The man who gave us Urinal and Lillies now turns his playful eye on circumcision, copyright, and Pierre Trudeau.
In his early short film, The Making of Monsters (1991), Canadian director John Greyson rewrote “Mack the Knife” as a queer ditty. In his first feature, Urinal (1991), he corralled a group of historical homos — Yukio Mishima and Frida Kahlo among them — into a Toronto apartment for a yakfest on the repression of gays. In Zero Patience (1993) he made the dreaded “Patient Zero” — the French-Canadian steward believed to be an early vehicle for the AIDS virus — the centerpiece of a musical, of all things. With the award-winning Lillies (1997), Greyson achieved the seemingly impossible: luring audiences to a florid melodrama that combined Brechtian distancing devices with the camp of Ronald Firbank and a fire-and-brimstone gay love story.
Greyson is an anomaly even by the standards of queer cinema. A strong pictorialist, he avoids classical narrative, or more correctly perhaps, skewers it in favor of a more playful, experimental style that recalls the work of Peter Greenaway, though without the latter’s unrelenting pessimism. Greyson’s films are “about” something — sexual identity, political and social repression, AIDS — without being mere polemics; he dresses up his ideas with visual and verbal game-playing, absurdist imagery, sexy boys, and best of all humor. His latest film, the feature-length video Uncut (1997), adds circumcision, copyright, Canadian politics and mores, and Pierre Trudeau’s possible homosexuality to his list of subjects, and the result is a dizzying, demanding work that will confound some but reward open-minded viewers who can handle a challenge. Greyson literally throws a bone to penis-spotters, who will find much to love in Uncut‘s frequent frontal male nudity.
The setting is a “pre-digital gay community” in Toronto in 1979, a time, the film informs us in words on the screen, that marked “the death of the typewriter” and “the birth of music video.” Despite its alleged demise, the typewriter plays a key role throughout. In a wonderful running gag, the main characters cruise or otherwise communicate with each other by pretending to type, with their words running across the screen as they type. This witty conceit plays off the idea that gay people have developed a kind of telepathy (aka gaydar) in response to repression.
In the opening sequence, a man named Peter Cort (Matthew Ferguson) brings a manuscript on “The Psychosexual Meanings of Circumcision and the Foreskin” to a Pierre Trudeau-obsessed typist, Peter Koosens (Michael Achtman). From this scene we learn tidbits such as the fact that “85 percent of American males continue to be clipped each year at the cost of half a billion dollars.” Greyson, a la Greenaway, brings the terror of circumcision disturbingly home by thoughtfully inserting footage of an actual operation into a small windowbox within the frame.
Parallel to Peter Cort’s fixation on circumcision are a dazzling array of plot strands. Peter Koosen’s lust for Pierre Trudeau is noticed by a female cop, who trails him as he wanders near the prime minister’s residence. (She also turns out to be an opera singer.) This Peter also fabricates photographs showing him and his would-be beloved together, and writes letters suggesting at least a massage. Meanwhile, a third Peter comes on the scene: Peter Denham (Damon Oliveira), a video artist with a yen for the Jackson Five. Having all the main characters named Peter is the film’s own ingenious pitch for a sexually liberated, “uncut” world.
The third Peter dates the other two, but alienates Peter the typist by appropriating the latter’s fake photos into a revamped Jackson Five video. Meanwhile, the three are arrested and sent to an open-air “prison”, where they’re forced to study dryer lint and mucous. Trudeau ends up in a coma, but is saved at the last minute by Peter Cort, who slips an unusual medicine into the P.M.’s mouth.
Interwoven with these narrative threads are striking interpolations of documentary footage of Trudeau declaring a state of martial law, artists and writers describing their problems with copyright infringement and sampling, censorship laws, and historical info about circumcision and censorship. Greyson finds rich parallels in real life to the film’s fictional high jinks. Peter Denham’s lust for the Jackson Five is augmented with an interview with John Oswald, who altered Michael Jackson’s video Bad to graft the head of the “King of Pop” onto a Nude Miss America body. Oswald’s sleight-of-hand apparently amused Jackson but the lawyers put an end to it. The film’s fake Trudeau — a comatose old man on a hospital bed — is contrasted with footage of actress Linda Griffiths doing a fabulous gender-bender interpretation of him, a performance that also skirted libel. Artist A. A. Bronson, a vehement enemy of copyright, talks eloquently about his appropriation of Gary Indiana’s famous LOVE logo and changing it to AIDS.
Greyson’s point, sometimes implied and sometimes stated, is that culture evolves and must be allowed to do so. Copyright and ruthless image control by corporations, the state, and individual artists are forms of repression, artificial checks that threaten artistic progress. There’s no more chilling evidence of this than in the sequence with Tom Waugh, who describes a truly bizarre process of “historical morphing” that irreparably damaged his book on gay erotic imagery, Hard to Imagine. Skittish lawyers forced him to computer-alter or substitute the faces of people in sexual positions, creating sometimes inexplicable effects. In one picture from the 1950s, the replacement of a happy young hunk with what looked like “a 50-year-old Tory” made a playful nude tug-of-war into a “political allegory.” In another picture, the computer artist substituted his androgynous girlfriend’s face for the original. So much for historical truth.
Hostile reviewers have said this film is a short stretched to feature length, but given its conceptual richness, Uncut will strike other eyes as too brief at 92 minutes to contain all of Greyson’s ideas.