what is this thing called love?
by Douglas Messerli
Byron Ayanoglu, Brad Fraser, Gerald Hannon, Tomson Highway, Donald Martin, Charlie Pachter, Stan Persky, Scott Symons, Ken McDougall, Patricia Rozema, Daniel McIver, and Nik Sheehan (writers), Nik Sheehan (director) Symposium: The Ladder of Love / 1996
In 1996 Canadian documentary filmmaker Nik Sheehan produced a series, later shown on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC, Société Radio-Canada), loosely based on Plato’s Symposium in which various well-known figures of Canadian gay society were asked to express their ideas about love. The resulting short films, of different lengths, were filmed over a period of 2-3 years, gathered and shown at the Montréal Film Festival.
Already well known for his 1985 documentary on AIDS—one of the first of its kind—No Sad Songs (1985), Sheehan’s Symposium: The Ladder of Love further established him as one of Canada’s premier filmmakers, a career which later resulted in important LBGTQ works such as God’s Fool (1998) on the queer iconoclast Scott Symons, The Drawing Master (2004), and FLicKeR (2008), on artist Brion Gysin and his Dreamachine.
I have been unable to see a collected feature version of Sheehan’s Symposium, but I believe there must have ten sequences featuring Byron Ayanoglu, Brad Fraser, Gerald Hannon, Tomson Highway, Donald Martin, Charlie Pachter, Stan Persky, Scott Symons, Ken McDougall, and Patricia Rozema, small films about each of them I found on various different sites on the internet. The order of the segments below has been determined by the way the cast members were listed in the IMBd listing. I have kept the subtitles associated with each of the films I found, three of them appearing on Sheehan’s own Cell Productions YouTube collations, which intrigued me to seek out the others.*
*Soon after I published this essay on line, I was contacted by Nik Sheehan who posted a complete version of the Television broadcast (of about 46 minutes) on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/500976406). The order was completely different and between each of the now only 9 shorts (the Donald Martin piece, “I Loved Him Absolutely” having been cut) the participants had brief discussions which brought up many of the questions I raise below, some explanations about the authors’ intentions, and, particularly after the episode of “A Box Called Love” responses that further revealed these figures’ emotional depths. In that discussion Brad Fraser brought up a crucial fact, that elicited several profound comments. He argued that as gays particularly “we have to discuss love and death at the same moment,” in part due to how AIDS has effected the community. Besides the Martin cut, Gerald Hannon’s “Time, Huh?” was censored, the sex scene mostly removed and edited to delete the discussion of the blow job and the boy getting fucked. In the discussions Pachter had perhaps the most comic moment when he described an older woman he knew describing him as finally having come out of the “cupboard.”
The order of the TV version was as follows:
“Tonight You Get Quail”
“The Shape I Think”
“A Box Called Love”
“From a Distance”
“The Whole World”
discussion with Stan Persky in Berlin via phone
Obviously, the ladder in Sheehan’s completed version moves from Eros and the immediate world to the more abstract concepts of love expressed in the last three pieces, although Symons work is a testament to Eros as well as a love that is now both distant and part of the larger world.
Instead of reorganizing the order, however, I have maintained by original gathering based on the IMBd credits, simply because I somehow made sense of my far more random reading. Sheehan wrote me, after reading what I’d written, moreover, “Your ordering of the shorts is probably better than mine!” I would disagree, but it has given me license to keep the structure with which I struggled while writing the comments below.
tonight you get quail [3.09 minutes]
“The gay legacy has been to create art,” begins noted Montréal chef and writer Bryron Ayanoglu in the first segment of Symposium: The Ladder of Love. “Even in the kitchen we take something as mundane as food and transform it into cuisine and sauces, god, a gay person won’t even consider it if it has no sauce. ...I don’t mean some macho sauce, some overwrought tomato sauce that takes three hours to cook and ends up tasting like a tart and salty piece of underwear. I mean a gay sauce. Perfume of basil laced with olive oil, with tomatoes you can still taste and garlic scent you can practically touch. You know, a great sauce is the signifier of cuisine and by coincidence is its gayest component.
We watch him chop, dice, slice, and stir a sauce before clinking a glass of wine against the glass of someone just out of sight.
It is obviously the television interviewer Adrian Childe, for at that moment Ayanoglu stops to reminisce:
Remember Adrian that party in the old days when we were young
and death was a distant threat without a face.
The camera pulls back to reveal the bearded rotund chef now seated at table with Adrian (Daniel MacIvor), with a massive bowl and platter of what appears to be the quails.
Remember that dish I served, that lamb that...didn’t really look
like a lamb because it was more like a lump. It was deboned and
and stuffed with a whole farm full of fowl. Deboned turkey inside
the lamb and then a capon and a duck...and inside that a grouse, a
carnival of life and death regenerating itself as the curvilinear feeding
frenzy had slaughtered a feast for our most carnal desires. And a
surprise at the epicenter of the whole thing, Deep in its heart some
counterpoint, a little miracle...*
Adrian interrupts, “the lark.”
Yes, a lark, a live lark, a beating heart so beautiful, so happy to
escape when I finally cut through the meats to set it free.
Apparently, there are no larks tonight. “Tonight you get quail.”
We have, obviously, begun our trip up the ladder of love with a dinner to match Trimalchio's grand dinner party in Petronius’ Satyricon just as Plato’s Symposium begins with a grand banquet at which all the others describe their views of love.
The Canadian Byron Ayanoglu, who began his career as the restaurant critic for the Montréal Gazette went on to become what his many Hollywood fans describe as the “food god.” Beyond his fifteen some cookbooks, novels, and memoirs he worked as the private chef to Mick Jagger and Robert De Niro among others, including Los Angeles’ blueblood Annenberg family.
Since we have eaten and drunken ourselves almost into a stupor, it is now time to get a little high and cuddle-up in bed.
*I have only one significant criticism of this series, and that is the quality of the text translated from the spoken words for those with hearing loss. Whoever translated these episodes clearly had little experience with the language, literature, art, geography, or history. A single paragraph from the Ayanoglu piece will serve as an example for all of these short works. Here’s the written version of the chef’s description of his lamb dish stuffed with various fowls:
“Remember that dish I served that lamb that was that really didn’t look like a lamb because it was more like a lump it the bond and stuffed with for the whole farm full of fowl a t-bone turkey inside the lab and then I cape on and a dog at reggae dabangg duck and inside that a grouch a carnival of life and death regenerating itself....”
There are numerous examples of these unintentionally humorous passages throughout the 10 films.
naked [3.38 minutes]
Brad Fraser is one of the most widely produced of Canadian playwrights, known for his queer-oriented commentaries of sexuality, drugs, and violence. Among his plays are Wolf Boy (1981), which featured Keanu Reeves in one of his earliest acting roles; Undentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love (1989), about a group of young 30-year old Edmontoners facing a serial killer in their midst; and Poor Super Man (1994) whose production at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati was temporarily canceled for fear of obscenity only three years after that same city had canceled the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. Fraser also wrote the screenplay for Denys Archand’s version of his play retitled Love and Human Remains (1993), and directed his own screenplay for Leaving Metropolis (2002). He also wrote for the television series Queer as Folk and over a period of time wrote a biweekly column for the Canadian gay magazine fab.
For his interview about love, Fraser required the interviewer, Adrian (Daniel MacIvor) to appear naked in bed with him. Adrian, working for a television network, clearly feels uncomfortable in the position, describing it as a bit “unusual,” to which Fraser responds, “Well, it’s unusual to go around asking fags what they think about love. It’s a difficult question for...anyone, but particularly for gay men.”
After a few more moments of uncomfortable squirming on the part of the interviewer, Fraser—evidently cracking nuts throughout the whole film—lays out his logic: “The reason you’re in bed with me is not about love and it’s not about sex. It’s about intimacy. And I think until intimacy can exist between people love cannot exist between people,” his viewpoint here reminding me a little of US performance artist Tim Miller, who begins some of his performances by first sitting naked on the lap of an unsuspecting audience member, sometimes, as he explains, the first time she or he may have had intimate physical contact with a gay man.
“Okay,” Adrian meekly responds. “I feel very vulnerable actually.”
“Do you? Good. Sometimes you achieve love for a second. You have like a second of love while you’re sucking someone’s cock, while they’re fucking you or something, and you feel that and it’s real and then it’s gone, sometimes you love someone for a year, you move in with them, you get a house together. And it’s all there, and it’s all beautiful, and you enjoy that while it’s happening, but it goes away, it changes, it evolves. It becomes different kinds of love.”
Adrian: “So the grand idea of love you think is just a grand idea?”
“Yeh, absolutely. It’s a lie that’s been foisted upon us by mostly straight white men who want to keep things in control by the church, by...the priesthood...they’re gonna tell us what love is...what marriage is...these people don’t even have sex except with children (Adrian snickers). So why do we buy into it? It just amazes me...and why are there so many unhappy people? How many people you know have a relationship that lasts their entire life, who are in love with one person for their whole life? Like wolves and swans and that’s it. A few people here and there will achieve that kind of thing, but who wants to?—"
Suddenly the interviewer takes out a joint, probably offered to him by Fraser before they joined one another in bed or that he brought with him just to be able to relax into the odd situation with which he was faced. He interrupts Fraser’s with the comment, “I don’t normally smoke while I’m working.”
Fraser quips, “You don’t normally work in bed.”
At this point the interviewer is hardly able to keep his thoughts together as he mumbles something “ummm, ummm, I can see your point entirely, and I have had firsthand experience there” etc. But we can see that he’s gradually losing his sense of continuity, and in the midst of the conversation he suddenly leans over and pinches one of Fraser’s nipples, Fraser warning him to be careful.
“Why be careful?” Adrian ridiculously inquires.
Well, suggests Fraser, you might get me going here, the interviewer, finally comprehending, “Yes, of course.” Before long he draws in another drag or two of the joint, and suggests perhaps they should turn off the camera.
Fraser agrees, if he wants to, but suggest its fine with him if he doesn’t mind leaving it on. The two continue for a short while in meaningless conversation, until finally Adrian cuts off the camera.
We can only wonder (or imagine) what might have occurred in that black emptiness of the screen. Was our uncomfortable interviewer becoming perhaps a little too comfortable with his bedmate? Might he have found that moment of love of which Fraser speaks? We can never know of course, but since it’s all so very fleeting, does it matter? One can only hope it might have been as much fun as this almost nonsensical interchange was.
time, huh [5.35 minutes]
Gerald Hannon is a Canadian journalist and author, well known for his posts about queer life and his own personal relationships. At the time of this short, apparently 50 years of age he was still also working as a male prostitute, a fact that can only remind one of the American writer-hustler of the 1950s and 60s John Rechy.
Without knowing any of the above, however, one might imagine the first image of a long-haired youth making a call to be the prostitute, a voice telling the viewer:
I’m a writer and I’m a prostitute. And that means I get a kind of special
insight in love I think. Sometimes I also think I become a kind of scientist
of love. I see people falling in love with me...and I don’t fall in love with
them. No matter what happens I’m unavailable except at a certain
specified time and for 50 dollars. It’s astonishing how many people are
willing to spend that kind of money to create that kind of space and time.
The boy, meanwhile, calls up to inquire “Are you available?” The boy is early, but is told, in contradiction to what the voice has just told us, to “come on up.”
When the boy arrives at the door of the apartment, and the door opens, he asks, “You’re Gerald?” And when the man says, “Yeh,” the cute kid flashes an engaging smile and softly laughs, adding “Not what I expected.” Nor, I might add, what the viewer might have expected.
Gerald, recognizing the validity of the sentiment, moves down to give the boy a blow job, the boy’s erect cock partially visible on screen.
Yet apparently, the prostitute cannot resist in philosophizing as well, telling the boy, “You’re wrong,” suggesting that John has just saw it all the movies, “long walks on the beach, sunsets, that first kiss. Love isn’t like that.”
The boy rightfully challenges him, “You know what it is?”
Gerald pauses, “Well love is a thousand things, but the thing that...as I become an older man...the thing that it seems to do most for me is allow me to look at the world the way young people do. It allows me also, the way children do, to stretch the remaining time I have longer than the hours [inaudible: we have together?], I create that as a prostitute. They pay me money to make it do it. I think they’re getting their money’s worth. I’ve stretched time out..... For me that’s what love is. It’s making time stand still.”
Moments later over coffee and pastries, John muses: “Time, huh?” adding, “Gerald, that was the best blow job I ever had.”
Hannon laughs: “That was the first blow job you ever had.”
John asks another question: “Is getting fucked as good?”
The elder suggests he’s had testimonials.
“Would I feel love?”
The boy admits he only has 50 dollars, and once again, the prostitute contradicts his early comments about being paid for a certain time and space, hinting that he’ll offer the experience to John for free.
three-spirited [4.46 minutes]
Tomson Highway was born into a Cree-speaking family and is the librettist of the first Cree-language opera, The Journey or Pimooteewin (2008). After receiving a B.A. in both music and English from the University of Western Ontario, he worked for seven years on the native American reserves around Canada before turning to playwriting and composing novels and children’s books.
Among his most noted plays are The Rez Sisters (1986) and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989). His novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998) was based on the events that led to his brother René’s contracting and dying of AIDS. In 2009 he premiered his cabaret work Kisageetin which was developed into a musical performed across Canada. He now divides his time traveling with his partner of 29 years, Raymond Lalonde, between Ontario and France.
A member of the audience, The Trickster, bends toward a man in the row ahead of him (once more, our ever-attendant Adrian), licking his neck, and asking (stealing from Cole Porter) “What is this thing called love?”
From the stage Highway declares: “For me, I think is the most wonderful thing on the face of the earth. Now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of 40 I find that one of the benefits of growing older is having the privilege of collecting so many friends and loved ones.”
Highway claims that there are so people in the world that he loves, men and women. Love for him is a terrible responsibility, and even more important is the “need to be loved,” to be necessary to so many others and to the life the world.
The camera by this time has shifted to the piano which Highway has been playing as accompaniment to his declarations, which continues with his plea to love as many people as is humanly possible.
From the balcony the Cree Trickster who fist uttered the Porter title is now looking down upon the stage where Highway tells a story:
In the language of my birth, Cree, the great spirit, men, women,
children, dogs, cats, horses, trees, rocks all enjoy the same status.
Everything together forms one great unity. And so it follows that
if this is true each and everyone of us would have an instinctive
desire to be a part of that same essential spark which we call life.
We all want to feel as one with that one central energy, that great
boat of magic.
We now see the Trickster in rather feminine apparel sitting once again in the row behind the viewer. He puts his hand upon Adrian’s shoulder and says: “I want so desperately to be a part of everything.”
Through a lens projecting multiple images of his face, Highway repeats some of his early assertions concerning his attempts to love as many people as possible, reiterating the desire to be part of that “essential spark.”
Highway waltzes with the Trickster who now appears almost fully in drag. “When we are together, me and my friend, my soul sings.” blackout.
i loved him absolutely [5.01 minutes]
Screenwriter Donald Martin’s contribution to these variations on love is filmed, appropriately, in black and white, since the story he relates is one of the streets. It’s there he meets the man some would describe as a prostitute, whore, hustler, trade—what he describes as “simply safety valves, judgments meant to harm, to maintain a distance.” To the narrator, “Man reaches out across the void to satisfy a longing, drives his car through darkened streets to cry on the shoulder of, dream a fantasy with a stranger.”
Yet the narrator admits he never told the boy of his love. So infatuated with the kid was the narrator that he sought him many times and finally on Christmas Eve he did find him, the two joining up for passionate love. But he still didn’t tell him.
Looking for him for weeks after, he once thinks he spots him, but it is someone else. He finally asks another boy whether he knew him. The boy shies away suspecting he might be a cop. But when the older man tells him that he simply loved the boy, the other tells him that he’s dead—of an overdose the day before his 25th birthday.
The narrator admits that he’s had a lot of people die in his life, “but until then I just couldn’t cry at funerals, I couldn’t. I remembered him and I cried.”
While Gerald Hannon described love from the prostitute’s view, Martin’s work looks at the male hustler with desire and love. His short gay noir is a painful work about a love that never dared to say its name.
Martin has written the screenplays several films, including Never Too Late (1996) about a group of seniors who fight the owners of their assisted living home, with Cloris Leachman playing a lesbian; The Christmas Choir (2008), about a man working at a homeless shelter whose members he joins together into a choir; Too Late to Say Goodbye (2009); Bomb Girls (2013); and Milton’s Secret (2016).
from a distance (ecce homo) [1.23 minutes]
Pachter says only that he loved the model “from a distance.” Yet, the interviewer pushes it a little further in suggesting that it looks like he knew what the model’s skin felt like, to which the artist replies, “There was a great feeling between us, and he knew that I had a tremendous admiration for his beauty. And he enjoyed giving me that.”
He quickly turns to another painting, looking somewhat like a Van Gough interior. “I was struck by the resemblance of the film writer J. Scott to Van Gough and I asked him if he’d pose for me and he was delighted.”
For Pachter, one of the true expressions of love he can manifest “is by painting a beautiful portrait of someone who I admire.” For the artist the distance between, as ethereal as it may sound, permits his ability to reveal his subjects’ beauty in paint.
This is the first creator of Sheehan’s “Ladder to Love” to succinctly describe love as a process of removing oneself from the body in an almost voyeuristic manner. Love here is a symbol representing the beauty he finds in the other without actually physically involving the self with it.
Despite the utter explosion of youth Pachter has depicted in Ecce Homo he objectifies it so thoroughly that the work might have as well been titled Noli me tangere, the words Christ spoke to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. In a sense, this artist, in his objectification of the flesh, has taken it away from the possibility of the human touch; yet, as the artist suggests, in that ideal world it may indeed live longer than the artist and his subject both, even if the “life” of which he speaks is purely a spiritual or mentally imagined one.
*The image of the painting featured in this segment that I found on the internet was simply titled Painting.
the whole world [2.21 minutes]
Perksy begins his “lecture,” the structure he has chosen in which to discuss love, by rejecting the entire notion that he need say anything for or about the subject. “Well I think love can do without my praise. From what I see it’s perfectly capable of taking care of itself. It has no shortage of suitors. Not that I don’t believe in Eros, the god of love.”
The camera pans to show us members of his audience, mostly those individuals whose arguments about love we’ve already heard. As in the Symposium, these now somewhat worn-our revelers must still remain to hear what the others have to say about the subject.
The professor summarizes his ideas about eros: “Love gives you the illusion of not being alone. And everyone is alone, I’m sorry to say.”
The young man to whom Persky was momentarily infatuated asks an interesting question, given Persky’s near-dismissal of eros as creating a meaningful, long-lasting experience: “What about friends?”
“For a long time I thought friendship was it,” the professor intones. “Friendship circulates freely, it seeks to enlarge its circle, it doesn’t try to possess beauty or bodies, and unlike a pair of lovers it has eyes for something other than each other. But there’s no sense in friends being together if they’re not thinking of the whole world.”
In short, for Persky there is something more important than love, “the whole of human relations.” “Instead of just a lover, it’s many and multifaceted. It is the world itself.” And the professor closes his lecture, switching off the light.
Strangely, Perksy’s whole world seems even more abstract to me than even Pachter’s reverential “distance.” And even though Tomson Highway also sought to embrace the whole world, you had the feeling that he knew quite specifically who his “whole world” was. His was not Persky’s vague notion of “human relations,” but the hugs and embracement of a large number of good friends. Highway’s love might very well tire you out, but it wasn’t a vague notion of bringing all people—who, as Persky admits, are all alone and different each in their own way— together in that tiny space of a single being’s imagination.
As an idea, Persky’s desire to embrace the “whole world” seems attractive; but I have absolutely no idea where to begin in attempting to accomplish what he asks. Moreover, will anyone in the vast mass of human beings moving each in their own direction have any idea of who their would-be lover is? Would they feel loved? Or would it be somewhat like Martin’s phantom love for a street hustler who he never truly knew very much about? At least Hannon gave love to a single human being for a few specific hours, and got something back in turn, enough money to help pay the rent.
Clearly, Sheehan’s Symposium on love was beginning to make me—and presumably Adrian (who I spotted in the crowd) and the rest of the CBC audience—ask some serious questions. But as we had begin to climb Plato’s “Ladder of Love” I somehow felt we had lost touch with human body with which we’d begun. At least a body keeps you warm at night, while my worries about the people of Afghanistan, of Poland, Hungary, and Brazil—and believe me every day I do think about these people—just keeps me up at night. Does anyone in those countries know that I worry about and care for them? Does it matter that perhaps my worries are not theirs’—or not even the right ones?
lion dance [7.34 minutes]
Now perhaps having reached a level of love’s ladder that seems to put one somewhere in the clouds, it is interesting to watch someone looking back on love lost as Scott Symons does, a man who has even had to abandon his homeland, who is almost completely grounded in the earth. His remembrances of his early love for a 17-year-old boy which embraced—if not precisely Persky’s “whole world—so many aspects of love that it served as the major event of Symons’ life. After having established himself as one of the elite intellects of Canada, love transformed him into a notorious outsider which forced him to live for long periods in Mexico, and later—during the time of this short work and Sheehan’s feature film about his life, God’s Fool (1997)—in Essaouira, Morocco.
Symons began to realize early in his youth that he was a homosexual, but, like many of generation when gay sex was criminalized, he attempted to suppress and deny his desires. In 1958 he married Judith Morrow, the granddaughter of the president of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
For awhile Symons worked on the editorial page of the Toronto Telegram before joining the staff of the Québec Chronicle-Telegraph, shifting once more to La Presse in Montréal, where he won a National Newspaper award for his series of articles about the early stages of what would later be described as Québec’s “Quiet Revolution.” Throughout this period, Symons and his wife became notable figures in Québec society. Yet in 1959, during a time when he and Judith spent time studying at the Sorbonne, his acquintance with fiction writer Julien Green evidently “reawoke” his dormant sexuality.
After working as a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum and teaching as an assistant professor of fine art at the University of Toronto, he fled the family farm in Claremont and holed in in a hotel in Montréal for 21 days to write his first fiction, Place d'Armes.
Consisting of autobiographical and metafictional elements, this work told of a wealthy intellect discovering himself in the arms of male prostitutes. The experimental novel was filled with sexual puns such as “fingertits,” “cocktit,” and “assoul,” that in 1965 garnered him little positive response from the still basically homophobic Canadian audience.* Writing in the Toronto Star Robert Fulford, for example, described Symons as “the most repellent single figure in the recent history of Canadian writing.” Fulford went on to accuse “the monster from Toronto” as being incapable of writing about love. Over time that book and Symons’ second novel, Civic Square—published as a series of 848 polemical letters on single handwritten pages, each decorated by the author, the contents packaged in a blue box wrapped with a white ribbon and sealed in wax—foretelling the later tradition of LGBTQ fiction, came to be recognized as important works of literature.
During this period Symons left his wife, having fallen in love with 17-year-old John McConnell, leading to an incident reported in the press that scandalized Canadian society, particularly since the media had mistakenly claimed that he had run away with the boy to Mexico.
McConnell’s parents immediately posted an award for Symons’ arrest, resulting in police and federal forces from Canada, the United States, and Mexico to trail them as they moved to and from various hideouts. Basically describing these events and his feelings for John in his Symposium segment, Symons quotes John’s response: “My cock must be very important. We’ve got five sets of police looking for us!”
The stories that Symons relates about John’s and his relationship are charming and, at times, quite comic. But one nonetheless realizes the gravity of the situation they faced when one recognizes that it is similar to what happened Oscar Wilde and his beloved Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas).
The stories that Symons relates about John’s and his relationship are charming and, at times, quite comic. But one nonetheless realizes the gravity of the situation they faced when one recognizes that it is similar to what happened Oscar Wilde and his beloved Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas).
Symons and John broke up in 1971, and by the time the elder was fondly recalling his “passion” for John in front of Sheehan’s camera he had moved permanently to Morocco where he was in a relationship Aaron Klokeid. Yet clearly he recalls his relationship with the boy to be the central experience with love in his life. He describes their meeting as occurring when he was out walking in the woods, when out of the snow appeared a young boy who looked to him like a Russian Tartar:
Out of the woods came John on a horse galloping, and he
practically ran into me. He stopped his horse and said, “O
you big black bear who frightened my horse! And we were
From the abstract heights of Persky’s embracement of the whole world, Symons gets right down into the mud where he apparently fell that special day, describing his and John’s passion. “Lovers’ passion is not part of our society. It’s usually simply called an affair and that’s a minor venture. We gave up everything...”
Then 32 years of age, Symons immediately recognized the boy as an almost mythical figure: “John was totally Pan, he was from the world of Pan, the great Greek god of dance and music and wine and eros... He was very gentlemanly and very ferocious.” And without saying it, obviously, quite dangerous given the social attitudes of the day. If their situation soon turns into a kind Wilde-Douglas affair, it apparently began as something closer to the love between Rimbaud and Verlaine.
Symons recalls that one day, while they were hiding out in Oaxaca, he received two telegrams in one day, the first saying that his wife wanted a divorce and the second reporting that his Place d'Armes had won the best first novel prize in Canada, requesting that he return for the banquet dinner. Obviously he didn’t make the trip, joyfully describing how each day John returned from fishing with the Mexican villagers, the boy made the call of a rutting moose, which he had recently learned to imitate.
It’s touching to hear Symons’ almost nostalgic expression of a state of being that in which he lived during that special time that might surely be described as “transcendent.” “Orgasm was not the high point of life, it was the kick-off point. You lived beyond in what we called the state of aftercum.”
While Brian Ayanoglu, Brad Fraser, and Donald Martin seem to have connected love to the body, here for the first time we see a true commitment to Eros as a god. As Symons begins his fascinating adventure into the past, he almost chants an invocation to that god who he suggests marries desire and sex:
Eros is the prayer incarnate. Eros is the dance incarnate. Eros is love
within the world. Eros is the dance within this world that allows us to
be love, that is love as being, while sex is love as doing.
His love is “within the world,” without necessarily connecting with “the whole world.” If it is finite, fleeting, for Symons it certainly seems worth the burdensome effort and the possibility of even giving up the world for the intense passion of the moment when everything seems to come together in a different kind of wholeness.
*This selection from Symons’ novel will suggest its sexual playfulness:
André moans Magnificat as assoul clutches steep on rood
(more freight shunts alongside Lachine Canal, beyond Wedding Cake, where Van Horne still seats)
whole world reborn in our Host that quivers me André sensing withdraws me out to the rim of his world, plies my quaver, secures my Holyrood at arsedge and as I bore back steep raises our nave off our bed to capture my Man thrusting homage into our sunburst monstrance as I reach out reach out in
to the Host in the Nave on the Altar in the Church in our Place d’Armes, reach in for that Body and Blood now reborn in the flesh, made sheer flesh… Man reborn, made whole in me… donnant donnant, for my Land given back to André gave me the Host
bloodworthy, gave that back to me as key to our kingdom gave it back to me as I reach out to the bloodspurt of the
Object resurrected in me, Manned once again
and as André cups the blood of my new life I kiss the Mona Lisa smile of his Quiet face
trainshunt farewell of Marc along our Greyway
Bugger buggered and damned: what more can a man want? …
**In Symons’ rendition as related in Sheehan’s film, he escaped Canada on the advice of his lawyer for Mexico after the couple grew aware the John’s family had been apprised of their relationship.
a box called love [3.24 minutes]
It seems fitting after so many of the figures Sheehan has chosen to speak of love have had their noisy say that at the ninth step of his ladder to love the featured figure does not speak. That figure, Ken McDougall, had died of AIDS in 1994, two years before Sheehan’s film was released. It could have been possible that Sheehan filmed this sequence early in the process, before McDougall died, but I should imagine that the clip in which a dying man (McDougall) lying in his death bed with his lover sitting beside him, both without speaking, is from Cynthia Roberts’ film The Last Supper, with Daniel McIvor (who in Symposium plans the role of Adrian Childe throughout) playing the Doctor, Parthens, or perhaps the earlier stage version.
In this sequence, Hillar Liitoja, who wrote the original 1993 stage play in which McDougall played the same role of the dying Chris serves as the Doctor.
And in this sense, Sheehan has brought the dead to life, Liitoja now speaking of love and his AIDS patients as we observe the actor McDougall playing out his own imminent death on film or stage.
This film, in short, is clearly a family affair, with Liitoja performing as a doctor explaining to Adrian the medical definition of love, as well as revealing something about love that helps to explain a human reaction beyond medical science.
Some research indicates that love is purely a bio-chemical action. In
the first stage of love, infatuation, three natural amphetamines bathe
the brain causing euphoria, giddiness, sleeplessness. In the second
stage of love, attachment, it’s a different set of chemicals, endorphin,
our natural morphine. These endorphins flood the brain, giving us
that peaceful, secure feeling. So, when a lover leaves or dies the
pain of loss is very real.
We see blood samples spinning around in a centrifuge.
The doctor continues by reporting that he’s seen some 60 patients, presumably with AIDS, all of them from first two years now dead. But he has observed something about his dying patients
that has informed his science with regard to how “profoundly death sharpens and brings love into focus.”
The camera pans to a hand holding another man’s hand within it, probably the hands of the man and his dying lover (McDougall, dreadfully thin with a faced marked by Kaposi's sarcoma spots).
I have never forgotten coming upon the scene of two lovers, only moments
from death. I witnessed here a certain knowledge at work. The lovers knew
death was imminent. They knew their love would soon be only a memory
in the survivor, stored in a gangly in the lover, in a little box called love.
And it was this little compartment in the brain and the knowledge each
had its existence that so profoundly eased the passage of the dying lover.
More than any drug I could administer, more than any treatment designed
to ease the suffering the simple knowledge of that box called love allowed
for the highest form of dignity, allowed for grace itself.
Surely the couple of men at the center of this work, Liitoja and McIvor, will not forget their now dead friend.
I do not know if the text here is related to the play (the film The Last Supper does not currently seem to be available in the US), but clearly the shot we see the doctor injecting into an arm at the beginning of this segment is similar to the one injected into the character Chris’ arm in The Last Supper, in which, dying of AIDS, the central character choreographs his own celebratory last dinner and subsequent euthanasia.
the shape i think [6.45 minutes]
For his decimal and final short cinematic offering in the Symposium, Sheehan chose the lesbian filmmaker Patricia Rozema, who has made some 20 movies, television films and TV episodes including I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), When Night Is Falling (1995), and Tell Me That You Love Me (2008).
It seems almost inevitable that given the previous segments’ focus on the memory and end of love, Rozema’s piece is devoted to an imaginary beginning of love, a vague outline of what may possibly exist in some hazy future if only the narrator (Rozema herself) might be able to find her way through the “wall” which hides her from it. If the others have characterized eros as a force grounded in the body or the mind’s imagination, Rozema’s narrator positions it in a future outside of the self that can exist in the present only as desire.
And that “desire” can be expressed only through a kind of mysteriously comic, almost surreal fable which she proceeds to tell us, a bit like a Scheherazade beginning her tales. As the narrator goes out to her front porch to pick up the newspaper, she spots a beautiful Abyssinian cat, mottled brown and black, and she muses on why she herself couldn’t be more like that: a being of such elegance, authority, with pride in itself. The cat comes to her, and she caresses its head and neck, finding by its collar a little piece of folded paper which she unscrolls and reads: written in an elegant script the note reading, “Strange what desire will make foolish people do.”
So begins the somewhat inexplicable voyage she undertakes as the woman follows the cat, the cat often stopping to look back to see if the woman was still on her trail. Questioning her sanity, the woman continues on their circuitous voyage through the city while her mind weaves stories of what might be at the end of this journey, perhaps an extraordinary gorgeously statuesque woman with a depth of humor, of understanding, of erotic allure who holds a special power and, after surveying all the inhabitants of the city had chosen her as “the one.”
Finally, the cat brings her to a wall which she had never before seen, a tall, three-storey tall edifice with no windows, no way to climb it, no access whatsoever. The cat meanwhile slinks along the wall and suddenly slips into a small gap at the bottom of the it, which the narrator, stooping down, attempts to peer into, but can see nothing but branches with a sweet, strange smell emanating from them. She stands and continues around the block, only to find the wall is almost ceaseless, without entrance. She sees an older man walking by and asks him what’s behind the wall. “Oh, everyone’s got a different story, everyone you talk to’s got a different angle on this. Some say it’s like this hermit millionaire guy, see, and he’s really strange; and then my brother’s cousin’s wife’s sister’s cousin’s mother says there’s this gorgeous, exquisite woman who lives in there who had a tragic accident and lost her eyes.” The woman thanks the man and returns home.
Her narrative, meanwhile, begins anew. Another cold, rainy day, she goes to pick up the newspaper and there is the cat once again. She strokes its wet fur and discovers another note, but having suffered the pellets of raindrops, it’s soggy. But once more she unrolls it and attempts to decipher what’s written upon it: “It said ‘something something ache something something by (buy?) something something love.’” She’s not certain since she can’t quite make it out; the word “love” might have be “heave,” she suggests.
But at that very moment the cat again takes off, she running after it, the cat taking a different route but again ending at the wall, and again disappearing into the same gap. By this time, in total frustration, the narrator gets down on her stomach determined to see something, pushing her face into the hole. She hears “unbearably beautiful music,” but it could have be, she admits, the wind and the rain. Thinking she discerns some movement, she pushes harder against the stone, scrapping her face as she continues in her determination to see and understand.
Blood is now running from the cuts on her face which she doesn’t even mind except that she can no longer see anything as it drips into her eyes. Her body, she argues, is “betraying” her in her attempt to see whatever it is, a poet, a hermit, her instructress in the art of loving—or, perhaps, in the art of “heaving.”
Obviously, the hole in the wall has become a kind of mystical peep hole into a desire she cannot quite define. And the whole adventure, accordingly, ends as a kind comic incident out of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Her head now stuck in the wall, neighbors call an ambulance and firemen who arrive with their hydraulic drills to extract her to now face into large crowd of gawkers.
And what was behind the wall. Not much. A garden, some exotic plants, the ownership still in question. But still, she takes up the note, looking at it and straining to make sense of its message, which she continues to think says “something something love.” She thinks “that’s the shape.”
Rozema’s beautiful tale is a metaphor for all of our desires to be called by the most beautiful person we might imagine to join them in a love beyond our limited comprehension of that word. It is the other we seek in every romance: in our dreams, our reading, and even in images of pornography, soft and hard, promising us some entry into a world beyond our everyday experiences. But there is a terrible danger as well in those desires in that they may trap us, showing up our foolishness and revealing our own inadequacies that will never permit the fulfillment of whatever we might found in that nebulous but enticing “other.”
It is logical that for a people themselves always defined as the “other,” as the “outsider,” that we, as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, or individuals just wondering who we are, that love seems nearly impossible because we have been taught that it lies only inside a world from which we have been expelled, or, conversely, in a space so far beyond us that it can never be reached. The here and now of Eros, accordingly, seems increasingly tempting as a space where love for our kind might be able to exist. For beings asked by the heteronormative world to keep love at a distance, Persky’s whole world seems to me, at least, as far away as that garden just on the other side of Rozema’s wall. Like most of the others of this queer Symposium, I will remain here in the world into which I was born to hold on for as long as I can to anyone who in turn will hold me. And with any luck we won’t forget to tell one another that what we feel is love.
Sheehan’s wonderful cinematic exploration of “the thing called love” through the guidance of some of the major artists of the LGBTQ community is stunningly brave and adventurous. CBC can only be praised for having allowed the general public to share these meaningful explorations. I don’t know how these short films were shown on Canadian TV, but it seems the perfect format for airing each of the 10 episodes would be to run them each individually at various different intervals over a period of a week for ten months, slipping in a new one each month between regular network programming or even advertisements. “Watch the news, drink a Coke, and find out what some major gays and lesbians think about love before you watch your family comedy tonight or your afternoon soap opera.” Why can’t US television imagine such a marvelously innovative way to talk about things the general public doesn’t find it easy to talk about.
Los Angeles, March 23-25
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021).