Legends: The Making of Monsters

5 mins read

By 1991, filmmaker John Greyson had branded himself an agitprop star of the Toronto art milieu, having made such brazenly queer films as Moscow Does Not Believe in Queers (1986) and Urinal (1988). And at this point, Greyson and filmmaker Laurie Lynd—both on the vanguard of the New Queer Cinema movement, were given a superb opportunity to make a short film with a professional crew while residents at the Canadian Film Centre (CFC).

Initially, Greyson pitched a script about Trudeau and circumcision—but the CFC brass would have nothing of it. “They said no way,” Greyson recalls. “I thought that I could either have my hissy fit, take my toys and go home, or I could see this as a unique opportunity.”

Greyson soon found inspiration in irritation. He was unnerved to learn that a national TV network was going to make a movie of the week (MOW) exploring the life story of a gay teacher who had been murdered in a park by several youths. The mawkish social realism that so often sentimentalized such incidents with disease or social problem of the week movies made Greyson cringe. So, he decided to explore the theories of Bertolt Brecht, homophobia and gaybashing in a musical. The result was The Making of Monsters (1991), which Greyson wrote and directed, and Lynd produced.

Monsters is a mind-bendingly funny, entirely clever take on the MOW, imagining that Bertolt Brecht is alive and well and living in Toronto and is actively intervening in the production of an MOW—with loud complaints that the syrupy treatment this homophobic murder was getting would do little to combat the bigotry it purported to undo. It was a zany, subversive, occasionally screwball and constantly thought-provoking short, about the clash of artistic practices and mass media realities. And its central casting conceit was genius: Brecht was played by a talking fish.

If that wasn’t audacious enough, Greyson was always upfront about what he was working to subvert: “I had been reading Brecht and various Frankfurt School theorists at the time, and as well, I was struggling with this feel-good liberal realism that Norman Jewison embodies.” It didn’t faze the filmmaker that Jewison was the founder of the CFC. And to their credit, it didn’t seem to faze the CFC brass either. “I think they were just so relieved I was off the Trudeau thing,” Greyson recalls.

But sadly, this chutzpah-soaked bit of queer cheekiness would have its life cut short—at least for the time being. Kurt Weill’s estate caught wind of the use of his songs in the film, summoned their legal dream team and had the film’s screenings—even at festivals—blocked. Monsters has remained in limbo ever since.

“It was terribly disappointing,” Lynd remembers. “The thing that was awful was, at the same time, the Weill estate was allowing McDonald’s to use his music for a commercial. So when there was money involved, they were fine with it. But when it was more artistic, they shut it down.”

As the queer film writer and academic Tom Waugh has noted of Monsters, it’s both “disturbing and very sexy at the same time.” And thankfully, the return of distribution of Monsters is a distinct possibility (and long overdue). Though the American rights of use of Weill’s work remain in place in the US, the Canadian rights were completely cleared in 2001. That would make Monsters ripe for a DVD re-release and a tour of the film-fest circuit.

“It was taken out of circulation due to copyright issues,” says Barry Patterson, media relations director at the CFC. “We’re looking at the idea of releasing it now, and seeing if that works for us.”

So, for what it’s worth, here’s a bit of unsubtle lobbying: just such a re-release would be a perfect way of celebrating the CFC’s 20th anniversary party this year.

A long-time contributing editor at POV, Hays teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. His articles on documentary have appeared in Cineaste, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Toronto Star.

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