Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Book excerpt: Toronto on Film

TO's defining queer moments on film

Next week, the Toronto International Film Festival celebrates the release of its anthology, Toronto on Film. The book, published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, explores the city’s cinematic history.

This Is Not a Reading Series.
Gladstone Hotel Ballroom, 1214 Queen St West, Toronto.
Wed, Sep 9. Doors 7pm, event begins at 7:30.
$5 or free with book purchase.
Authors of the book will be in attendance.

Xtra.ca contributor and TIFF programmer Matthew Hays wrote a chapter about four highlights of Toronto’s queer film history: Winter Kept Us Warm, Outrageous!, Zero Patience and When Night Is Falling. Below is an excerpt on Outrageous!, the 1977 film directed by Richard Benner.

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Here, struggling, hapless hairdresser Robin (Craig Russell, in one of the greatest performances in a Canadian feature, ever) aspires to actually make money as a drag performer. His roommate, Liza (Hollis McLaren), is a schizophrenic trying to avoid being committed to the nuthouse again. Both complete outcasts, Robin and Liza help each other through their predicaments as Outrageous! draws connections between homophobia and prejudices against the mentally ill. Notably, however, Robin himself is marginalized within the milieu in which he might have expected some comfort or solace; early on, a trick explains that most gay men aren’t into trans — drag simply isn’t erotic, he contends, and therefore Robin should pay him for their tryst.

Outrageous! makes no qualms about its geography. It is pure Toronto, until Robin aspires to make it in New York. One of the earliest shots in the film is of the CN Tower. (A cheap, tawdry writer might suggest that this makes it a phallic symbol; but to do so would be cheap and tawdry, so I’ll refrain.) Key moments also occur in front of Union Station and on the St Clair Ave streetcar. As well, Outrageous! continually references the Canada-America divide, taking part in the long-standing tradition of Torontonians bashing Toronto. Robin simply hates many of his suburban clientele at the hairdressing salon: “Life isn’t a can of Coke! They yak about renovating their houses. They should renovate their shitty little lives instead!” The film also slams the gay community for being too tepid and behind the times. Robin laments that despite his obvious talents as a female impersonator, his repertoire of Judy, Mae and Barbra can’t quite cut it in little old Toronto. “No Canadian act makes it here without the US seal of approval,” complains Robin’s friend Perry. So who is packing houses in the city? Anne Murray, as it turns out — a sure sign Torontonians are clueless, says Robin’s sneer. He hatches a plot to go to New York, thinking he could be a cross-border success story just like game-show staple Monty Hall. Besides, staying in Toronto and making it in the cultural milieu would mean having to get a Canada Council grant, he suspects.

On top of being hugely entertaining — Russell’s impersonations of every faghag imaginable are eerie in their authenticity — Outrageous! also serves as a brilliantly astute allegory for Canada’s shaky sense of cultural identity. Robin and Liza are defiant outsiders, but they also personify the irony of that position: they long to be insiders. Their internalized self-hatred isn’t simply due to being queer and crazy; it’s tied to a deeply rooted Canadian inferiority complex, too. Again, the underlying tension is decidedly existential, with Robin and Liza always keenly aware that their hardships are due in large part to what they themselves are not: straight and sane. Robin is awash in American pop culture references: when a party turns sour, he says that it’s “turned into Valley of the Dolls.” And when his friend is looking for a new drag outfit, he thinks he’s struck gold with the idea of dressing up as Karen Black, opting for her stewardess character from the ludicrously cheeseball disaster movie Airport ’75. Insisting the costume won’t be second-rate, this Black wannabe says he’ll be sure to get an American Airlines flight bag, not content to settle for one from Air Canada.

Self-deprecating, marginalized protagonists like Robin raise the spectre of a queer-Canadian axis, underscoring the queer/dominant hetero and Canadian/dominant American parallels. The correlation prompts the question: is Canada one great big queer nation? Playwright and screenwriter Brad Fraser, who adapted the movie Outrageous! into a stage musical in 2000, once discussed the parallels between being gay and being Canadian.

“I feel like Canadians are sort of the gay community of the world,” said Fraser. “Especially in the North American context, we can go anywhere, do anything and no one will know we’re Canadian unless we announce it. We believe in equal rights for all, but struggle with our own identity. Like gays, Canadians wonder how we are all different when we’re exactly the same. We’re one-tenth of the population of America, just as gays are purportedly ten per cent of the population… Americans force us, as Canadians, to question our identity, just as the heterosexual mainstream forces gays to question their own identity.”

Straight-but-not-narrow director Bruce McDonald agreed with Fraser, suggesting, “Essentially, we Canadians are really a bunch of art fags.”

But I would argue further that this sense of drag, of pretence, of dressing up to become something other than what one is presumed to be makes Canada itself a trans nation. In the film milieu, we are often dressed up (or down?) to look like America. Toronto pretends to be New York, Montreal pretends to be San Francisco, Vancouver pretends to be LA, and so on. (In one of the strangest municipal drag acts, the American rendition of the popular TV series Queer as Folk had Toronto pretending to be Pittsburgh!) Our entire sense of national identity is based on trying to look like, or pass as, a glitzier, more famous entity. Bruce LaBruce even subtly commented on this municipal onscreen drag act and the fluidity of American-Canadian cinematic relations: his Toronto-set No Skin Off My Ass (1991) was based on Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park (1969), an American film shot in Vancouver. LaBruce took the essential plotline — an infatuated woman kidnapping a young man off the street — and gave it his own gender and landscape switcheroo.

Given this national fondness for costume, Outrageous! marks a pivotal moment in Canuck cinematic history, signalling a new level of confidence by filmmakers. It was released at the same time that Cronenberg was making a name for himself in the twisted horror genre and the Canadian Film Development Corporation was funding films (including Outrageous!) through the much-maligned tax-shelter programme. Unlike many of its contemporaries, Outrageous! was geographically specific — and one of the few signs of life in the period. The film was produced by William T Marshall, and Henk Van der Kolk with Dusty Cohl, who were then busy making plans to launch the Festival of Festivals (later, of course, to become the Toronto International Film Festival). These acts would all have huge consequences for the evolution of our national film culture — and they also seem somehow connected, given the let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of both Outrageous! and the Festival of Festivals.

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Also check out TIFF Cinematheque from Oct 9 to 22. The series will feature films highlighted in Toronto on Film, including early, rarely screened work from the ’50s (including The Bloody Brood by Julian Roffman), as well as key films from the ’60s such as Robin Spry’s Flowers on a One-Way Street and other essential films made in the last 20 years, such as Deepa Mehta’s Bollywood/Hollywood, Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.
 
Toronto on Film – TIFF Cinematheque will feature special guests, including Deepa Mehta, Clement Virgo, Ron Mann, Patricia Rozema and Reginald Harkema.
 
Details will be available as of Sep 22 at
tiff.net/cinematheque.