2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, fall 2016
Binging on Greyson
by Greg Youmans
Review of the work of John Greyson and a critical study of it:
John Greyson has been creating and theorizing queer political cinema for more than three decades. His films and videos are exuberantly sex-positive, adamantly anti-censorship, playfully postmodern, and always committed to building solidarity across movements and national borders.
Beyond the power of particular films and videos, Greyson is an inspiring figure to many on the left for a number of reasons. For one, there is the breadth and integrity of his commitments. His creative work is often rooted in his Toronto-based activism:
A second source of inspiration is the way Greyson’s films and videos almost always remain joyfully and defiantly queer (in the gayest and sexiest senses of the term) as they move among geopolitical sites and issues. No cause is serious, urgent, or orthodox enough to warrant the stripping of camp, cruising, and cute boys from his frame. And third, even as Greyson has gained prestige and access to the resources to make a more traditional commercial cinema, he has continued to move fluidly among genres, forms, and production values. He won the Genie for Best Motion Picture (Canada’s equivalent to the Oscar) for Lilies (1996) and has directed episodes of major television programs such as Queer As Folk (2000-2005), yet he continues to make video agitprop and theory films just as he did at the start of his career in the early 1980s.
One of the most recent examples of Greyson’s political commitment occurred in Egypt on August 16, 2013, two days after the Rabaa Massacre, when he and Tarek Loubani, a Canadian-Palestinian medical doctor, were arrested at a civilian protest against the July 3 military coup that had ousted President Mohamed Morsi. The two men were imprisoned for fifty days without charges, during which time an international grassroots campaign sought and eventually won their release. Greyson and Loubani had been passing through Egypt on their way to Gaza on a humanitarian mission. Greyson has worked for the cause of Palestinian liberation for many years, sometimes through visits to the Middle East (he participated, for instance, in the second freedom flotilla to Gaza in 2011) and more often through solidarity work orchestrated from afar.
Since 2010, he has made a series of short, online-distributed videos that urge international performers such as Justin Bieber and Elton John not to play concerts in Israel and, in the case of queer and queer-associated artists like John, not to contribute to Israel’s “pinkwashing” campaign, in which the state trumpets its gay-friendliness to distract attention from its human rights abuses. The videos create compelling tonal and conceptual layerings through the use of two devices that have become Greyson signatures: split screen and parodied pop songs, i.e., artists’ familiar tunes with new agitprop lyrics. BDS Bieber (2011) is my favorite of Greyson’s BDS videos, because it travels to the serious core of the issue through an especially fun and absurd path, with the star’s hair getting outraged about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians before the star himself does.
The past few years have been a boon to fans of Greyson as well as those new to his work. In 2012, Toronto-based distributor VTape released Impatient, an eight-disc DVD box set containing thirty-eight of Greyson’s films and videos, including four features: Urinal (1988), Un©ut (1997), Proteus (2003), and Fig Trees (2009). And in 2013, McGill-Queen’s University Press published The Perils of Pedagogy: The Works of John Greyson, edited by Brenda Longfellow, Scott MacKenzie, and Thomas Waugh. The book, really a tome, collects twenty-six essays (a few reprints but most of them new) by premier scholars and artists, as well as more than a hundred pages of Greyson’s own writings spanning his career. Both the box set and the book have received surprisingly little attention in the academic press. What follows seeks to remedy this oversight and also offer some avenues for navigating this daunting array of material, with three (overlapping) constituencies in mind: film scholar, videomaker, and pedagogue.
For film scholars, the box set is an amazing opportunity to screen and study the majority of Greyson’s work all together. Obviously, the main scholarly use of this kind of binge-viewing is auteurist study. It’s likely that many scholars have only seen one or two of Greyson’s better-known works (e.g., Zero Patience or Lilies, both of which are available as stand-alone, commercially-distributed DVDs) and maybe a few shorts or other features that they’ve been lucky enough to catch at festivals. The works on the box set span genres, lengths, budgets, and crew size, but always showcase Greyson’s distinctive voice and vision.
The first thing I noticed while binging is that Greyson has tackled the politics of public sex in his films and videos more than any other topic, even the AIDS pandemic. Piece after piece celebrates the pleasure gay men take and the community they build by cruising each other in “public” spaces such as parks, toilets, theaters, and bathhouses, and speaks out against police repression of this activity. The subject of public sex and state surveillance is found in Greyson’s earliest videos, for instance the three shorts of the “Kipling Trilogy” (1984-85) and Urinal (1988), and continues forward into After the Bath (1995), Proteus (2003), and Rex vs. Singh (2008), among other works. And the police are second only to gay men in character frequency (if not character development) across Greyson’s oeuvre. Crackdowns on public sex and state responses to HIV/AIDS are, of course, entwined: AIDS panic has fed the anxiety over public sex. But the latter also predates the former, and, moveover, as the character Sergei Eisenstein points out in Urinal, most of the sex that occurs in public restrooms takes the form of masturbation and blow jobs; in other words, it’s safer sex.
No doubt the fame of Zero Patience as an innovative work of AIDS media activism, as well as the renown of Greyson’s most recent feature, the documentary opera Fig Trees (2009) about AIDS activists in Canada and South Africa, has done much to cement his association with AIDS activism. It can also be difficult to understand the work of a sex-positive gay male filmmaker who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as being about anything other than HIV/AIDS. Exploring Greyson’s entire body of work, though, makes it clear that his AIDS activist films and videos are only one component of a larger, ongoing project about the politics of public sex.
A prevalent theme across Greyson’s collected works is that sexuality will out, and that gay male desire in particular will find paths toward expression, if not always toward freedom. In his films and videos, male homosexuality is seldom represented in the familiar trope of desire struggling against internalized repression, or at least his visuals and narratives do not linger on such repression or eroticize it. There is secrecy, yes, because secrecy is often a necessity for survival in a homophobic world, but there aren’t many stories of a man having sex with another man despite himself and then being thrown into a psychological crisis because of it. The narrative feature Proteus comes closest: it is the story of two convicts imprisoned together on Robben Island in the 18th century, when South Africa was a Dutch colony, and one of the men has great difficulty at first in accepting the nature of their relationship. But even in this film it is external surveillance not internal shame that sets the stakes and fuels the narrative. Within twenty minutes of plot time from their first sexual encounter, the two men are rolling around together naked on a sunny, secluded beach. In Greyson’s universe, sex leads to fellowship among men, and this fellowship in turn provides strength against public opprobrium and more specifically against the incursions of the state, its courts, and its police.
A third aspect that comes to the fore when screening Greyson’s films and videos en masse is the density of his conceptual layerings and juxtapositions. These are often motivated or at least invited by wordplay: the double-sense of a pun or a word’s sedimented etymology. And so, Proteus is not only about botany and Linnaean taxonomy (the scientific name for the genus of sugarbush, South Africa’s national flower, is Protea) but also the changeability of lived desire and recorded history, just as Un©ut is not only about censorship but also circumcision. In their contribution to the edited collection, Martin Zeilinger and Rosemary J. Coombe, both of whom are well versed in intellectual property law, offer a succinct justification of this play on words in Un©ut:
“[A]n imaginative isomorphism between the editing of works of art and penile circumcision—a potentially mutilating incision that is nearly always carried out by others and subject to the control and sanction of religious and state institutions—is neither as far-fetched nor as discordant as the film’s reviewers seem to have found it” (440).
On the subject of puns and titles, it is remarkable how often Greyson assigns plant names to his films and videos: The Pink Pimpernel (1989), Lilies, Proteus, and Fig Trees. It is as if he is planting a cinematic garden.
The book is a magnificent companion to the box set, while also containing essays about a number of works that are not included in the latter. And, to be clear, although the book’s editors mention VTape’s release of the box set at the end of their introduction, the two projects are not otherwise linked. The book is massive, with over five hundred packed pages. The terms “vast,” “kaleidoscopic,” and “eclectic” come up time and again in the foreword and introduction. The collection features writing by some of the most important figures in queer and media studies of the past thirty years, including Douglas Crimp, Chuck Kleinhans, Laura U. Marks, Cindy Patton, Chris Straayer, and Thomas Waugh, as well as a foreword by B. Ruby Rich. Their writing is complemented by contributions from a number of younger and less well-known scholars. The assembled essays offer various theoretical points of entry into Greyson’s films and videos, drawing on the ideas of everyone from Jurgen Habermas to Guy Hocquenghem and from Leela Gandhi to Vivian Sobchack, as well as the more expected mining of Bakhtin, Benjamin, Brecht, and Foucault.
The majority of the contributors are based in Canada, and they provide an important perspective on Greyson’s oeuvre in the context of this understudied national cinema (understudied, that is, south of the border in the United States, where I write this). At the same time, many of the contributors insist on the transnational dimensions of Greyson’s work, which bounces from Toronto to South Africa to Sarajevo to Moscow to Palestine—and not as often to the United States as one (again, meaning an American like me) might assume. It quickly becomes clear, from perusal of either the box set or the book, that colonial adventure stories, not westerns, were formative texts for Greyson as a boy, and that his activism and filmmaking in adulthood have been shaped by a sharp awareness of his identity as an Anglo-Canadian and thus a subject formed and marked by the history and legacy of the British Empire. In her contribution to the collection, “Fables of Empire: The Intimate Histories of John Greyson,” Susan Lord explores the queered versions of Rudyard Kipling and Sir Richard Francis Burton who act as protagonists in some of Greyson’s earliest films and videos.
The second part of the book, “Obsessions,” is probably the best aid in understanding Greyson’s work through an auteurist lens, because the essays in this section trace the characteristics and preoccupations (i.e., “obsessions”) that span his career. The first three essays in Part II (by Richard Fung, Chris E. Gittings, and Lord) offer rich overviews of the transnational dimensions of Greyson’s work. The next three (by Scott Mackenzie, Gary Kibbins, and Christine Ramsay) explore its postmodern dimensions, with particular attention to Greyson’s distinctive blending of humor and seriousness, fantasy and documentary, and his recurring practices of anachronism and transhistorical fantasy.
In a number of films, Greyson teleports historical figures to present-day Canada to intervene in local sexual politics. For instance, in Urinal, his first feature-length work, a number of queer artists, writers, and intellectuals who were alive in 1937 are mysteriously summoned to an abandoned church in Toronto and then magically time-traveled to 1987 to research and investigate the unfolding crisis of police entrapment of gay men for having sex in public restrooms throughout Ontario. The assembled cohort consists of Sergei Eisenstein, Frida Kahlo, Langston Hughes, Yukio Mishima, and Canadian sculptors and lovers Florence Wyle and Francis Loring (who live(d) in the church), as well as the fully fictional Dorian Gray. Not all of these historical figures were openly gay or bisexual, though they were all rumored to be. In one of the most amusing and mind-bending scenes in the film, they take turns around the dinner table sharing the most gay-speculative passages of their respective biographies, which they bought earlier that day from a second-hand bookstore. Later in the film, Mishima’s late-life romance with fascism becomes a point of interest for the assembly, most of whom, in 1937, are aligned with international communism and the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.
The 100-minute video interweaves campy, Big Brother-style interactions among the famous figures (the police have the house under surveillance) with quite informative illustrated lectures presented by each member of the group in turn, including:
The video remains remarkably fresh almost thirty years later. Urinal uses its early video/personal-computing aesthetic to its advantage, suggesting that queer history is as malleable as the rubber-stamp tool in a PC paint program. Or, as John Champagne puts it in his valuable contribution to the collection (an excerpt from his 1995 book The Ethics of Marginality):
“In an attempt to counter the historical tendency of the media to stabilize, conserve, and ossify both the past and the present as future past, there is, in Urinal, a constant refusal to leave the image alone, a perpetual construction and destruction of the visual field that highlights the immediacy of the image, its potential for deployment in the present” (354).
In this way, the video (along with many others by Greyson) speaks to the current wave of artist projects and scholarly interventions that are re-envisioning queer history and archives.
Videomakers are likely to gravitate to the short videos included in the box set. These pieces demonstrate what an artist can do without a large crew, gobs of money, and the other resources of commercial cinema. The disc containing Greyson’s shorts from the 1980s reveals his origins and development as an artist, when the celebrated theatrical features of the 1990s were still just a twinkle in his eye. The early analog videos are unable to match the beautiful 35mm photography and other high production-value achievements of Lilies, yet they evince terrific ambition and experimentation, both formally and conceptually. All of the auteur-defining qualities laid out in the previous section are visible in an early work like The Jungle Boy (1985), the second video of Greyson’s Kipling Trilogy. One already finds the interrogation of the legacy of British colonialism, the plotline about cruising and police harassment, the presentation of gay male sexuality as a solvent for entrenched divisions of race and class, and the dense conceptual and theoretical layering. A Pauline Kael-esque character offers a review of Zoltan Korda’s 1942 film adaptation of The Jungle Book that mixes postcolonial analysis with an illuminating, if perhaps overreaching, gay-subtextual reading. She posits, for instance, “Shere Khan the tiger as an S+M leather stud” and “Kaa the Python as a vain old queen.” It is inspiring to see a talented artist working with a low budget in a non-professional, even superseded, medium. In video after video, Greyson turns apparent limitations (i.e., fuzzy images, untrained actors, and minimal sets) into advantages: tools for a critical reflection on spectatorship, affect, and politics.
The short videos also showcase the multimedia interdisciplinarity of Greyson’s practice. Many of the pieces are best understood as works of “video art,” connected less to theatrical film than they are to parallel genres of media installation, artist theatre, and performance art. For this reason, the box set is likely to increase interest in Greyson among art historians, who, judging by the contents of the book (which is comprised mainly of film and media scholars), have not yet sufficiently engaged with his work.
According to the useful filmography at the end of the book, Greyson’s 1986 video You Taste American was adapted from a mixed-media performance of the same name (505). This particular video seems, in turn, to have been a means of testing out the ideas and strategies that Greyson deployed two years later in Urinal: in the earlier video it is the recently deceased Michel Foucault and Tennessee Williams who are teleported across time and space to Ontario. Greyson places the same emphasis on process and improvisation in his formal treatment of the video medium as he does in his direction of performances in front of the camera. You Taste American is more loosely assembled than Urinal (which is itself pretty loosely assembled) and includes wavy split-screens, projected text, competing voiceovers, a mix of documentary and original footage, and mock auditions for the casting of its various roles.
Observing how theater bleeds into cinema in Greyson’s early videos sharpens a viewer’s attention to this same quality in later works, particularly the features. Un©ut (1997), for instance, has tighter scripting, higher production values, and more professional acting than Urinal, but it is just as much a theater-film hybrid. In contrast to the perimeter of hung, painted sheets that distinguishes the various rooms of the abandoned church in the earlier film, Un©ut unfolds in more clearly distinct and more normatively furnished and decorated spaces. At the same time, these spaces remain highly artificial, in part because they are often inexplicably placed outdoors, but also because they are oddly underpopulated: no other patrons than the three main characters are ever seen in the basement bar despite its multiple tables, and no other inmates are viewed in the outdoor prison even though it has six cots. The typist Peter does have two co-workers, but the dimensions of their open-air, rooftop office dwarf them.
Greyson no doubt could have tossed in some extras for the sake of “realism,” but he chose not to. The sense of filmed theater is heightened because realism’s apparatus of surrounding noise, the hustle and bustle of other lives happening around the central conflict, is made so conspicuously absent: the whole world can be seen over the characters’ heads, and it is empty. Greyson devises a new balance among narrative absorption, aesthetic appeal, critical reflexivity, and political provocation for every film and video he makes. For me, Un©ut is one of the least successful blends, but this is likely only because I haven’t yet fully grasped the purpose of its central distanciation devices. If Un©ut were a play, with a small cast of talented actors performing at the center of a few large, well-designed sets, I wouldn’t find the effect so odd.
Videomakers will also find much of value in the book. The hundred-plus pages of Greyson’s own writings showcase how an artist uses theory, as opposed to how a theorist uses art—though, in Greyson’s case, the line between theorist and artist, like the one between essay and film, often breaks down altogether. Not surprisingly, there is a fluidity and playfulness in Greyson’s use of theory that is missing from most of the more professional scholarship elsewhere in the volume. In a piece from 2002 titled “Something Always Seems to Go Wrong Somewhere: Eisenstein at the Barricades, Pasolini at the Baths,” Greyson reflects on his and other filmmakers’ efforts to bring “left politics, queer desire, and avant-garde ambitions” together on the screen. Looking back on these efforts, he notes humorously,
“Like a well-intentioned three-way, these encounters were often more disruptive than productive, both conflicted and aborted, often tinged with hostility and frustration” (284).
The essay goes on to reveal some of Greyson’s thoughts on the American queer film avant-garde, including the triumvirate of Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and Andy Warhol. Pointing out that these filmmakers never engaged substantively with the organized left, he makes it clear that his own work is better understood in relation to those who did: not only Sergei Eisenstein and Pier Paolo Pasolini, but other European greats such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean Genet, Isaac Julien, and Rosa von Praunheim.
The book also includes a great deal of information about Greyson’s milieu of fellow artists, activists, and collaborators in Toronto, where he has primarily lived and worked since moving there from London, Ontario, at the age of eighteen. These sections valuably illustrate how an artist is shaped by and in turn shapes his place. A number of artists from the same Toronto art circle as Greyson, such as Richard Fung, Mike Hoolboom, Deirdre Logue, and David Wall, contribute writing to the collection. And Greyson’s affecting eulogy for videomaker Colin Campbell, an ex-lover and collaborator who died in 2001, is also included. In his insider-y contribution to the volume, Thomas Waugh indicates other collaborators who became, at least for a time, more than that, including conceptual artist A.A. Bronson and fellow AIDS video activist Gregg Bordowitz (34-35). Considering the interplay of sex and art across Greyson’s oeuvre, this is wonderful information to have, and I’m glad it has been inscribed onto the historical record.
Teachers will be both inspired and daunted by the vastness of both the box set and the book. Ideally, one would teach the two together in a glorious auteur course devoted to Greyson. For those seeking to incorporate the material into a survey course on queer cinema, Canadian cinema, postcolonial cinema, or video art, the book unfortunately does not include a comprehensive, stand-alone, “introduction to Greyson and his oeuvre” type of essay. Thomas Waugh, the premier scholar of Canadian queer cinema with his 2006 study The Romance of Transgression in Canada: Queering Sexualities, Nations, Cinemas (a similarly massive tome from MQUP), has written insightfully about Greyson many times in the past, but the essay he contributed to the present volume, though it contains wonderfully powerful doses of gossip and sexual frankness that are informed and justified by more than three decades of friendship, ultimately riffs so freely and personally that it may not work well in an undergraduate classroom, at least not as an introductory or overview text.
A teacher might draw instead on one or some combination of the “Obsessions” essays in Part II of the book, such as the great pieces on Greyson’s internationalism by Richard Fung and Chris E. Gittings, or editor Scott MacKenzie’s analysis of the filmmaker’s postmodern treatment of humor and history. That said, even the essays in the collection that discuss multiple works and span Greyson’s career tend, as one might expect, to devote their attention to newer and less written-about works and have little to say about his more classic, oft-studied films. Because I cannot imagine not teaching Zero Patience and the late 1980s/early 1990s AIDS activist shorts in my own queer cinema class, I would be inclined to do a week first on them, using the classic writing by Douglas Crimp and the new essays by Cindy Patton and Kay Armatage included in the collection, and then turn the following week to more recent films and videos and a selection of the “Obsessions” essays. For those preferring a more focused exploration of one film rather than a survey, Part IV of the book is comprised of in-depth studies, including Shannon Brownlee on Lilies, Roger Hallas on Proteus, and Brenda Longfellow (one of the book’s editors) on Fig Trees. Longfellow’s essay is particularly valuable in its illumination of a difficult film, clarifying the history and politics of opera and what it means for Greyson to have combined it with documentary.
Other pairings of essay and film/video are easier said than done. While the book is comprehensive, the box set, though huge, is not. Moreover, by some strange fluke, the essays that comprise Part I of the book are almost exclusively about films and videos that are not included on the box set. Although this does not detract from either collection—the box set remains a treasure trove, and at a steal of a price—I imagine a teacher will want to know the gaps before jumping in.
Most of the important shorts that are absent from the box set are ones of medium length, i.e., longer than twenty minutes but shorter than an hour. Two solidarity documentaries that Greyson collaborated on in the 1980s are not included: Manzana por Manzana (1983), in support of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and To Pick Is Not to Choose (1985), about conditions facing farmworkers in southern Ontario. These are apparently straighter films than what followed, in the sense that they are more traditionally documentary and also lack homosexual themes. Chuck Kleinhans describes and contextualizes the films well in his contribution to the book and draws out some of the nascent qualities that Greyson soon developed into his distinct style. Another straight film (in the second sense) that is missing from the box set is Greyson’s 2000 narrative feature The Law of Enclosures, about the past and present of a long-married heterosexual couple. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing I am unable to locate the movie streaming or on DVD. Thankfully, it is represented in the book by a theoretically sophisticated essay by Peter Dickinson, who reads the film, however straight it may be thematically, as no less queer in its play with temporality than Greyson’s other works.
The most notable absences from the box set are four medium-length works that are explicitly about sexual politics and that come up rather frequently in the book. One of them is Greyson’s breakthrough 16mm short The Making of “Monsters” (1991), in which Bertolt Brecht (played by a catfish) and Georg Lukács (played by a human) debate how best to direct a made-for-TV movie about the murder of a gay teacher by five schoolboys in Toronto. This film is probably the hardest to find of all of Greyson’s works, because the Kurt Weill estate has refused copyright permission for its parodied versions of Weill’s songs from The Threepenny Opera of 1928, which was itself, ironically, an appropriative work based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera of 1728. A few years later, Greyson incorporated his take on the conflict into Un©ut (1997), a feature-length fiction-doc hybrid that fearlessly exposes how copyright law distorts cultural work and, by extension, cultural memory. A series of titles explains that though Greyson had the money to clear the song rights, the Weill estate balked when they saw the film. That same year, the estate had no trouble granting permission to MacDonald’s to parody the tune of “Mack the Knife” in its “Mac Tonight” commercials. Greyson suggests that a mixture of homophobia and brute capitalism created the double standard.
Hopefully a healthy bootleg exchange will rise up around The Making of “Monsters” just as it has around Todd Haynes’s Superstar (1987), which was similarly pushed underground because of copyright issues over music. I was able to see Greyson’s film years ago thanks to a mentor in grad school. It’s a shame not to have access to it again as I write this review, because after binging on Greyson’s other works I’m ready to think in more nuanced ways about the tension between Lukacsian realism and Brechtian distanciation that he thematizes and explores in that early film. Essays in the collection by Laura U. Marks and (writing collaboratively) Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson do their best to fill the void.
Two major AIDS activist videos from 1989 are also not included in the box set: The Pink Pimpernel and The World Is Sick (sic). These are significant works within Greyson’s career as an AIDS activist videomaker, bridging the gap between his safer-sex music video The ADS Epidemic of 1987 and Zero Patience of 1993. Thankfully, scholar Cindy Patton, who has been writing about HIV/AIDS for as long as Greyson has been making films, analyzes both videos in her contribution to the collection.
The last notable absence from the box set is After the Bath (1995), which VTape was kind enough to let me preview. The video is vital for understanding the trajectory of Greyson’s work as an activist mediamaker focused on public sex, police surveillance and entrapment, and moral panic. Commissioned by CBC Newsworld, After the Bath investigates police and media responses to an alleged “kiddie-porn ring” that came to attention in London, Ontario, in 1993 and that led, over the following two years, to the arrests of fifty-seven adult men on charges of sexual involvement with male youth. Intervening in the events as they were still unfolding, the video presents interviews with a range of people involved: police investigators, the accused men, sexually active youth, social workers, community activists, lawyers, and journalists. The result is a complex mix of divergent perspectives and arguments. Impressively, Greyson manages to call the claims of the police investigators and mainstream journalists into question while also being forthright about his own uncertainty as to what exactly happened and whether it was exploitation. In his brilliant essay about the video, Vincent Doyle draws on the ideas of Habermas and Nancy Fraser to analyze Greyson’s effort to create an “interpublic sphere”: “a public and discursive space that does not (yet) exist, but which the documentary suggests may well be possible and desirable” (86). He goes on to specify,
“Greyson’s documentary shifts the focus away from the category of ‘child pornography,’ about which there can be little reasoned debate, towards the more complex question of the moral and ethical implications of male teenagers above the age of consent engaging in consensual sexual activities with older men, sometimes in exchange for money or other forms of ‘consideration’” (88).
Of all the difficult topics Greyson has tackled in his career, from HIV/AIDS to Israel/Palestine, this may be the most difficult, drawing on all his reserves of formal innovation, theoretical savvy, good humor, and sexual frankness to open up space for productive dialogue.
There are surprisingly few essays in the collection that offer sustained comparisons of Greyson to other film and videomakers. He’s made so much work that a person could spend all day, all week, all semester, bouncing his films and videos off of each other without looking farther afield. Kass Banning’s contribution to the volume is an exception. Exploring the use of tableaux vivants across Greyson’s oeuvre, the essay draws productive connections to queer aesthetic uses of the same device in the films of Derek Jarman and Isaac Julien.
Banning’s essay invites an educator to imagine other film pairings and three-ways. For instance, Urinal could anchor a unit on the queer politics of public bathrooms that might also include William E. Jones’s minimalist reworking of early-1960s Ohio police surveillance in Tearoom (2007) and Tara Mateik’s investigation of the politics of gender-segregated bathrooms from a trans perspective in Toilet Training (2003). Similarly one could imagine a unit on queering history that pairs one of Greyson’s films or videos (virtually any of them would fit the bill) with Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989), Barbara Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses (1992), Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996), or Chris E. Vargas’s Liberacéon (2011).
This discussion of teaching Greyson’s films and videos must conclude with a meditation on the book’s title, The Perils of Pedagogy, which takes its name from the earliest piece included in the box set, a five-minute video that he made in 1984 when he was twenty-four years old. In the video, a lascivious middle-aged man, complete with bald head, open shirt, and hairy chest, directs a cute young thing (shot sideways) to try on different outfits—Greek toga, British schoolboy— while performing a lip sync of “To Sir, With Love.” The video feels campy and innocent, and the boy is hardly a minor, but still the stakes are high. Greyson pops up halfway through as a cop decked out in an overly fetishistic costume complete with shades and a mustache. He says in direct address to the camera,
“Our biggest concern of course is that homosexuals are recruiting young boys to their ranks though coercion and trickery and then producing pornography forcing them to do unspeakable acts.”
Though he appears impassive at the beginning of the shot, the camera slowly pans down his body as he speaks to reveal his hand energetically masturbating under his briefs. Later in the video, the line, “If the schools teach conformity then the gay ghetto is nothing more than a downtown campus,” unfolds across five intertitles. With its light touch and pop aesthetic, The Perils of Pedagogy reveals the young cineaste’s commitment to countering sex negativity and, perhaps even more so, his refusal to let such negativity stand in the way of his own queer education. Too young to be seen as a corrupter of youth, Greyson may have been especially well-situated to counter the escalating moral panic around the sexual endangerment of minors that erupted in the late 1970s and shaped the 1980s. When he arrived in Toronto in 1978 at the age of eighteen, he quickly established himself (to use a playful term from the book) as a wundertwink armed with a video camera and a honed political sensibility.
But we’re now more than three decades removed from that time. The book’s cover emblazons its title within a thick caution-red border over a black-and-white still of Dorian Gray from Urinal. He poses in the nude, seated sideways, with a police cap on his head, and he gazes directly at the camera and, through it, at us the potential readers. As I’ve lugged the book from café to café in the weeks I’ve spent working on this review, I’ve wondered why Greyson’s name should be kept so small and this provocative pairing of nudity and pedagogy loom so large. I’m now wondering too what it would mean to put a copy of this book in the hands of every student who signs up for that auteur course on Greyson I’d like to teach one day.
Together, the book and the box set raise profound questions—ones that are difficult if not impossible to answer—about how gay pedagogy has lost some of its force and integrity as certain forms of queerness have been granted institutional legitimacy at the expense of more marginalized and outlaw sexual practices. In their inventive interweaving of history, education, and desire, Greyson’s films and videos have always been projects of cross-generational queer pedagogy. But today they may be one of the few places left where that kind of pedagogy still occurs.
2. Hey Elton and BDS Bieber are both available on Greyson’s YouTube page along with his other BDS videos. For more on pinkwashing, see Sarah Schulman, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).
3. See, for instance, Queering Archives: Historical Unravelings, ed. Daniel Marshall, Kevin P. Murphy, and Zeb Tortorici, special issue of Radical History Review 120 (Fall 2014); Archives and Archiving, ed. K.J. Rawson and Aaron Devor, special issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 2.4 (2015); and Out of the Closet, Into the Archives: Researching Sexual Histories, ed. Amy L. Stone and Jaime Cantrell (Albany: SUNY Press, 2015).
4. Another recent book on Greyson is worth mentioning here: Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson, Zero Patience: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011). Knabe and Pearson contributed an essay on Greyson’s 1991 film The Making of “Monsters” to The Perils of Pedagogy collection.
5. The forty-five minute video is available through VTape, as are The Pink Pimpernel and The World Is Sick (sic). However, the cost of acquiring each one for a university library is more than half the cost of the entire box set, which may be daunting for educators trying to build their library collections on a tight budget. Single screening rentals are available at a lower price.