National Post

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Thursday, May 13, 1999

What's all the fuss about Bubbles Galore?

Mark Steyn
National Post

So where do you stand on Bubbles Galore? Well, of course, you don't stand on her. She straddles you, clad only in her federal grant application.

For this and other memorable scenes, Loonies Galore -- sorry, Bubbles Galore -- won a Best Film award at France's prestigious Freakzone International Festival of Trash Cinema, a triumphant vindication of the lesbo porn flick's funding by the Canada Council, Telefilm Canada, the Ontario Arts Council, the Ontario Film Development Council and the Toronto Arts Council -- that's to say, your taxes. For some reason, Sheila Copps, the Heritage Minister, seems reluctant to join in the international acclaim for the Sapphic masterpiece, insisting she had nothing to do with it and that it's all the work of the Mulroney government. This is true of practically all successful Liberal policies, but they're not usually so generous in giving the Tories the credit.

Instead, surprised to find herself funding lesbian sex films, Ms. Copps now says that, as a result of Bubbles Galore, she would "very much like to shorten the arm's-length relationship" of government arts subsidy. Needless to say, there are no arm's-length relationships in Bubbles Galore --quite the opposite, in fact. But it's hard to see what Ms. Copps and other critics of our generous arts subsidies are so steamed about. Presumably, we have public funding to promote Canadian values, and what values are more Canadian than the porn industry's? "Diversity"? Hey, they live by it. "Multiculturalism"? Take a stroll round the "Asian Babes" section. "Tolerance"? Listen, you wanna see three-way sex between a transvestite, a donkey, and a separatist, that's cool, whatever's your bag, man. The porn business and our Supreme Court have both adopted the same definition of "partner": whomsoever you happen to be entwined with at any particular moment of the day. You couldn't ask for two more scrupulously non-judgmental cultures than modern Canada and the hardcore sex trade -- though, curiously, in practice both wind up being subtly judgmental about what one had hitherto assumed to be the tastes of the majority. In Montreal the other day, I went into a St. Catherine Street video shop and, after going through the lesbian section, the bondage section, the bestiality section, the fat-guys-over-300 lbs section, and the United Alternative section, I said to the clerk, "Have you any films where a man has regular sex with a woman?" He threw me out for giving the place a bad name.

Likewise, our recent court and Human Rights Commission judgments sound like synopses for Video Erotica catalogues:

z They Hadn't A Prayer: A deeply repressed religious college in Alberta is thrown into seething sexual turmoil by the arrival of a young gay hunk. They ask him to leave, but, due to an inadequate understanding of Canadian constitutional guarantees, soon discover that his is a habit they all have to get into.

z Court In The Act: Finding a pre-op transsexual in the ladies' bathroom, a B.C. restaurateur throws her out. She returns with a court judgment and, in explicit scenes of degradation and humiliation, he finds himself forced to submit to her every whim.

z Mayor Culpa: The mayor of a small Maritime community finds himself strangely drawn to the flamboyant world of Gay Pride Week, following a ruling by the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission.

Defending the decision to fund Bubbles Galore, the Canada Council's Stephane Dubois hailed the film as an expression "of the right of women to take control of their image." Ah, that took me back -- to my own grant application, for my exploration of white rural male Canadian culture. "It's about the right of men in pick-ups to take control of their own image," I said to the Canada Council. "It's an empowerment film."

They weren't impressed. "Don't get us wrong," said one of M. Dubois' colleagues. "We like the script. But there's a couple of things we have a problem with. This guy in the plaid shirt and wool pants . . ."

"That's right," I said. "Bud."

"Does he have to wear plaid? Couldn't he be bare-chested with a couple of nipple rings? And maybe in leather shorts with cutaway buttocks?"

"Well, I suppose so," I said. "But wouldn't he look a little odd, dressed like that holding a muzzleloader?"

"That's the other thing," he said. "We thought the muzzleloader could be a bullwhip."

"He's got a 12-point buck in his sights," I pointed out. "He'll look ridiculous."

"Not if you make the buck a young male UPS driver."

What can I say? Given the choice between artistic integrity and 90,000 Canada Council dollars, I know which I'll take.

That's not to say there aren't real scandals in public arts funding. My favourite in recent years was Andres Serrano's "Piss-Christ" -- a crucifix of our Lord immersed in the artist's urine. It was subsidized by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, even though it would seem to entail little outlay other than a dime-store crucifix; the bodily fluids in which it sits are supplied by the artist himself. The scandal then is less the content than the fact that there would appear to be nothing to subsidize, barring Mr. Serrano developing a bad case of cystitis and his entire career drying up.

More relevant to the present controversy was a 1994 event at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Two assistants wove acupuncture needles through the shaved scalp of an HIV-positive performance artist, punctured his arms with 30 hypodermic needles and allowed him to pierce their cheeks with slender steel spikes. Yawn, yawn, been there, done that, you're probably saying. But then the artist, Ron Athey, sliced an abstract design into the flesh of his assistant Darryl, mopped up his blood with the towels and, without warning, sent them zinging above the audience on revolving clotheslines.

Faced with an HIV-positive man winging bloody towels around their heads, the audience knocked over the chairs in their stampede to get out of the line of fire. Afterwards, a spokesman compared the performance to the "rituals of the Church and the body and blood of Christ" and said the risk of contracting AIDS from the dripping towels was extremely low. Personally, I'd have enjoyed seeing a group of museum directors, government grant dispensers, and local bigwigs, reluctant to get whacked in the kisser by Ron's sodden rags, having the limits of their political correctness tested. What a splendid example to the Canada Council: If art is to be publicly funded, audience participation from the guys funding it should be a minimum requirement.

Which brings me to Marlon Riggs. A thirtysomething gay filmmaker, the late Mr. Riggs has a small footnote in history for giving us the biggest laugh of the 1992 presidential campaign. With funding from the NEA, Mr. Riggs made a homoerotic documentary called Tongues Untied -- all muscular black men gyrating in chains and leather, their oiled buttocks glistening like, er, waxed fruits. Perfectly routine publicly subsidized stuff, until Pat Buchanan came along. Running against George Bush for the Republican nomination, Pat decided to use an excerpt from Tongues Untied as his campaign commercial and made an inspired amendment: in the corner of the screen, staring at the writhing gays was an inset picture of the president, along with the caption "George Bush did this with your money."

As far as I know, this is the president's only appearance in a gay movie. But I couldn't help reflecting that this run-of-the-mill homoerotica was immensely improved by having George Bush dropped in the middle of it. And there surely is the answer to the Bubbles Galore controversy. Sheila Copps is right: The arm's-length relationship needs to be shortened. If politicians are going to get into the porn film funding business, they should get into the porn films, too. The heritage minister is always yakking on about Canadian culture, but when has she ever been in any? It's time for Ms. Copps to put her mouth where our money is.

Copyright Southam Inc.