Monday, October 25, 2021

John Greyson | Zero Patience

an imaginary conversation with the director

by Douglas Messerli

John Greyson (screenwriter and director), Glenn Schellenberg (music), Zero Patience / 1993

I can just imagine the excitement John Greyson may have exhibited to close friends in 1992 or earlier when he imagined making a movie musical about AIDS. “Wow, what an idea,” a friend might have offered up in encouragement for the ever inventive mind of Canada’s premier LGBTQ filmmaker, who had already made notable short films such as The Perils of Pedagogy, Kipling Meets the Cowboy, Moscow Does Not Believe in Queers and the feature film Pissoir.

     But Greyson would also have had a friend knowledgeable about musical theater who might have reminded him that there already had been a musical about AIDS, the moving trilogy of short works by William Finn and James Lapine In Trousers (1979), March of the Falsettos (1981), and Falsettoland (1990), gathered together for an off-Broadway premier as Falsettos just that year.

      “Oh, I know all about that,” Greyson responds, “but that’s just about an ordinary queer, his lover, his ex-wife, and their confused son. The stars of my musical are that great Victorian Sir Richard Francis Burton (John Robinson), translator of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night in 17 volumes, The Kama Sutra, and were it not for his wife destroying the manuscript after  his death, the notorious The Perfumed Garden (most of which remains in manuscript at the Huntington Library), as well as working on the side as a sexologist, noted for his measurements of the lengths of pennies throughout his extensive travels in Africa and the Arabian world, as well as gathering up information, Alfred Kinsey-style, of the various sexual techniques in the regions he visited, strongly hinting that he had participated in these practices, shocking the Victorian world for breaking both sexual and racial taboos. He also wrote the first major study of pederasty (the word the Victorians used to describe homosexuality), the longest and most explicit discussion in any language of the time of male homosexuality, which he argued was prevalent primarily in the southern latitudes—what he described as the “Sotadic zone—freeing up his fellow Britons of having to worry about such barbaric practices being performed on British soil, and probably allowing, accordingly, his work to be seen as scientific research while saving the real gay Britons from undue suspicion.”

       “Really?” a good friend perhaps queried. “You think you’ll find an audience for that?”

       “O, don’t worry,” I can hear Greyson joyfully proceeding in his enthusiastic discussion. My real hero is the French Canadian airlines steward Gaëtan Dugas (Normand Fauteux).”

        “Who?” his friends must have unanimously queried him.

     “Patient Zero. You know, the guy whose those hysterically stricken by the AIDS epidemic convinced everyone was the beautiful boy who brought AIDS to North America and through his shameless sexual activities in gay bath houses, through bar pickups, and just general sexual mixing was responsible for infecting half of the gay population before anyone even knew what the problem was.

       But Zero was only the fall guy, since we now know AIDS was around decades before it first showed up in the tests in 1968—and was later found to be responsible for the death the St. Louis teenager Robert Rayford infected in 1959—so in my film Zero will come back as a ghost to clear his name and stop Burton, who miraculously is still living due to contact with the Fountain of  Youth, from creating a museum exhibition featuring him in the Natural History Museum Hall of Contagion.

       Being a product of the establishment, Burton will not be easily convinced of course, but is intrigued by his handsome young companion with whom he soon falls in love, discovering that the medical establishment, without ever claiming Dugas was the original carrier, helped others promulgate the idea. Burton, moreover, found the profession imitating his own unscientific conclusions that the source of all evils were the wild African monkeys, the red-capped mangabey and the greater spot-nosed monkey, who through their consumption passed on HIV to the chimpanzees, who transmitted it to humans. So one of my stars will have to be an African Green Monkey (Marla Lukofsky) who will deny responsibility as well—the theory has never been fully  proven—and another will have to be Miss HIV (Michael Callen) herself, who suggests its not her that kills off people who carry her virus in their systems but a whole bunch of other pathogens. 

       My composer Glenn Schellenberg created a great song for her, “Scheherazade,” because everything about AIDS, after all, is just a series of stories, the accusations that it is a “gay disease,” the refusal of governments to even believe in its importance or existence, and the drug companies fibs told to explain the impossibly high prices they charge to help alleviate the symptoms—when the pills work.

      And obviously there have to be a whole chorus of ACT UP representatives (Van Flores, Scott Hurst, Duncan McIntosh, and Dianne Heatherington) who help make Burton see the error of his ways and protest the Gilbert & Sullivan Drug Corporation who are sponsoring the “contagion” show.

      Glen has put together some great songs for Burton’s visit to the bathhouse, one called “Pop-A-Boner,” and an event more egregious song for the singing assholes of Burton and Zero when they spend their first night in bed together. Burton, being British, is simply terrified of the pain.  And then....there’s a great love song between Burton and Zero after Zero is tired of it all and just wants to disappear out of human memory, “Six or Seven Things” they can no longer say to one another, but wish they had.

       “All right, all right, John, you’ve convinced us that you’ve truly gone insane this time and are about to release a work so damn transgressive that no one can possibly embrace it fully. The LGBTQ community won’t like it because it brings up all those terrible accusations about AIDS being a gay disease, the suggestion that it was transmitted to the North American populations by a gay man, and reiterates the whole issue of their seemingly uncontrolled sexual appetites. The ACT UP group is presented as a group of arguing people clinging to their purpose until fallen by various cancers, blindness, and other symptoms of diseases the body suffers when its immune system no longer can protect it.

       And of course, the heteronormative society will detest your comic satire of the medical, museum, business, and governmental establishments. And they’ll be offended that, at moments at least, you seem to be taking the LGBTQ community seriously.

       And as for the film critics, certainly they won’t know what to make of your strange mix of anachronistic characters, potpourri of genres, and various levels of camp, vaudeville, and high school locker room performative humor. Are you sure you want to make this film, John?


Fortunately Greyson stuck to his original intentions, creating a work that spins in a orbit so akilter to all other films that it rubs up against all conventions about AIDS and the stories we have told ourselves to fall to sleep knowing of the horrible contagion that, unlike the more recent COVID epidemic, still has no completely explicable cause or cure.

      There are parallels of course; COVID is believed by those who like to imagine that all things bad come from a world outside of their own has come to us from bats (or even unforgiveable medical-military experiments) in China; and many who might die from the disease are still convinced that there is no reliable vaccine to protect them from its ravages. But, at least, COVID is recognized as an equal opportunity killer, and not perceived as being mysteriously transmitted only by perverted homosexual opportunists who stand against every moral fiber of heterosexual normalcy.

      But through his unorthodoxy Greyson is able to ask enough questions that force any intelligent viewer of his movie to reconsider everything, including the fantastical explanations of our sexual desires inherited from what is now more than century and a half ago, strangely resurrected, in part, by the rise of AIDS. Greyson isn’t afraid, moreover, of showing the gay world as truly and openly enjoying and engaging in sex even at a time a sword seems personally hanging over each sexually active man and woman’s head. At moments the director takes the dark humor of it all so far that we have to reassess our own proclivities, but in the very next moment he reiterates the fun of being a loving, sexual human being simply trying enjoy life in a world of fearful and greedy naysayers.

      Zero Patience, just as its title proclaims, will have no truck with those who cannot cry and laugh at the very same moment. And if you can’t possibly imagine a ghost popping up to give you a good boner, then you haven’t seen Fauteux as Zero, the beautiful hero happy suddenly to disappear from the screen. 

     Greyson’s works are almost always a theater of contradictions, effusive and spare, visually colorful and bland, absurd and fiercely logical all at the very same moment. Although he permits a sensitive viewer to enjoy and even love his zany images and narrative illogic, there’s no possibility of getting too attached to what he’s representing or becoming sentimental over any of the multitude of messages the film delivers up. The villains win hands up, while those who honestly seek out the truth inevitably lose the battle. Yet a work like Zero Patience is still so celebratory that you simply have to give credence to its creators’ moxie. 

Los Angeles, October 25, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).   

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