Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic (2010)
In Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic (2010), Thomas Waugh and Jason Garrison balance rigor and delicacy as they analyze the Canadian film about a group of white male artists, who fraternize in the clubs, arcades, and fast food joints of Montreal’s lower Main and contemplate homosexuality as an alternative to their rather boring experiences with women. In this now fairly obscure film, Steve (Lack) and Peter (Brawley) play the queer chorus, providing sideline commentary and offering unsolicited advice, as Frank (Vitale) falls in love with a twelve year old boy named Johnny (Sutherland), making Bozo (Allan Moyle), his best friend, jealous. Waugh and Garrison’s goal here is to reclaim Montreal Main as a “kid film” twice over. First, they offer an analysis of the film’s narrative that centralizes Johnny’s desire and the adult world’s denial of his agency, his father and Frank ending the relationship before it can even really begin. Second, the authors argue that Montreal Main a “kid film” in that it is an orphan of queer film history. While the film was once popular among gay audiences, it has since been forgotten, and Waugh and Garrison contend that this is because of the increasing taboo placed on intergenerational love and children’s sexuality since the 1970s:
“The openness and sensitivity to nuance and difference that marked the era, the basic respect and curiosity required to do justice to Frank and Johnny’s relationship, have since been obliterated in the West.” [open endnotes in new window]
Feminist critiques of rape and pornography influenced the gay and lesbian movement in the 1980s, and in the early 1990s the pressures of right-wing politicians caused organizations such as GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) to institute a de facto policy of boy-love exclusion. While queer studies emerged around this time as a field committed to the exploration of desire, Waugh and Garrison point out that its early authors had little to say on the subject and, if anything, contributed to intergenerational taboos. Waugh and Garrison’s major contribution is their analysis of these profound changes in LGBT movement discourse. Like Youmans, they dirty the break between “gay” and “queer.” Situating their close readings of Montreal Main’s tender representation of man-boy love within such a history, they challenge readers to rethink where they draw lines around sexual, artistic, and political freedom.
Due to this particularly sensitive subject matter and because Montreal Main is one of the lesser-known films of the Queer Film Classics series, Waugh and Garrison provide ample context for the film’s production, distribution, and reception as well as the more generally historical and national and international contexts in which it was made and through which it moved. The first two of the book’s four chapters after the short introduction are titled “Context: Time and Space” and “Context: People and Films.” In the first of these, Waugh and Garrison describe the “’perfect storm’ of institutional, economic, and demographic convergence” that made the film possible and made it an iconic story of early 1970s Canadian queer life. These included the recent decriminalization of sodomy in the Canadian criminal code; the collapse of censorship in much of the West in the 1960s and the resulting general laid back attitude toward and even interest in intergenerational sexuality and children’s sexuality across films made in Europe and North America, such as The Special Friendship (Jean Delannoy, 1964) and Death In Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971); the formation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) in 1968; and such Canadian funding agencies’ tendency to grant filmmakers free reign on their projects. Together these elements laid the groundwork for a film like Montreal Main.
In the first chapter, Waugh and Garrison also take readers through the intricate geography of the film, detailing the histories of the upper and lower Main as well as the sexual significance of settings such as the Mountain, the Mall, the suburb of Notre-Dame-de-Grace, and the Hinterland as well as the Frank’s Volkswagen van, which moves the characters between these various places. Waugh and Garrison write,
“The characters of the film inhabit these six or seven worlds unevenly, straddling or even suspended between them, between fringe and center, tradition and revolt, intersection with the sexual subcultures proper to each.”
In learning about each, including through the great illustrated map the authors provide, one gets a clearer sense of cultural and class-based stakes of the film’s romantic and sexual encounters. These friends are neither the men cruising at the docks nor the young couples setting up families in the suburbs. Who they might be and where they might belong is what they are still figuring out, and with the means to make such journeys they appear to be in little rush to do so.
In the second chapter, Waugh and Garrison provide detailed biographies of all the major players in film, which is especially apt in this case, considering most of the non-professional actors played characters with their own names, living in their own apartments, essentially dramatized versions of themselves. By detailing how the four actors playing the four main friends, including director Frank Vitale, also appeared in different roles and positions in one another’s films, the authors offer intertexual readings of their performances here. In doing so, Waugh and Garrison demonstrate that the particular homosocial queerness of Montreal Main was far from incidental. The press frequently asked Vitale about his own sexuality, and he spoke frankly about his ambivalence, which Waugh and Garrison describe as striking them as “prophetically proto-queer almost four decades later.” The authors also see this proto-queerness in Vitale’s description of the film as propaganda aimed at exploring the “gray area” between homosexuality and heterosexuality. It is also in this chapter that Waugh and Garrison chronicle Montreal Main’s distribution and reception, from its world premier at the Whitney Museum in March 1974 to its Canadian premiere that April and its rave reviews in Toronto’s gay press. In 1982 the film played at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, where it was shown alongside Kenneth Anger and Rosa von Praunheim films.
The third chapter, “Text,” then focuses on the film text itself, dividing the film into sixteen episodes and analyzing each formally and thematically. While the detailed information of the first two chapters was helpful for those unfamiliar with 1970s Canadian cinema or how sexual subcultures mapped onto Montreal of 1974, taking readers through the entire film is unnecessary. The authors make a number of important observations in this chapter. It is here that Waugh and Garrison delineate exactly how Frank and Bozo’s heterosexuality is established at the start of the film such that they might later transgress without too much worry. It is also here that the camera’s close attention to Johnny’s sensuality is first analyzed. However, these could have been folded into the historiographical meat of the final chapter, “Sextext: Intergenerational Cinema and Politics,” which by the third chapter has begun to feel unnecessarily delayed.
In this final chapter, Waugh and Garrison approach Montreal Main from the vantage point of the mainstreamed LGBT present and claim that the openness and nuance of early 1970s queer communities, including those which made Montreal Main’s story about Frank and Johnny’s love possible, are distinctly elements of the past. Beginning with feminist critiques of rape and child abuse in the 1980s, Waugh and Garrison argue, various factions of the gay and lesbian movement began to distance themselves formally and informally from boy-lovers. Under further pressure from right-wing politicians in the U.S. in the early 1990s, a number of organizations, including the International Lesbian and Gay Association and GLAAD, expelled defenders of man-boy love. Waugh and Garrison argue that the LGBTQ community has “left the Franks of the world,” now considered pedophiles, “to be ‘disappeared’ by monstrous institutions like the sex offender registries and civil commitment prisons.” Furthermore, the case “isn’t that different in the radical corners of queer theory.”
Despite queer scholars’ proud commitment to studying non-normative genders and sexualities unaccounted for by the more presentist gay and lesbian studies, they have either avoided intergenerational sexuality entirely or cast it as a thing of the distant past. In doing so, Waugh and Garrison claim, queer scholars collude with the respectability politics they define themselves against. As a film about the love of a twenty-five-year old man and a twelve-year old boy, Montreal Main is an orphan queer film, Waugh and Garrison argue, “because it was abandoned—not because its parents died.” For them, this is a grave failure of queer studies, and with this definitive chapter they seek to recover the politics and aesthetics of this twice abandoned subject.
After surveying a number of films that explore man-boy love, always eventually casting what may have at first seemed desirable on both parties’ parts as trauma and abuse, Waugh and Garrison explore Montreal Main’s more balanced representation of Johnny and Frank. They take readers through the scene in which Frank meets Johnny, noting how the film makes apparent Frank’s attraction while also revealing his initial misperception of Johnny as a girl, thus prompting viewers to ask how and why this attraction persists. Waugh and Garrison also, however, insist that their readers ask how and why Johnny wants Frank, eventually insisting he wants to keep spending time with Frank and, afraid his parents will not let him, would even like to move in. Waugh and Garrison note that we can comfortably ask these questions because the relationship, if clearly sexual, is never fulfilled. For them, this does not eradicate such an understanding or lessen the importance of exploring its repercussions.
“The pedophile gaze,” Waugh and Garrison argue, “is within us.” They demonstrate as much by analyzing two scenes in which Johnny is captured by the camera in a sensual fashion, even though Frank is not present. In cutting to a close-up and focusing on Johnny’s mouth as he drinks his orange juice at breakfast, for example, Vitale implicates the viewers in these erotics. The authors then analyze the film’s use of sound to outline Johnny’s trajectory as a desiring subject. They show how the silence of Johnny and Frank’s early scenes together contrast dramatically with the violent outbursts of Johnny’s angry father, and ask us to listen close as Johnny’s smashing of the coke bottle upon being abandoned by Frank gives way to the terrible silence of being alone.
In this last chapter, Waugh and Garrison, in a methodology akin to Youmans’ book of the next year, compare the advice of the secondary characters Steve and Peter between the video pre-shoot and the final film. The authors find that over the process of making the film, the queer chorus became less cajoling and more cautioning, morphing into two odd voices of respectable, white, middleclass society and the foils to Frank’s potential deviance. Waugh and Garrison deconstruct one of Steve’s monologues, demonstrating how his metaphors, first of drug addiction and then catching butterflies, perpetually characterize Johnny as the vulnerable victim. However, the authors also offer a secondary reading of the butterfly metaphor, revealing another dynamic whereby Frank waits for Johnny to fly freely to him out of his own curiosity and desire. Through this layered analysis Waugh and Garrison demonstrate the dangers of adults speaking for children and advocate that we listen to them instead.
Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic (2010) is not an easy book to read. For those such as myself who came of age in the 1980s and 90s when such critiques of intergenerational sexuality peaked and then normalized, Waugh and Garrison offer a lot to think about. Ultimately, however, they make watching Montreal Main a critical and ethical project. For those invested in thinking about queer politics and the stories queer films tell, it is a unique and worthwhile read. Whether or not one agrees with the implications of their argument, namely that man-boy love ought to be welcomed back into the queer fold, they effectively provoke critical rigor in this oft-neglected area.In their conclusion, Waugh and Garrison reveal an audience for such work, Montreal Main itself having enjoyed an active underground VHS following through the 1990s and receiving a DVD restoration by Concordia University in 2009.
Waugh and Garrison clearly wrote this monograph on the film with gentleness and generosity toward those who may be discovering the film for the first time and reading their book in tandem. This book on Montreal Main speaks to very different, if not so distant, time in the history of gender and sexuality. However, Waugh and Garrison’s kid-oriented analysis of the film is especially provocative today, as the supporters of anti-transgender bathroom bills ignorantly cast transgender women as pedophiles, while refusing to listen to the transgender children and young adults advocating for their own safety in school bathrooms.
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing:
A Queer Film Classic (2014)
Julia Mendenhall’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing: A Queer Film Classic (2014) adeptly casts the 1987 Canadian indie as a proto-queer film, situating its production within the historical period immediately prior to both queer studies and New Queer Cinema’s emergence. I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing follows its thirty-one year old amateur photographer protagonist Polly, as she moves from temp work to permanent part-time employment as a curator’s assistant at a Toronto art gallery. The film is part mockumentary, as Polly reflects on her experiences at the gallery to a video camera, which the viewer only late in the film discovers she has stolen from one of the gallery’s installations. The fairly tame drama that Polly witnesses between the curator, her artist girlfriend Mary, and various male buyers and eventually contributes to plays out in linear episodes, interrupted briefly a half dozen times by Polly’s video camera narration and on a few occasions more extensively by her fantasies, played out in black and white, as she develops the photographs she takes in her modest darkroom at home. Offering a close reading of the scene in which the Curator commends an artist’s “oblique pragmatism” to a representative from the National Institute, Polly keenly listening from the gallery’s door, Mendenhall reinterprets the films send-up of pretentious artspeak as describing the film’s vision for lived queer practice. To Mendenhall, Polly is our queer hero, offering us examples for how we might curate our own sense of self worth, desire, and pleasure in the face of adversity.
Like the other two Queer Film Classic books reviewed here, Mendenhall takes her readers through the details of the film’s production, situating Mermaids within Patricia Rozema’s oeuvre and biography as well as accounting for its funding and support and recounting its critical acclaim at international film festivals. The film was popular at the Cannes Film Festival, where it debuted, won the Prix de la jeunesse, and secured U.S. distribution with the then little-known Miramax. However, the film’s feminist scholars and lesbian reviewers struggled to identify both the film’s politics and Polly’s sexuality, resulting in ambivalent reviews. Mendenhall takes this historical problem of the film’s mixed lesbian reception as the motivation for her own analysis. Drawing inspiration from queer studies of the last quarter century, she makes an argument for thinking of Polly as polymorphously perverse, whereby the protagonist offers viewers a range of nonnormative sexual and affectional preferences, neither quantifiable as heterosexual or homosexual. Mendenhall contends there is a queer didacticism to Rozema’s depiction of Polly’s pleasures that is apropos to its historical moment and worthy of consideration by arbiters of the queer film canon.
The first two chapters are devoted to providing contextual information about I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing’s production and immediate reception. In “Creating the Queer Fairy Tale,” Mendenhall draws on the Patricia Rozema Special Collection at the Toronto International Film Group’s Film Reference Library and her own interviews with Rozema to narrate the challenges Rozema overcame in getting her first feature made. Rozema, Mendenhall tells us, was motivated to make Mermaids by scathing reviews of her half-hour film Passion: A Letter in 16mm (1985). Passion focused on a workaholic filmmaker who, having lost her lover to her work, addresses her genderless lover as “you” in a direct-to-camera monologue. One Toronto-based The Globe and Mail reviewer called the film “greatly overwrought and thuddingly pretentious.” In response, Rozema, who was still closeted and had only recently moved to Toronto, made Mermaids, a film about the very pretentiousness of the culture from which this review materialized. Quoting Rozema’s journals and recounting Rozema’s frustrations writing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Journal, Mendenhall analyzes how the filmmaker wrote Mermaids in order to work through her developing ideas about art and media as well as her growing attraction to women. It is here that Mendenhall also describes the tensions in Canada around homosexuality at the height of the AIDS crisis and Canadian funders reticence toward funding “minimalist student films.” Rozema was willing to temper the explicitness of the lesbian lovers and Polly’s interest in them, and she had a champion in the Ontario Film Development Corporation. As a result, Mendenhall tells us, Mermaids got made quick and cheap, and Rozema’s fairytale vision of overcoming personal and professional adversity through art and passion became a reality.
In “Coming Out, Cannes, and Criticism,” Mendenhall contrasts Mermaids’ international popularity, beginning with Cannes, and lesbian journalists and feminist scholars’ fairly uniformly negative critiques, beginning with Chris Bearchell’s article on Rozema for Epicene and Teresa de Lauretis’ article, “Guerrilla in the Midst: Women’s Cinema in the 1980s.”While critics at Cannes were enthralled—the film received a six minute standing ovation, and Harry Weinstein courted Rozema for the U.S. rights—lesbians were annoyed by Rozema’s reluctance to come out, and de Lauretis criticized the film for what she perceived as a related ambivalence about feminism and sexual politics. Mendenhall, meanwhile, offers her own queer interpretation, whereby Mermaids is revealed to speak from the specificity of Rozema’s self-discovery of her own lesbianism and narrativize an individual’s growing ability to identify and articulate her feelings. Mendenhall highlights a moment late in the film where Polly stands up for the Curator, who is being derided by another painter and possible ex-boyfriend, as well as the moments where Polly experiences a multitude of pleasures not typically associated with sexuality. In doing as much, Mendenhall does not argue that the Cannes critics were right and the lesbian critics wrong, but accounts for the film’s queer sensibility while also demarcating its unique representation of sexuality.
This analysis develops across the latter two chapters. In “Reading Polly’s ‘Perversities,’” Mendenhall details her theory of Polly’s polymorphously perverse sexuality, conducting analyses of the film’s black and white vision scenes, including the one in which Polly draws on Freud to explain her theory to the Curator that “gender is irrelevant in matters of the heart,” as they stroll along a river bank in turn of the century garb. “By depicting Polly’s sexuality as polysexuality,” Mendenhall writes,
“Rozema, like Freud before her, recognizes that human excitations and desires are mutable and capricious, or to use the reclaimed contemporary term, ‘queer.’”
While Teresa de Lauretis would go on to coin the term “queer theory” in 1991, neither she nor anyone else, Mendenhall claims, has read Polly as distinctly “queer.” For Mendenhall, Polly’s queerness lays in her rejection of the heterosexual/homosexual binary and its conventional narratives, choosing instead to find her own pleasures, which advance a very unusual story in the process. Polly’s visions, Mendenhall argues, are exemplary of the erotics Polly finds in aesthetics. Mendenhall uses Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” to reclaim a primordial scopophilia (rather than fetishistic scopophilia) for Polly, wherein observing the world around her and photographing it becomes paramount. While the outside world does not understand Polly, and the Curator rejects her anonymously submitted photographs, Mendenhall describes how Polly brings these experiences home with her, in turn creating a sanctuary among her developed photographs, where she enjoys other sensual pleasures, such as eating food and listening to music (a list to which I would add, petting her cat). This builds to Mendenhall’s interpretation of the film’s conclusion. As the Curator, Mary, and Polly walk into Polly’s darkroom-turned-forest, Mendenhall argues, they come together, now a threesome of polymorphously perverse lovers, on Polly’s terms.
In the final chapter, “Envisioning Our Futures,” Mendenhall returns to contextual analysis, retrospectively situating the film as the first of many queer films Rozema would go on to make. After Mermaids, Rozema started making more explicitly lesbian films as well as more political films, including White Room (1990), which, unlike Mermaids, graphically represented lesbian sex. Meanwhile, her autobiographical When Night is Falling (1995) critiqued Christian homophobia but was not considered New Queer Cinema, because its narrative more closely resembled those films that New York Times critic Stephen Holden described as “Giddy Gay Lite.” Mendenhall explains these changes over Rozema’s oeuvre in both personal and cultural terms. Around this same time, Rozema finally came out. Furthermore, the venues and sources of funding for queer cinema shifted from independent cinema to HBO, benefitting Rozema greatly.
For Mendenhall, Rozema’s later productions do not merely prove the queerness of her first feature. Instead, they offer an important contrast, whereby Mermaids’ oblique pragmatism might be better appreciated today. Mendenhall argues that the empathy with which Polly treats herself is still relevant when, even with advances in gay rights, criticism, rejection, and humiliation have yet to wane. In such moments, finding one’s own little pleasures and indulging in them can be a life-saving strategy. For this reason, Mendenhall claims, the film remains inspirational. This returned focus on oblique pragmatism allows Mendenhall to practically link this pre- or proto-queer past to the present and claim its relevancy to global audiences pursuing their own unique passions, visions, and desires today.
In this newest Queer Film Classics title, Mendenhall offers a much needed rereading of a subtle queer film that in many ways remains strange in an age where queer films made by “out” filmmakers and with “out” characters are supplemented with homosocial friendships that anticipate queer readings and yet do little to augment what that queer reading might entail. In focusing on Polly’s polymorphous perversity, Mendenhall reminds us of the many pleasures films themselves provide and encourages the pursuit of even those most commonplace. Reading the book alongside watching Mermaids appropriately creates greater pleasures in viewing. Mendenhall’s correction of de Lauretis’ rather rigid reading of the film is welcome. However, a more generous reading of the film’s feminist critiques could encourage a more critical engagement with the limitations of the film’s queer pragmatism. The model of queer lived practice that Mendenhall lays out is highly individualistic. Furthermore, the film leaves us at the moment when the Curator, Mary, and Polly begin their adventure together. Thus, we are unsure how Polly’s sexuality, so well articulated by Mendenhall, might develop with others by her side. Mendenhall quickly alludes to other minorities whom Mermaids might inspire. However, she does not reconcile such claims with her focus on this film’s individualizing strategies and an individual, Rozema, in Toronto in 1987. While appropriating “oblique pragmatism” might offer a much-needed critique the exclusiveness of the high art world, there is a limit to which subjects can make, appreciate, and find productive adapting such a critique.
Queer Film Classics
As a book series, Queer Film Classics makes important contributions to the field of queer media studies. Each title amasses contextual information that is integral to further research on its given film. At the same time, there is flexibility to their format, which allows each author to pursue a question of particular interest to the study of film history, queer history, and how we remember and think about both. As early as 1993, Judith Butler anticipated the end of queer studies and queer politics, claiming,
“If the term ‘queer’ is to be a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and future role imaginings, it will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in that direction of urgent and expanding political purposes.”
Queer Film Classics takes on this challenge and keeps “queer” queer. From Greg Youmans’ archival exploration of the construction of an early and necessary collective portrait of gay and lesbian life and the many routes it could have taken to Thomas Waugh and Jason Garrison’s provocation about which love stories are the first to be left behind in the march toward “equality” and queer studies’ own institutionalization to Julia Mendenhall’s championing of everyday pleasures of looking, making, eating, and self-care, Queer Film Classics pushes back on the contemporary cultural and social forces working to make “queer” rigid or dull.
In reading these three titles, it is apparent that Queer Film Classics would make incredible teaching aids. They are written in direct and clear prose and thus would be great for undergraduate classrooms. In being assigned them, students would receive introductions to the historical and production contexts of each film. Furthermore, their more critical analyses would offer examples for how to engage with these sometimes dated and often strange queer films, and they are likely to generate ample questions for any given class to discuss. Finally, reading Queer Film Classics would introduce undergraduates to key concepts in queer theory, while also teaching them about important moments in gay and lesbian history. I myself am teaching from them in my course on Queer Cinema this fall.
Since 2009, Queer Film Classics has published fifteen books on sixteen films (other than those reviewed above: Gods and Monsters, Law of Desire, Trash, Farewell My Concubine, Fire, Death in Venice, Zero Patience, Strangers on a Train, Paris Is Burning, C.R.A.Z.Y., Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, and a joint monograph on L.A. Plays Itself/Boys in the Sand) and has plans for at least seven more (on Female Trouble, Arabian Nights, Manila by Night, and Scorpio Rising).