Still Not Over It: 70 Years of Queer Canadian Film

And here we have a sampling of queer Canadian cinema. Some great, some puzzling, some that kind of left me cold but I did appreciate for their historical value. Because every single one is a little window into a particular time and place, another piece of the puzzle that is our LGBTQ+ family. One of the questions raised in the Q&A is whether we really are one community; whether, e.g., a white gay male animator in 1940’s Winnipeg is kin with an Asian closeted gay male in 1970’s Vancouver, a white lesbian in 1980’s Montreal, all us lovely people sitting in a theatre in 2015, and whoever’s reading this blog post in the future?

I think the answer is, sometimes. Not always, that’s for sure. But if the answer were a hard “no,” then we wouldn’t even have this festival, am I right? There’s got to be something we all have in common, some little thread of shared culture, shared experiences. And maybe that’s one of the purposes of the VQFF, to shine a light on all our diverse lives, and make the word “we” just a little bit bigger every time.

That’s what I think anyway.

On to the shorts.

Boogie Doodle, by Norman McLaren (1940). Some very pretty and abstract nonsense with a catchy soundtrack. No story that I could see, let alone any gay themes. McLaren himself was gay, though, so here it goes.

60 Unit Bruise, by Paul Wong (1976). Oh, this one. I’ve seen this short before, and I absolutely couldn’t understand it. What was the point of filming yourself receiving someone else’s blood to make a bruise? Fortunately, the director (and bruise receiver) was there to answer questions. The blood exchange was not meant to be homoerotic; rather, it was a bonding practice between two needle-sharing partners. And they filmed it this one time, since that’s what amateur filmmakers do. So that’s the story: Wong and his partner were just bros, doing work. Mind you, they also happened to be lovers at the time. And now their work is being reread, reinterpreted, as part of a long lineup of historical works.

So… When Did You Figure Out You Had AIDS?, by Vincent Chevalier (1996). A weird little home video starring Chevalier as an AIDS patient, and a friend of his as the talk show host interviewing him. The humour ranges between random and tasteless, but hey, they were kids. And the movie’s kind of prophetic, because Chevalier did later both get diagnosed and go into acting.

L’usure by Jeanne Crépeau (1985). Hey, Jeanne Crépeau‘s been doing lesbian drama for a while, apparently! This little short about two women sorta-kinda breaking up, and then not, is all right, but not really that engaging. It was nice to see her name, though.

Gayblevision, 1982. A few clips from the Gayblevision show, which ran in Vancouver from 1980 to 1986. Some lovely black-and-white vignettes of gay & lesbian life in our fair city.

1919, 1996. A silent-movie-style retelling of the Winnipeg General Strike, focused on Sammy Wong’s combination steam bath and barbershop. Come for a good trim, stay for a little companionship, leave infected with communism.

Cornet at Night, by Stanley Jackson (1963). From the rolling farmlands of Saskatchewan comes the story of a boy who meets a young trumpet-playing man from the city, who briefly charms his family. This is a lovely black and white film with awesome music (both natural and man-made), artfully dealing with coded gay affection and identity.

The Guest / La Visita

I really didn’t know how to feel about this movie. It was interesting and well done, with some lovely cinematography, but I had a hard time connecting with the characters—especially the main character Elena, who rarely emoted and was a total cipher. So my initial impression was not too positive.

But then I wondered if I was missing the point: that maybe the real story is not about Elena, but all the zany dysfunctional goings-on in the household and she was mostly an observer. Maybe. Or maybe there are layers here that I don’t get because I’m not familiar with Argentinean queer cinema.

Or, maybe I’m overanalysing. That’s been known to happen.

Still, I can only judge what I see on the screen, and I can only relate my honest reaction. And honestly, I’m not feeling this movie. I really wanted to get to know Elena—the title character, after all—but I had nothing to work with. We learn nothing about her, her life, her past, or what makes her tick. We only see Daniela Vega emote a couple of times, but both those times were very powerful and spoke to me of Elena’s love for her family mixed with very ambivalent (at best) feelings for her past and religion. I really wish we could have seen more of that.

Aside from that frustrating aspect, the movie was quite fun. This household was full of repressed Catholic stereotypes, but they worked: the cheating husband, the crazy grandma in the upstairs bedroom, slutty maids, loony kids, and nobody can come out and just say anything frankly. They all have to tiptoe around their feelings, and announce friendship or reconciliation by giving out articles of clothing or something.

Not enough, though. I really wanted to cheer for this movie, because how often do we get to see a trans actress playing a trans character? But without a protagonist to anchor it, the movie just didn’t come together for me. Oh well.

Queer Best Of: International Shorts

A sampling of contemporary LGBT shorts from all over the world. All are absolutely wonderful, though it could have used a bit more “international” since all but one were made in Canada or the States.

In Glory Hole (San Francisco), a nice older couple recounts how they met. Yes, it was in the back room of a sleazy SF bookstore. And yes, they’ve been together over 20 years. Hilarious, adorable and heartwarming.

In First Clue (San Francisco) several women talk about their first crush, first kiss, first time they realised they were queer, etc… Funny and fascinating. Everyone has a different story to tell!

Float (USA) is a mesmerising collage of trans and genderqueer folks swimming underwater. Serene and inspiring.

San Cristóbal (Chile): in a small Chilean fishing town, the affair between two men is interrupted by a bashing. Then one of the two plans to move to Canada, and they have a tearful farewell. It was an interesting (though not exactly pleasant) contrast with every other short, in that it featured homophobia and closeted people.

Pepper / Le piment (Montreal) is hilariously awkward and awkwardly hilarious. The morning after a threesome, not everything is going smoothly. One woman is feeling left out and jealous that her partner and the extra woman have tons in common and are suddenly chatting like old friends. Everybody tries to smooth things over, unsuccessfully.

The Future Perfect (Vancouver). As weird and creepy as the first time I saw it.

Kumu Hina: A Place in the Middle (Hawaii): this is a documentary about a school that teaches traditional Hawaiian language and culture—which, like a lot of other First Nations cultures, has a special place for trans / genderqueer people; the school’s amazing head teacher is trans herself, and those students couldn’t be in better hands. A fascinating look at a culture I knew absolutely nothing about, and a great way to cap off the evening.

Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn

Peter de Rome was a sweet, unassuming British gentleman, who got famous making gay porn in the 60s and 70s. His films were rediscovered in recent years, allowing a new generation to honour him for the pioneer he was.

What’s interesting about de Rome’s porn is that at first he didn’t intend to make money with it, or even to show it to the general public. He was just really interested in film, and started filming the tricks he took home—even on the street before he went up to talk to them. His stuff is completely spontaneous and unscripted, and has a very playful, sensual and unself-conscious energy. Eventually word got around, he started getting guys asking to star in his films; some awards followed; and then in the mid-70’s he got backing for two feature-length pictures. Looked interesting, too, based on the bits we saw, with nice visuals and actual stories. Adam and Yves is about a love affair in Paris between a Frenchman and an American tourist, while The Destroying Angel is creepy Catholic-flavoured horror. There’s incubi, hallucinations, guilty priests and a handless cum shot from a crucified guy.

I see this documentary as kind of a sequel to those very old-timey porn shorts I saw a couple years ago. Only kind of, though: there’s no direct continuity since de Rome was just doing his own thing. But it’s still neat to see how sensibilities, aesthetics and even politics evolved. Just another snapshot in gay men’s self-reflection and how they historically got off. And now decades later, what used to be seen as deviant and shameful is shown in film festivals and discussed openly by academics. What a strange, wonderful world we live in.

Sad news, though: according to Wikipedia, Peter de Rome passed away in 2014, after this documentary was made. He was just a few days short of his 90th birthday.


I’ve got somewhat mixed feelings about Pat Mills’ Guidance. It’s very funny, enjoyable and inspiring in an oddball sort of way, but it feels like two separate movies which don’t really work together.

Meet David Gold, former TV child star. Twenty years after being on the air, he can’t even hold down jobs recording feel-good affirmation tapes because all he’s really good at is drinking, smoking, alienating his family, compulsively watching tapes of his glory days, and denying his gayness.

Out of desperation he answers an ad for a high school counselor. With no experience, no references and only minimal prep work (ie: watching a few online videos), he manages to bullshit his way through the interview under a fake name and land the job!

Yes, the school was pretty desperate too, which sortakinda justified the whole setup. My disbelief needed a lot of suspension, but it looked like a silly comedy so I rolled with it. And kept on rolling as he breezily fixed all the kids’ problems like an alcoholic fairy godmother: teaching the shy girl how to flirt with a dumb jock; getting a problem student transferred to a school that would challenge him better… with lots of shots. Sometimes weed or cigarettes. But mostly shots.

What gave this part depth was that David isn’t some happy twinkly carefree blithe spirit. Having a job, responsibilities and the promise of income doesn’t make any of his issues go away. He’s still alone, still drinking alone even at work, still struggling with fears and denial and low self-esteem. As much as we want to laugh or cringe at his antics (and we do!) we want to give him a big ol’ hug and tell him everything will be all right. The job is helping him, little by little: his bonding with Jabrielle, one of the school’s “bad girls” and checking up on her abusive home life shows that he’s started to think about people who aren’t him.

I was still all ready for the story to evolve this way: David would hit rock bottom, possibly keep his job, possibly be let go, there’d be wacky hijinks, the students would rally around him, he’d find his self-esteem, quit drinking, reconcile with his family, and maybe find out his landlady’s not such a mean bitch after all. Happy ending!

But then, reality ensues. The nosy and very gay gym teacher find out David’s real identity after a little snooping, he’s found behind his desk in a drunken stupor, and everything comes crashing down: the principal calls the police, and David runs. He meets up with Jabrielle who’d run away from home, they go rob a few tanning salons (it makes sense in context) but they can’t keep it up for long. David sends Jabrielle to her aunt in Winnipeg, and he surrenders to the police. And finally, finally, David is at peace.

So… that was a bit shocking, to be honest. I think this movie was meant to show (among other things) a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Boy trope, but I feel it went a little too far for a comedy. Because now I’ve got too many questions: what will happen to all the kids he’s helped? Will Ghost be forced back to his old school when authorities find out his grades were forged? Will Jabrielle be able to stay with her aunt, make a new life away from her abusive parents? Will she be called to testify against David?

Still, there’s a lot I love about the movie. Besides being hella funny, it’s a loving ode to freaks, weirdos and repressed loners everywhere, who tend to be way more interesting than so-called “normal” people. Flaws and quirks are okay, and it’s best to be honest about them. And bland affirmations are worse than useless. Sometimes life really sucks, and it won’t get better until you face it.


It’s funny, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Lily Tomlin movie. Is that bad? Does that make me a bad gay? Well, it doesn’t matter, because this film is a hell of an initiation.

Tomlin plays Elle, a cranky academic still grieving over the death of her long-term lover; she seems to have few friends, and is barely on speaking terms with her daughter. Out of the blue, her teenaged granddaughter Sage shows up seeking money for an abortion. Elle is broke at the moment and has cut up her credit cards, so off they go to try to extract money from her old friends, ex-friends, ex-lovers and complete strangers before Sage’s appointment that very evening.

Grandma is a brilliant, hilarious ride: acidly funny like only Lily Tomlin can deliver, but also deeply moving in parts such as when Elle reminisces about her life with Violet or reconciles with her latest ex. And, just as importantly, it raises a bunch of points about the reality of getting an abortion, but wove them into the story so well I didn’t realise what it was doing until hours later: the issue of money or lack thereof, how supportive the baby daddy will be, actually having a clinic within easy access, dealing with guilt and fear of going to hell you never thought you had, getting judged by pro-birth activists or your own mother (for different reasons), having a support network…

Well played, movie. Well played.

Other lessons I learned: we’re all flawed and messy. No matter what we tell ourselves, no matter how successful we are in our careers, whether we’re neurotic perfectionists, philanthropes misanthropes or just confused teens, we’re all muddling along the best we can. And in a way, that’s a good thing. It means there’s always room to grow, to be inspired. People who think they know it all would be really boring. Or picketing abortion clinics, maybe.

A few more thoughts:

Hello, all-star cast! Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Judy Greer, John Cho, Nat Wolff… All spot-on, even the one-scene wonders. And really, wouldn’t it take stars of that calibre to keep up with Lily Tomlin? Julia Garner, playing Sage, was… all right. She held her own, but didn’t really shine.

One little nitpick, which I guess was unavoidable: the plot seemed forced to me. I mean, how likely is it that Elle wouldn’t have any available cash? Mind you, it turned out to be justified pretty well and played into Elle’s character, so it all worked out in the end.

The Coast is Queer 2015

As always, The Coast is Queer gives us a variety of gems. Here are my faves:

Boner Fashion Show and 19th Birthday, by The Ryan and Amy Show. Two hilariously raunchy little shorts; one about a very unusual fashion show, the other about some aggressively gay-friendly parents.

Kiss and Tell, directed by Jackie Hoffart. A bunch of lovely little vignettes related to kissing, all tied to Vancouver streets. Beautifully shot, beautifully narrated, and definitely among my favourite shorts of the night.

The Out-Laws, by Shannon Kohli, a fun little slice-of life about a male couple and their extended family. Not a whole lot to say, except that one half of the couple is bisexual, and his gay brother-in-law (I think) is kind of an ass about it. This is apparently the pilot for a web series, and if it keeps up the bi visibility angle I’ll definitely check it out.

Family Is Like Skin is a documentary on lesbian life in Cambodia, directed by Paula Stromberg with the full participation of the local women. Some of the issues they face are very familiar—isolation, ignorance, familial rejection, forced marriages—but a lot of the political and cultural background is completely different. For one, Buddhism (the country’s official and majority religion) does not condemn homosexuality, nor is there any law against it. However, the government forbids public assemblies of any kind, so Pride parades are not possible. Right now the focus is just to build communities, break down barriers between women living in isolated towns, and promote honesty (and patience) with family members. Marriage equality is apparently not on their radar.

Same Boat, by David C Jones. It’s a surreal little piece where a musical lesbian couple shakes up the comfortable life of a bed-and-breakfast-owning husband and wife. I’m not a big fan of musical, but damn if this didn’t work! The songs were catchy, and the juxtapositon of musical lesbians with non-musical straight folks was hilarious. We’re all on the same boat, maybe heading for different shores…

Dissonance, by Anna Ngo: a beautiful animated short showing what happens when a trans boy tries to use the “wrong” bathroom.

The Right To Be Heard, by Krista Martin. A welcome and necessary documentary about the state of trans rights in Canada, with particular focus on federal politics (very timely, with the upcoming elections). Featuring interviews with several trans people, as well as NDP MLAs Mable Elmore and Spencer Chandra Herbert we hear about Bill C-279, and about problems trans people may face during their transition, if their gender presentation doesn’t match their official ID, which may lead them to being unable to vote.

Boy Meets Boy. A creepy, disturbing little flick about dating and vampires, where nothing is quite what it seems…

The Future Perfect, by Nick Citton, is a trippy tale of love, fatalism and time travel. In a weird dystopia where corporations compete to create favourable timelines, our protagonist is a time agent tasked with killing a child in the past and must struggle with the ethics of his job. Also starring Zachary Quinto as the disembodied voice of Mission Control, who falls / will fall / must fall in love with the agent.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato

I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I’d be blogging this year. Lots of stuff going on, not a lot of time, not a lot of spare energy, just a wee bit of stress… I didn’t need a repeat of the 2013 festival, where I loaded too many movies on my plate, burned out, and delivered the last one about three weeks late. I’d just go to the movies (how many? still TBD, TBH. Even as I write this I haven’t yet figured out my schedule), and maybe post short little snippets, like I used to before my blogging hit the big time.

But then, I saw Eisenstein in Guanajuato, the VQFF’s opening gala film. And soon enough, I felt a review welling up inside me, and it felt good.

So, Sergei Eisenstein: Soviet Russian film director, famous for (among others) Battleship Potemkin and October (a.k.a.: Ten Days That Shook The World). In late 1930 he embarked on a long trip to Mexico: financed by various Hollywood personalities, he was to make a movie of his own design and choice, but all the materials as well as the final product would belong to his backers. This film, directed by Peter Greenaway, tells the story of that Mexico trip, and the spell of love and death that Mexico cast on Eisenstein.

This is a crazy, weird trip of a movie, as zany and frantic as Eisenstein himself, filled with self-consciously artsy camera work, over-the-top profound discussions on love, sex, death, politics, colonialism, Soviet culture vs. Mexican culture vs. Hollywood culture, movie history, name-dropping every major Western film and cultural figure, from Charlie Chaplin to Upton Sinclair to George Bernard Shaw…

Oh, and there’s sex, too. Eisenstein is seduced by his (married) guide, Palomino—also a teacher of comparative religion—and they fall in love with each other. This is not just a superficial fling, but a serious relationship between intellectual equals who connect with each other on every level. It has to end, though. Eisenstein is eventually called back to Russia when his grand Mexican movie goes way over budget and his backers get pissy, but Palomino must stay with his family.

Visually, this film is absolutely amazing: stunning landscapes, loving eyefuls of Mexican architecture as well as Mexican life—those glass-entombed mummies, the creepy alleyway that Eisenstein explores near the beginning, and the creepy-fun Day of the Dead parade. More than that, though, this film is filled with techniques that harken back to old-school cinema: abrupt cuts to static close-ups, repeated three-way split screens, shots filmed in grainy old black-and-white… as well, more modern (probably) tricks with fisheye lenses and such. Now I’m kind of in the mood for some silent Soviet film! How much of this movie was genuine callbacks to Eisenstein’s œuvre, and how much was the director playing silly buggers? I am definitely curious.

My only complaint was that some of the dialog was hard to follow, what with the protagonists tending to talk a mile a minute with strong accents, but I didn’t really let it bother me. Their conversations were genuinely fascinating, and with those visuals you could never get bored. If I lost the thread of a scene, I could just pick it up again later.

All in all a great start to the festival! Beautiful, weird, zany, dramatic and intellectual—and best of all, it’s inspired me to blog again!

Fare Thee Well!

My third and probably last PuSh Festival show was Fare Thee Well!, an unusual art piece I caught today after work. To see it I had to get to the Lookout at Harbour Centre and look into one of several telescopes facing roughly east. For about 15 minutes I listened to sad, haunting instrumental music while a distant scrolling marquee bade farewell to various people and ideas, or showed classical quotes about goodbyes.

It was very high-concept, and it worked for me. What helped was that the messages were not all sad. One said “Farewell VHS players”. I think another was about rotary phones. “Farewell CBC” was followed by “Farewell Jian Gomeshi”. Some were downright ambiguous: for example, how should I read “Farewell Trust in the Father”? A sad acknowledgement of the breakdown of family structures, or a happy end to patriarchal authority?

There were a small number of “Welcome” messages, and all of them were either sad or disturbing. Most memorable? “Welcome Harper”. Yeah.

All in all, a job well done! My only complaint was that the setup in the Lookout needed work. The telescopes were too low, and having to look through them without moving was damn uncomfortable. There should have been some way to move the chairs up or down a bit.

And since this was my first trip up the Lookout, I made sure to take lots of pictures. It was the perfect time of day, too: just light enough to see details of the buildings, but dark enough to give them some magic.

7 Important Things

After the sublime and the philosophical, I came down to earth with 7 Important Things, the true story of baby-boomer-turned-hippie-turned-heroin-addict-turned-hair-stylist George Acheson. Directed and co-performed by Nadia Ross, it is a perfectly mundane, perfectly special story of dreams and despair, hope and disillusionment, sex and drugs and love beads.

The short play (about an hour long) is presented in a number of formats: semi-formal Q&As, projecting old photographs, re-enacting scenes from his past, monologues. It almost felt like a bunch of acting and motivation exercises, except that they actually managed to gel into a play. I got the definite impression that George is not an experienced actor (and his life story never mentions any passion for acting), though he held his own very well. And either way, it’s not a bad thing: that bit of roughness made the experience more authentic to me.

At the end, Nadia asks George to step up to the audience and just stand there, to “have them see you as I see you.” And we did: worn but not broken. Unmasked. Vulnerable. Alive. He went through a lot of pain and didn’t really change the world but in the end he found his place, and quiet happiness. We should all be so lucky.