The sexual anxiety of the boys’ club
The last time I had the honour of writing for Copie Zéro in 1981, my article was entitled “Nègres blancs, tapettes et ‘butch’: les lesbiennes et les gais dans le cinéma québécois.” Intended at the outset to be a short survey of a few images of homosexual men and women over thirty years, the piece proliferated beyond anyone’s expectations, least of all mine, into a 16 page encyclopedia. The end result was a balance sheet, mostly negative, of dozens of representations of men and women — most symptomatically minor, a few major — whose larger implications encompassed the terrain of sexual politics as a whole. Shortly thereafter appeared several important but unsuccessful works in cinema and video focused on central depictions of lesbians and gays : LUC OU LA PART DES CHOSES, ARIOSO, BY DESIGN, CREVER À VINGT ANS, LA CAGE, DÉSIRÉ. This (temporary) wave did not so much contradict my dire pr gnosis as confirm it : that gays and lesbians working within the mainstream institutions of our cinema could not necessarily determine the political accountability of their work and that those struggling to produce autonomous works on the fringes had no power to ensure their insertion beyond the ghetto into the cultural fabric as a whole.
The purpose of this short discussion is not to update my gloomy 1981 stock-taking, nor in fact to discuss francophone Québécois cinema at all. Rather, in the context of Copie Zéro’s survey of 1984 feature production, I will focus somewhat selectively on four English-language Québécois films by men in ternis of the various dynamics of sexual politics in play. Once again I will look at the representation of alternative sexuality, specifically homosexuality, as the focus of those dynamics. This is appropriate since as a whole in recent years English-language production, both male and female, has been discoursing continuously, like its francophone counterpart, about the social and personal dimensions of the changing landscape of sexuality. On the male side, the debate is so prodigal and yet so anxious, undoubtedly in response to feminism, that the entire production of the anglo boys’ club would do well to borrow the title of the most famous film on the other side, NOT A LOVE STORY.
My survey of the sexual dynamics of male anglophone features in 1984 will cover private production, both large (THE BAY BOY, Daniel Petrie) and small (MOTHER’S MEAT FREUD’S FLESH, Dimitri Estdelacropolis), as well as NFB production (THE MASCULINE MYSTIQUE, John Smith and Giles Walker; and OTHER TONGUES, Derek May).
THE BAY BOY has now been enshrined as the latest in a series of mangled dinosaurs which the Academy of Canadian Cinema has consigned to the footnotes of history as winners of the Best Picture Genie. At least THE BAY BOY, like THE TERRY FOX STORY before it, is a sincere Canadian beast instead of the cynical crypto-American variety formerly honoured by the Academy (THE CHANGELING, MEATBALLS). This means that the social and geographical landscapes of thirties Cape Breton are relatively authentic and aesthetic, and that the foreign cast necessary for the financing (Liv Ullman, Stéphane Audran, and Mathieu Carrière) are not overly ludicrous in their impersonation of regional Canadian types.
What interests me about THE BAY BOY is that the Canadian cinema (the film has nothing to do with Québec other than an official address of its producers, the Kemeny-Héroux tandem) has apparently now advanced to the point where we can turn out the millionth version of a very un-Canadian formula, the heterosexual male initiation myth. Previously, English Canadian versions of the myth had been upside- down (the films of Shebib, Pearson, Owen, etc.), or at best tragic (brave TERRY makes it only as far as Thunder Bay — by all accounts a terrible place to die). The male hero of the myth, or rather anti-hero, had always been considerably more stunted or ironically painted than the boringly blond and wholesome Kiefer Sutherland.
The Bay Boy’s initiation into manhood, his assumption of his claim on the world, is conceived largely in sexual terms : if he doesn’t succeed in bedding his virginal dream maiden he at least proves his worth with her promiscuous and livelier sister. The Bay Boy’s character might be seen to reflect some of the ideals of the feminist eighties nonetheless : he is a “new man”, a scholarly non-macho momma’s boy who helps ward off the picturesque poverty of his family, is attracted to the celibacy of the priesthood, and shows the much- vaunted post-patriarchal “tenderness” with his retarded brother — a tenderness which, incidentally was very visible in francophone production last year as well, whether of the paternal kind (LE DERNIER GLACIER), the comradely kind (JACQUES ET NOVEMBRE), the husbandly-menopausal kind (LE JOUR “S…”, AU RYTHME DE MON COEUR) or of the fraternal kind, homo- (LA FEMME DE L’HÔTEL) as well as hetero- (MARIO). Part of the “tenderness” package in THE BAY BOY however is the required repudiation of the homosexual alternative, this time in the convenient person of a priest, so that the celibacy option is repudiated at the same time. The priest is suitably self-lacerating (of course), and Acadian (a bizarre variant of the Queer as Other — of course anglo Bay boys never diddle with each other, only with Outside Agitators) and relatively gently drawn (a small mercy, I guess). But the Bay Boy’s repudiation is exaggeratedly brutal: in one of the film’s climaxes, he dramatically throws into the river the priest’s souvenir Bible as he rushes home to the refuge of secular anglo heterosexuality.
Director Petrie claims Cape Breton roots and THE BAY BOY is his return to those roots, funded by Téléfilm Canada. (Otherwise known as the perpetrator of FORT APACHE THE BRONX, the film that united American Hispanic communities in a boycott against Hollywood racism, Petrie is welcomed home to Toronto as if he were Orson Welles). The tone is thus nostalgie and the pretext is autobiographical, but the narrative is the stuff of medieval romance. Structurally, the yearning priest-pervert is equated to the other authority figure the young hero must repudiate, a grand guignol cop-psychopath killer who happens to be father of the dream maiden. Having preserved his purity, slain the dragon, and won the maiden from her tyrant father (the dependent brother is dispatched along the way), the all-Canadian hero can now go on to the conquest of Hollywood. Did I say “new man”?
Ironically the same structure determines Estdelacropolis’s cuit film, MOTHER’S MEAT FREUD’S FLESH, a Montréal mutant of PINK FLAMINGOS. A kind of demonic mirror image of the autobiographical heterosexual initiation myth, MMFF has much more visual and dramatic flair than THE BAY BOY but remains equally problematical. Once again the once and future filmmaker repudiates the temp- tations of perversity on the road to heterosexual manhood. A gay porn star is substituted for the hero, a leering psychiatrist for the yearning priest and a misogynist-gothic caricature of a mother for the dragon.
The aesthetics is one of outrage, pop cliché, sado-chic violence, punk vulgarity, low camp, and the spectacular splendour of marginality. But the bets are hedged by the ambiguity of the context: part parody, part self-parody, part slapstick, part sideshow, the virulent misogyny and homopho- bia (“He’s a faggot because of his mother’s sexual fixation on him!”) soon acquire a momentum of their own.
There is nothing new about the cinéma absorbing and profiting from minority culture, and cannibalizing its own clichés at the same time. But Estdelacropolis’s right- ful irrevence for social conventions and sexual rôles is directed not at patriarchal society but at its victims, women and homosexuals. Even more shocking is that his mockery is focused on his actors them- selves, who are improvising ail their won- derful kinkiness for the caméra, clearly without any responsibility for the conception of the film as a whole. When an unta- lented, obese, and cross-eyed amateur cast become targets for humour rather than its vehicle, it’s time to ask where the humour is, and at whose cost?
All the same, if I have to choose between Estdelacropolis’s gutter aesthetic and the pinnacles of artistic seriousness represented by the two NFB features THE MASCULINE MYSTIQUE and OTHER TONGUES, I’ll take the gutter any day. There had been some trepidation when the word got out that male filmmakers in English Production had awakened to the revolution in sexual roles and decided to make a film about how “modem men” were dealing with it ail. As it turns out, THE MASCULINE MYSTIQUE is an earnest little feature docudrama that may end up being useful in some circles but that is predictably disappointing for its timidity. Its subtitle is “A Modern Man’s Guide to Feminism”, but it might better have been “A Modem Man’s Guide to Ignoring Feminism” or another one I’ve heard snic- kered in the corridors of Studio D : “The Masculine Mistake.”
MYSTIQUE presents four men, all NFB filmmakers, role-playing more or less autobiographically about their relationships with women. Three of their wives/current partners play along, and the dramatic episodes that result are about courtship, living together, commitment, independence, the double standard, conflict, etc. This improvised dramatic line is intercut with rap sessions among the four men in which they evaluate their progress and problems.
Well, women have always complained about how men never talk about these things with each other. So what went wrong?
For one thing, the selection of the four men doomed the project from the start. Choosing four thirty-ish standard-bearers from the NFB’s artsy enclave in English Montréal isn’t exactly zeroing in a hotbed of social change. Neither the scripters nor the improvisers apparently have the vision or experience to do the subject justice. I suspect that most men who are struggling with the challenge of feminism are doing so in the workplace or in the face of economic pressures within families and relationships. But for these guys, work and money are the furthest things from their minds: feminism means mostly minor adjustments to the lifestyle they enjoy thanks to the PLAYBOY “revolution” and the “me” era. They go on and on about relationships as if this were some commodity that you want to possess like a home computer. “Dealing with feminism” means feeling guilty about telling sexist jokes to the woman you’re trying to chat up. Or other inconveniences like having to persuade your partner to move in with you when she wants to maintain her own independent space. This latter character, the most clearly defined woman in the film, finally capitulates at the end of the film and, as if to reward her lover’s patience, goes him one better, agreeing not only to raise his children but even to bear him another. The scene where she announces her pregnancy is a happy ending that Hollywood could have been proud of. Speaking of which, there’s not a frame in the film that Paul Mazursky hasn’t already done better and that’s not saying a whole lot. Running second to Hollywood is hardly the NFB mandate.
Veteran NFB auteur Derek May falls into many of the same traps with OTHER TONGUES. The film’s setting is a moving documentary mosaic of the Montreal neighbourhood of St. Louis, with its dramatic past as the centre of immigrant culture and militant politics and its present as the war zone of working class tradition (both immigrant and native) against gentrification. Grafted onto this fabric is an interlocking narrative of complacent yuppie coupledom that makes even THE MASCULINE MYSTIQUE look good. May has offered us his images of intercultural sexual relationships before, but MOTHER TONGUE at least had the authenticity of its autobiographical origins. In OTHER TONGUES the modishly improvised peregrinations of the three or four chic young couples dishonour the graffiti-strewn territory May has visualized. Sexual and gender politics are the subtext of the questions that the NFB press release puts into May’s mouth — “about shilling values and identities, language versus communication, the nuclear family as opposed to the more ambivalent relationships of today” — but the ultimate thrust, as with MYSTIQUE, is male backlash. The centre of this vision is the sexual and artistic anxiety of the anglo male hetero mid-class at mid-life, and the supporting cast — female, francophone, working class, ethnic, differently sexual (this last important demographic constituent of St. Louis is of course absent in keeping with NFB tradition) — are the stereotyped ghosts that haunt and enrich the privilege of that artistic vision.
It’s sad to think that the NFB men’s artistic stalemate in the sexual discourse of the eighties may be an unexpected sideeffect of the Women’s Unit’s (Studio D’s) strength. Has the necessary but perhaps temporary strategy of grouping women filmmakers in that protected and nurturing atmosphere over the last decade simply encouraged their male counterparts to be happy in their anxiety
Professeur au département des Études cinématographiques de l’Université Concordia, Thomas Waugh est l’auteur de nombreux textes sur le cinéma parus dans diverses revues : Jump Cut, Cinéma Canada, Body Politic. Il a publié récemment, en collaboration avec d’autres auteurs, un livre intitulé Show us Life : Towards a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary.