In the peculiar garden party that opens John Greyson's Urinal, it's June 1937, and some of the leading cultural figures of the decade have been assembled in a modest Toronto house. Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes is there, as are Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Japanese author Yukio Mishima, and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Two lesser-known artists - the Canadian sculptors Florence Wyle and Frances Loring, who own the place - round out the group.
What the house guests have in common, in addition to their artistic predelictions, is that all of them were likely gay in a time when homosexuality truly was the love that dared not speak its name. In Greyson's fantastically imaginative film, the gang of six - along with an enigmatic, shadowy character named Dorian Gray, who is an updated version of the Oscar Wilde character - has been rocketed through time, from 1937 to 1987. Cut loose in contemporary Canada, they must spend a week investigating, analyzing, and ultimately resolving a pressing problem in the gay community - the relentless policing of public-washroom sex acts. Inspired by a series of mass arrests of gay men by Ontario police in the mid-Eighties, Urinal is an uncommon pleasure, a cross-historical, multicultural, socioaesthetic Mission Impossible (complete with exploding message tape) that's every bit as entertaining as it is informative.
Organized into strict sections - short plots depicting the interactions within the house alternate with research presentations delivered by each of the participants - Urinal is a daring hybrid between a documentary video and a stage play. A distant cousin of Nic Roeg's Insignificance - which imagines a meeting between Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein, Joseph McCarthy, and Marilyn Monroe in a Manhattan hotel room - Urinal more closely resembles an ultramodern version of Steve Allen's Meeting of the Minds. Aggressively educational, it's rarely dogmatic, and the film has a uniquely entertaining curriculum typefied by Frances Loring's "Social History of the Public Washroom." In a lecture format, the Loring character (Pauline Carey) discusses the gender-segregating effect of the industrial revolution, follows the toilet through art (Duchamp, Rauschenberg), and traces the history of public plumbing to the Emperor Vespasian, pausing slyly to mention that the Roman rest rooms were opened not out of any great civic kindness, but as a means of collecting urine to sell to cloth-dye merchants.
While Loring's is among the more irreverent presentations, each of the characters contributes equally to the film's investigation of washroom sex. The quiet, reflective Hughes (George Spelvin) uses traditional investigative reporting techniques for "A History of Small Town Ontario Washroom Busts"; before impressionistic computer-enhanced backgrounds, Mishima offers impassioned readings of "Washroom Sex Texts." Greyson has purposefully chosen figures with ambiguous sexualities, and whether or not the actual Sergei Eisenstein was gay ceases to matter. What matters is that Urinal's Eisenstein (Paul Bettis), an endearingly pompous character reminiscent of Cheers's Fraser Crane who tours Toronto's rest rooms, scientifically ascertains the most common types of bathroom sex - if you're wondering, it's spectator masturbation, joint masturbation, and blow jobs, in decreasing order - and warbles "Over the Rainbow" in the shower when he thinks no one's watching.
Some of the portraits are less complete - the depictions of Mishima (David Gonzalez) and Kahlo (Olivia Rojas) verge on sympathetic stereotype, casting him as an eager young gun whose aggressive sexual come-ons belie a sweet shyness, and her as a hot-blooded omnivore who devours both men and women alike. But the very idea of a gray area between public image and private life, as well as the destruction of that gray area through such techniques as video surveillance, is a vital issue. And any film that has its characters recite passages from their own biographies in mocking tones knows the self-reflective score.
Formally, Urinal is bracing. In selecting different styles for each of the presentations and buttressing the more academic portions of the film with light-hearted vignettes (for instance, Mishima seducing Hughes by assuming a coy St. Sebastian pose), Greyson overcomes the danger of self-indulgence inherent in his ambition. In addition, the film is strengthened by degrees by the inclusion of actual interviews with Canadian gay activists. Lawyer Peter Maloney speculates that the bathroom busts are quick ways for police officers to meet arrest quotas; Svend Robinson, the first openly gay member of Canada's parliament, gives an eloquent summary of his country's equivocal stance toward private sexual behaviors. In a work that seems at first to be using public-rest-room sex as a metaphor for the way in which gay sex has been pushed underground, Greyson's greatest victory is his refusal to limit his film to the metaphoric.
The wide, generous scope of Greyson's script admits a dazzling array of perspectives. The women in the group, especially Frances and Florence, complain that gay rest-room sex is just another example of the unquenchable male sex drive, the desire for satisfaction under any set of conditions. And Hughes, confessing his discomfort for an aggressive gay identity, wonders aloud to Eisenstein about the folly of separatist politics: "When I leave for Spain, am I going to write about the Civil War's effect on homosexuals?"
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Time-travel comedy and video art and political journal and academic textbook dense-packed into one work, Urinal operates in a dimension available to few films, a giddy and vigorous mix of the intellectual and sensual. Although intended for a Canadian audience - many of the finer legal points are intriguing but ultimately irrelevant to those south of the border - its importance for the United States, or any country in which the government treads too close to bedroom windows, is indisputable. In his earlier films, such as The Perils of Pedagogy and Moscow Does Not Believe in Queers, Greyson had no shortage of intelligence and irreverence. Urinal, though, marks a giant step forward. Right up until the end, when Frida delivers a stirring, anthemic challenge to the overarching politics of sexuality in society, Greyson recognizes that the potent polemics of the future will come from new media - movies and television and computers - and he's savvy enough to start the future now.
Written and directed by John Greyson; with George Spelvin, Paul Bettis, David Gonzalez, Olivia Rojas, Pauline Carey, Keltie Creed, Karl Beveridge, Clive Robertson, and Lance Eng.
Screens at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. Friday to Tuesday and August 23-27 at the Alliance Film & Video Project, 927 Lincoln Rd, Ste 113, Miami Beach. Tickets are $6, $4 for Alliance members. Call 541-8504.