycling that collection for allegedly professional purposes -- even in the service of John Cameron Mitchell's new movie. So I left, and went to bed alone, and woke up that way.

Next: The audition tapes

By Paul Festa

Paul Festa is the author of and a frequent Salon contributor.

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