3 min

Acting out

Keith Cole's oeuvre - and we don't mean eggs (much)

Credit: David Hawe

There is something fundamentally terrifying about reviewing Keith Cole’s work; you end up getting yourself caught between a (hard) cock and a hard place. If you trash his work (impossible), you fear you’ll be publicly humiliated and, possibly, physically harmed. If you laud it (the only real choice), you fear you’ll be publicly humiliated and, quite likely, physically harmed.

So you might not see me around much after you read this. But it’s a worthwhile sacrifice.

My Own Public Yentl, a show of films that Cole had something to do with (as writer, star, director, producer, choreographer, whatever – this man is nothing if not inclusive) is presented by Pleasure Dome and screens at the Gladstone Hotel Ballroom on Sat, Mar 27.

Do not miss this show.

Here’s a rundown of what’s on offer. There are films I haven’t seen yet starring Cole by luminaries Michael Caines, Robert Kennedy, David Hawe and Laura Cowell. That in itself will be a treat, since everything these folks do is great to begin with, and you just can’t go wrong with Cole in the mix.

Ian Jarvis’s Who Needs A Man When You Can Have His Best Friend is very much a piece in Jarvis’s own comic style (a simple, outlandishly funny narrative; mad, mad costuming; and a little something in extremely poor taste), but Cole makes the film his own with a crazed performance as a horny transsexual housewife whose husband is cheating on her. Jarvis wisely captures all of Cole’s hysterical over-emoting, even when it verges on overkill. And let’s just say no one ever looked quite so gleeful playing with a tin of Alpo as our heroine.

Erwin Abesamis’s Nancy Boy Versus Manly Woman from 1997 is 27 minutes of sheer insanity featuring Cole (who produced) and Helen Donnelly. The narrative is way too complicated to explain here; the release captures it best: “The Homo Hilton was booked that night so they took their fight to the street,” even though it really has nothing to do with what occurs on the screen.

This earliest of the films points to what is to come in Cole’s work. One of its greatest concerns appears to be the recapturing of a kind of cinema that is no more – in this particular case, a sort of 1970s-ish, cheap European melodrama. Don’t get me wrong, Nancy Boy is a scream to watch (I never found out-of-sync dubbing funny until now), but this artistic pursuit will come to fruition somewhat later.

Broadly, the look of much of Cole’s work can be characterized as looking back, especially to the earliest moments of filmmaking and the period until sound cinema. There are lots of high-contrast images, lots of jarring edits, lots of film that looks as though it’s aged or damaged. Overall, it’s a very presentational style of making work – the slight narratives are not really the focus; it’s all about the acting out.

And this stylization serves the films extremely well, wrapping them up in a safe, almost romantic feeling that makes the oftentimes vulgar images – a mayonnaise cum shot, piss in the face, nuts hanging out of a dance belt – endearing rather than disgusting. And making the acting codes so up-front turns the films into frolic where, if the artist were less thoughtful, they might come across as demeaning, or even abusive.

The Boys Next Door, co-directed by Cole and Caines in 2001, is a compendium of three short films: Jack The Lad was an entry in Art Fag 2000, Prrr And Crackers was made for the Splice This Super 8 film fest, and Piñata. Boys is a collision of film styles that for the most part sit comfortably together. There’s lots of Bob Mizer posing, some of Fred Halsted’s fetish porn and the irises of early ’20s cinema. And there’s something that reminds me of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1928 film Un Chien Andalou in Cole dressing up as a bull who is then killed by a pair of nearly-naked toreadors (except I don’t remember any butt plugs in the earlier film). A blast to watch, but I think Cole really comes into his own when he starts to direct by himself.

The most recent work other than the brand new stuff, of course is I Think I’m Coming Down With Something, a short bit about what many of us can refer to as the crab cycle. It’s funny, it’s silly. Cole discovers he’s got visitors and deals with the problem with the requisite day-long drowning in Kwellada and visit to the laundromat. It’s real stroke of genius is in the choice of soundtrack song. And I’m not giving it away.

Then we come to the jewel in Cole’s well-deserved crown: Coyote, Beautiful. I watch this film every now and then – usually when I’m feeling a little sad – and am astonished every time at its charm and wit. This is really where Cole’s concerns with old styles come together. He harnesses the high tragedy of old Hollywood with the dashed hopes of postwar glamour queens in creating the character of Sugar Bush, whom I once described as Elizabeth Taylor crossed with Anna Magnani gone mad. Despite its harshness, this is a gentle film. Look past the apparent failure of this faded movie star and you see joy in her eyes.

There is no doubt: Keith Cole is the most dangerous woman in Canadian cinema. Be very afraid.


$5. 9pm. Sat, Mar 27.

The Gladstone Hotel Ballroom.

1214 Queen St W.

(416) 656-5577.