Sugar directed by John Palmer, written by Palmer and Todd Klinck based on short stories by Bruce LaBruce, with Andre Noble, Brendan Fehr, Sarah Polley and Maury Chaykin. An Actra Tip/On the Stroll production, a ThinkFilm release. 78 minutes. Opening Friday (June 25). For venues and times, see Movies, page 103. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
John Palmer is fed up. He's fed up with the Senate, with the Prime Minister's sweeping powers, with Canada's petty regionalism. He's fed up with the business people on the board of the Ontario Arts Council, with the way Quebec hogs the arts funding pie and with the tide of sentimental realism that has, he says, swamped English-Canadian theatre. And the conservatism of Canadian drama has driven him to film.
"The politically correct thesis from the U.S. - the idea that gay people can't write about straight people, men can't write about women, women can't write about men - ruined this culture. It's Nazi, but the Canada Council bought it hook, line and sinker. Theatre now is so conservative that I can't work in it."
As we sit under a Church Street patio canopy, Palmer is by turns voluble, bashful, cranky and sweet. He talks with his hands, clapping them to his face in glee or flapping them in the air as if to disperse a swarm of governmental idiocies like so many circling gnats.
"You know what I'm saying?" he asks frequently, leaning in to check.
We're here to talk about his new film, Sugar, named Inside Out's best Canadian feature last month, but you can't talk film with John Palmer without also talking theatre and politics. This is the godfather of Canadian theatre we're talking about, the doula at the birth of Keanu Reeves's career as a gay icon, the guy who wrote plays that were both queer and Canadian before either was socially accepted, the guy who helped bully the Canada Council into supporting Canadian art in the 70s.
He did make a film in 1975, an adaptation of Toronto Free Theatre co-founder Martin Kinch's play Me. The experience was unpleasant.
"There were fag jokes on the set. They were homophobic. It was outrageous, really bad."
It's better now.
"The gay community here is very well organized and has managed to show the country not only that we're relatively harmless but also that culturally we're very important, and business-wise we're a big consumer population, so you have to accept us."
One harbinger of that sea change in the early 80s was a photocopied zine called J.D.'s, by a young writer and filmmaker named Bruce LaBruce. Palmer stumbled across a copy in Pages bookstore on Queen West.
"It was basically geared to 14- and 15-year-olds, and what it was saying to boys and girls was that it was OK to be gay or anything you wanted to be."
Palmer fell in love with the zine's stories about a hustler and his young friend, and eventually optioned them.
Shortly after that, Palmer started mentoring Todd Klinck and the two began hammering out an adaptation of LaBruce's stories. It wasn't a seamless collaboration; Palmer took a more showbizzy approach, while Klinck insisted on authenticity.
Watching the film, it's tempting to play guessing games about who wrote which scene. Like Klinck's award-winning book, Tacones, the film is a series of underworld episodes loosely arranged along an arc, with dimly lit bars and crack pipes figuring heavily. Like Palmer's plays, the vignettes are grim and funny by turns, with occasional fits of silliness.
The film as a whole is a bit uneven, but the contrast between the two styles makes it fun to watch, surprising and unpredictable.
The best parts are the sex scenes, which have nothing to do with soft-focus titillation and everything to do with character development and moving the story forward. They're by turns raw, funny, compassionate and anguished. They're also the main reason the film took 12 years to make.
"Part of the problem with getting the film made was the content. And even when we'd made it, they wanted to cut the sex. Because it's a Presbyterian country, God and genitalia rule. A major television network in Canada that shows sex all the time objects to the sex in this film. The movie's about a hustler, for god's sake. What do you think a hustler does? I've had it with this country. It is so backward."