John Greyson

John Greyson

John Greyson (born 1960 in Nelson, British Columbia) is a Canadian filmmaker, whose work frequently deals with gay themes. Greyson is also a video artist, writer and activist; he is currently a professor at York University, where he teaches film and video theory and film production and editing.

Greyson was raised in London, Ontario. He moved to Toronto in 1980, becoming a writer for "The Body Politic" and other local arts and culture magazines, and becoming a video and performance artist. He directed several short films, including "The Perils of Pedagogy", "Kipling Meets the Cowboy" and "Moscow Does Not Believe in Queers", before releasing his first feature film, "Urinal", in 1988. "Urinal" is a response to the homophobic climate of the period and, particularly, to police entrapment of men in public washrooms and parks and police raids on gay bathhouses.

Greyson's next film was "The Making of "Monsters", a short musical film produced during Greyson's residency at the Canadian Film Centre in 1991. The film deals with the 1985 murder by five adolescent males of Kenneth Zeller, a gay high school teacher and librarian, in Toronto's High Park. The film is a fictional documentary about the making of a movie-of-the-week, entitled "Monsters," in which the young murderers are depicted as psychopathic monsters, rather than 'normal' teenage boys. The film features Marxist literary critic Georg Lukacs as the producer of "Monsters," with Bertolt Brecht (played by a catfish) as director. A witty, trenchant critique of the discourses circulating around anti-gay violence, Greyson's film received some significant early successes on the film festival circuit, winning Best Short Film at the Toronto International Film Festival, before being pulled from distribution when the estate of Kurt Weill objected to its use of the tune of Mack the Knife. Greyson had originally received copyright permission to use the tune, but it was withdrawn, apparently because Weill's estate objected to the film's gay theme. Although copyright is no longer an issue, having lapsed in 2000, fifty years after Weill's death, the film has not yet been re-released by the Canadian Film Development Corporation.

Greyson made his breakthrough as a filmmaker, however, with "Zero Patience", a musical film which challenged AIDS orthodoxy, in 1993. "Zero Patience" is a response particularly to Randy Shilts' 1987 book "And the Band Played On", which notoriously (and erroneously) traced the 'arrival' of HIV/AIDS in North America to a single person, a French-Canadian airline attendant named Gaetan Dugas. Based on a single flawed epidemiological cluster study, the conclusions of Shilts' book were very problematic for the narrative of blame they created, suggesting both that particular individuals were at fault (for example, that Dugas wilfully spread HIV, although he actually died before the virus was identified and the study in which he participated was one of several that allowed scientists to determine that HIV was sexually transmitted) and that monogamy and the 'normalization' of gay male sexual practices were the proper and adequate response (as opposed to a focus on safer sex practices).

"Zero Patience" features a gay ghost named Patient Zero who returns to Toronto to hook up with Sir Richard Francis Burton who, through an "unfortunate encounter with the fountain of youth" has lived to become the Chief Taxidermist at the Museum of Natural History. Burton is engaged in creating a "Hall of Contagion." When he loses his central exhibit, the Dusseldorf Plague Rat, he casts around for a replacement, lighting upon Patient Zero. In a comedy of errors, Zero and Burton come together, fall in love and attempt to figure out what to do about Burton's earlier attempts to defame Zero as a "sexual serial killer." A number of sub-plots centre around specific criticisms of the social response to AIDS by politicians, doctors and pharmaceutical companies. There is a not entirely sympathetic ACT-UP group engaged in a protest against the manufacturer of ZP0 (an obvious reference to AZT, a teacher who is losing his sight to CMV and several scenes involving his students, and a number of scenes involving the animal and human inhabitants of the dioramas in the Hall of Contagion. Most of these feature lively and thought-provoking musical numbers, but none have drawn critical attention as much as the "Butthole Duet," in which Burton's and Zero's anuses sing about the social perception of anal sex and its relationship to the discourses circulating around AIDS in the 80s and early 90s. Widely misunderstood by film reviewers, the song refers to a number of academic responses to the popular perception of AIDS as a "gay disease" and the now discredited belief that the anus was more vulnerable to HIV than the vagina, particularly Leo Bersani's article "Is the Rectum a Grave?" Bersani thoroughly discredits the notion that anal sex is inherently diseased; Greyson takes this one step further to argue that an unreasonable bias against anal sex is linked to patriarchy.

The central scene in "Zero Patience", however, is probably the scene in which Zero looks through a microscope at a slide of his own blood. What he sees is the subject of an Ethel Williams-like song-and-dance number throughout which Zero converses with Miss HIV (Michael Callen). Both lyrically and in conversation, Miss HIV informs Zero that he was not the first, that he did not bring HIV/AIDS to North America, and that his participation in the infamous cluster study helped to prove that HIV is transmissable by sex and thus place an emphasis on safer sex that saved countless lives.

In 1996, Greyson released his most famous film, "Lilies", an adaptation of Michel Marc Bouchard's play "Les feluettes, ou un drame romantique". Following the dual chronology of Bouchard's play, Greyson's film (for which Michel Marc Bouchard wrote the screenplay) moves between two time periods: the film's 'present' in 1952 and the events that took place in the town of Roberval, Quebec in 1912. The film begins with a visit by Bishop Bilodeau (Marcel Sabourin) to a prison chapel where he is supposed to hear the confession of convicted murderer Simon (Aubert Pallascio). Both men were at school together in 1912 when a fire supposedly set by Simon took the life of a third schoolmate, and Simon's lover, Vallier (Danny Gilmore). However, this apparently simple story become quickly more complicated when the prison chaplain (Ian D. Clard) and the prisoners lock Bilodeau into the confessional booth and proceed to stage the true story of Vallier's death before their captive's eyes.

Greyson's directorial style is very much in evidence in "Lilies". The film moves freely between realist and magic realist modes, making witty use of deceptively simple cinematic techniques, such as the way in which the camera tracks the removal of the roof of the confessional booth, apparently contained within the prison building, only to reveal the blue skies of summer-time Roberval and the arrival of the hot air balloon and its Parisian balloonist, Lydie-Anne (Alexander Chapman), which precipitates the events that lead up to Vallier's death. The narrative involves Simon's difficulties in resolving his love for Vallier in the face of homophobic Roberval (his father beats him viciously when he hears that Simon (played as a younger man by Jason Cadieux) and Valliers have been seen kissing, even though they are acting out roles in the school play), a love further complicated by the young Bilodeau's (Matthew Ferguson) tortuously repressed desire for Simon and by the sophisticated attractions of Lydie-Anne, whose femininity allows Simon to dream of a safely heterosexual future.

While the narrative, involving as it does a religious school and schoolboy sexuality, clearly has echoes of Catholic child abuse scandals, the story deliberately involves telling a story reminiscent of Mt. Cashel, choosing instead to focus on the intensity and romanticism of the young men's love for each other. The narrative is enhanced by the visual style of the film, particularly the choice to cast only men in all of the roles. Of course, this makes perfect sense, since -- on one level -- all of the historical characters are being 'played' by the 1952 prisoners. This doubling is further enhanced by the decision to allow the male actors playing women to wear female clothing, but making no attempt whatsoever at realistic drag, relying instead on stellar performances by actors Alexander Chapman as Lydie-Anne, Brent Carver as the Countess de Tilly (Vallier's mother) and Remy Girard as the Baroness.

"Lilies"' romanticism, lyrical story-telling and gorgeous cinematography all combined to make the film both more accessible to 'mainstream' audiences and more popular with critics than Greyson's more controversial and more intellectually demanging works, like "Zero Patience". As a result, the film was nominated for thirteen Genie Awards, including best director, best adapted screenplay, and three nominations for best actor (for Jason Cadieux, Danny Gilmore, and Matthew Ferguson). The film won four Genies, for best motion picture, best art direction, best costume design and best overall sound. The film also won a number of other awards, including the GLAAD Media Award for outstanding film.

Greyson's other films include "Uncut" (1997), "The Law of Enclosures" (1999) and "Proteus" (2003). He has also directed for television, including episodes of "Queer as Folk", "Made in Canada" and "Paradise Falls".

In 2003, Greyson and composer David Wall created "Fig Trees", a video opera, about the struggles of South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat. [Goddard, Peter (Nov 22, 2003). [ "Greyson finds grandeur in video opera"] . "Toronto Star ", p. J.07.]

Greyson is popular with film critics but controversial with some audiences because of the flamboyant theatricality and thematic complexity of his filmmaking style, and the frank depiction of gay themes in his work.


Brasell, R. Bruce. "Queer Nationalism and the Musical Fag Bashing of John Greyson's "the Making of 'Monsters"'." "Wide Angle: A Film Quarterly of Theory, Criticism, and Practice" 16.3 (1995): 26-36. Cagle, Robert L. "'Tell the Story of My Life ...': The Making of Meaning, 'Monsters,' and Music in John Greyson's Zero Patience." "The Velvet Light Trap" 35 (1995): 69-81.

Dellamora, Richard. "John Greyson's 'Zero Patience' in the Canadian Firmament: Cultural practice/cultural Studies." "University of Toronto Quarterly" 64.4 (1995): 526(10)-536.

Gittings, Christopher E. "Zero Patience", Genre, Difference, and Ideology: Singing and Dancing Queer Nation." "Cinema Journal" 41.1 (2001): 28-39.

Gittings, Christopher. "Activism and Aesthetics: The Work of John Greyson." Great Canadian Film Directors. Ed. George (ed and introd ). Melnyk. Edmonton, AB: U of Alberta P, xviii, 2007. 125-147.

Guthmann, Edward. "John Greyson." "The Advocate" (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine).742 (1997): 71(1)-72.

Hallas, Roger. "The Genealogical Pedagogy of John Greyson's "Zero Patience"." "Canadian Journal of Film Studies/Revue Canadienne d'Etudes Cinématographiques" 12.1 (2003): 16-37.

Howe, Lawrence. "The Epistemology of Adaptation in John Greyson's "Lilies"." "Canadian Journal of Film Studies/Revue Canadienne d'Etudes Cinématographiques" 15.2 (2006): 44-61.

"John Greyson: Filmmaker." "Contemporary Canadian Biographies" (2000): NA.

Kotwal, Kaizaad. "An Interview with John Greyson." "Film Journal" 1.6 (2003): [no pagination] .

Loiselle, A. "The Corpse Lies in 'Lilies': The Stage, the Screen, and the Dead Body." .76 (2002).

McGann, Nadine L. "A Kiss is Not a Kiss: An Interview with John Greyson." "Afterimage" 19.6 (1992): 10(4)-14.

Morris, Gary. "'My Penis! Where is My Penis?' John Greyson's "Uncut"." "Bright Lights Film Journal" 24 (1999): (no pagination). []

Ramsay, Christine. "Greyson, Grierson, Godard, God: Reflections on the Cinema of John Greyson." "North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema since 1980". Ed. William (ed and introd ). Beard, Jerry (ed and introd ). White, and Seth (foreword) Feldman. Edmonton, AB: U of Alberta P, xxiii, 2002. 192-205.

External links

* [ John Greyson interview at "The Film Journal"]
* [ IMDb profile]
* [ John Greyson] on
* Gary Morris, [ 'My Penis, Where is My Penis?'] in [ "Bright Lights"]

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