- The Perils of Pedagogy: The Works of John Greyson ed. by Brenda Longfellow, Scott MacKenzie, and Thomas Waugh
In her long essay comparing John Greyson to Jean-Luc Godard, the Regina film professor Christine Ramsay quotes Wyndham Wise’s encyclopedic discussion of Canadian cinema: Wise tells us that Greyson is known for a “unique combination of wit and didacticism.” In The Perils of Pedagogy, a doorstop-sized survey of Greyson’s entire career, the split between wit and didacticism is fairly clear—as is the frustration that split can engender.
The wittiest, most agile writing in the collection is a section of Greyson’s own work. From reportage in the 1970s radical queer journal Body Politic to substantial aesthetic essays, this section reminds the reader that Greyson was always in the middle of vital discussions—about the liberation of pornography, the gender politics of drag, and the historical potential of queerness, plus wider-ranging discussions of the empire, violence, and colonialism. The best of his writing here ties together the ongoing problems of capital, the body, geography, and the internecine pissing matches of radical leftists.
Greyson has most of the wit here, and the least of the didactic, but there are other writers who almost match his skill as a writer and performer. Gary Kibbins’s essay, “Froth and Its Uses,” has the miracle of being one of those few texts about humour that make the jokes funnier, the froth more stable, by explaining it: [End Page 550]
Regardless of how one values it, artistic autonomy is a thoroughly artificial construction. Words made under its sign required that autonomy in order to get made but doing away with it afterwards is both legitimate as well as necessary. The trick for both artist and viewer involves balancing both contrary dimensions of the work at the same time, a lesson learned imperfectly by Jorge Luis Borges, who, in a moment of personal political transcendence, accepted a literary prize from General Pinochet.
There are other spaces where this stabilizing froth occurs. Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson’s connecting of homoeroticism and violence within the ritual performance of masculinity—in “Greyson’s Monsters”—is serious only because it fails to collapse. Knabe’s balance is a good lens for explaining the second half of Wise’s dichotomy. When Wise says “didactic,” he doesn’t mean leaden or dull, or force-feeding virtue. Greyson uses the form of vernacular media to discuss a number of social and political issues—but the forms he chooses and the way he chooses them are sexy enough or funny enough that the audience is not bored.
Greyson’s method of constructing visual meaning is intersectional enough to be, at least, not boring, not ideologically pure, and perhaps slightly subversive. John Champagne writing about Urinal is an excellent example of how the subversion of formalist readings and political desire works: “two policemen are continually satirized in the film. They are portrayed by what appear to be deliberately ‘bad’ actors and are shot in an extremely unflattering flat video. Not uncoincidentally, I would suggest, this footage resembles cheap gay pornography.”
This formal matching is one of the ways that Greyson teaches. There are others—the work about the 1980s that was in Yorkdale Mall, the YouTube videos about Israel, and especially the way he puts a discussion of eighteenth-century Dutch sodomy trials, in the midst of a section on the African National Congress and Robben Island prison in South Africa.
Though the collection is both witty and didactic, the book leaves ideas untaught: the problem of Greyson’s early Marxism and the homophobia of some Marxists, or his ongoing relationship to the state (can one be a radical when one accepts that much money from Telefilm Canada?), or what it means for someone whose interests are largely vernacular to spend so much time in the academy, or even his spending less and less time making features. This wit and this didacticism are a string through the work of...