by Eleanor Brown
The sissy flower flounces and wiggles and shamelessly cavorts until two
pipe-smoking men in suits and ties, the Neighbours of the title,
fight over it to the death.
Concordia Cinema Professor Thomas Waugh is astounded that the National
Film Boards now-legendary filmmaker Norman McLaren got away with
this silent short in the 1950s. Whatever the explanation, 50 years
later, Neighbours is as interesting for its treatment of Cold War
gender insecurity as it is for its brave discourse on Cold War missile
envy, Waugh said.
He was speaking at the DeSève Cinema on May 4 as one of two Concordia
University Research Fellows for 2002. In his lecture, titled Monkey
on the Back: National Cinema and Queer Others During Canadas Cold
War (1945 to 1960), Waugh connected the personal and the political
in a wide-ranging look at art and propaganda.
The squabbling neighbours of the classic NFB film were modern, middle-class
conformists and consumers who had displaced the macho cowboys and entrepreneurs
in a new social order. Waugh said that their descent into savagery exposes
an intense ideological struggle over masculinity.
The postwar era was a time of great upheaval. While the United States
rushed headlong into purging and scapegoating of communists and homosexuals,
Canada lagged slightly behind, a kind of branch-plant tag-along
This country, like the U.S., experienced the official institutionalization
of psychiatry after the war, Waugh said. The NFB, reflecting the ethos
of the time, produced a series of films on mental health whose underlying
message was that citizens with a Peter Pan complex must be forced to grow
The series symbolically cemented the shift from the villainy of
fascism to the villainy of controlling or distant mothers. Its catalogue
would soon be filled with movies on gender and masculinity, the
kind of films that express anxiety about bachelors and spinsters, and
warn us of great but unspoken dangers.
Being Different shows a little boy being warned to toughen up
by his best friend after he waxed poetic about spending a summer chasing
pretty butterflies. Nobody does that unless theyre a little
crazy, or a girl, he is admonished. It makes people feel funny
when youre different like that.
Feeling of Hostility features Claire, whose distant mother makes
her desperate for the love of another woman, her teacher, but she is unsuccessful,
and eventually can trust no one. Although she is not conscious of
it, Claire cannot like men, intones the narrator.
Sometimes, Waugh noted, it is whats left unsaid that has impact.
One kind of marginality remains unmentionable and off-screen, and
that is at the very centre of the corpus, the real monkey on the back
of the postwar NFB, Waugh explained.
Waugh said what has been called the gay male expulsion from representation
lasted into the 1980s at the NFB. However, Neighbours creator McLaren
Even today, the film seems startling and raw. At the time, it was a bombshell,
and not only because of its avant-garde film technique. McLaren created
a startling pas de deux with the savage suburbanites, who acquire
warrior facepaint and rip off their shirts.
Censors wanted two violent scenes in which the men kill each others
wives and babies to be deleted. It became a rivalry over a flower
by two apparent bachelors, Waugh said, bemused. This is a
very queer flower, rather camp at the very least. This little flower,
in its own context of silence, I think needs to be seen as a full-blown
icon of Cold War desire.
Waugh founded the Concordia interdisciplinary studies program in sexuality
and the lecture series in HIV/AIDS. Macleans magazine has cited
him as a reason to choose Concordia for cinema studies over any other
university in Canada.