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.[2]

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.

Film scholar

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.

Secrecy, but no shame: the protagonists of Proteus (2003) romp in the nude on a sunny, secluded beach. In Proteus (2003), Scottish botanist Virgil Niven flirts with Khoikhoi prisoner Claas Blank over a table of dissected and classified plant life: “The old-fashioned botanists would have divided these into a dozen different families. Not Dr. Linnaeus. That’s the genius of his nomenclature. He sees past the superficial differences of petal color and leaf size and focuses exclusively on sexual organs.”

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.

Rudyard Kipling takes a bath in Kipling Meets the Cowboys (1985). Sir Richard Francis Burton struggles to understand the protocol of an ACT UP meeting in Zero Patience (1993).

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 six historical cast members contemplate the words and image of Dorian Gray (off camera) at the end of Urinal (1988).

Yukio Mishima reads from his own biography in Urinal.

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.[3]