The Golden Boy is Winnipeg’s most famous top. The statue’s homoerotic qualities are so overt that it’s easy to see it as a knowing wink to the queer community. This is the plausible-if-revisionist history suggested in Purple City, a new short film by Noam Gonick and Michael Walker. Modelled after the Greek god Hermes, the statue that adorns the dome of the Manitoba Legislative Building is the symbolic centre of the film, which stages episodes from the city’s queer and occultist mythology. There’s an apt symmetry to Purple City which both begins and ends with Walker, who appears throughout the film, roaming the steps of the Legislature donning a very dark academia look. In between, are scenes from a hookup, an acid trip, goat herders who encounter an oracle in the forest, and some territorial hustlers. At one point Walker, bathed in a red glow, addresses the viewer directly, coyly offering a history lesson in the statue’s provenance which culminates in a sage reminder that “Paris aint Winnipeg y’all, but they both got a river named Seine.”
I attended a recent screening, which programmed the film alongside Bruce LaBruce’s 2020 feature Saint-Narcisse, a modern take on the Greek myth of Narcissus with a twincest twist. Prior to the screening, guests crowded the lobby where a waitlist circulated and at least a few were turned away. While the audience included a high ratio of cast, crew, friends, and family, I wondered if, in part, the impressive turnout was attributable to the fact that Winnipeg, like the fabled Narcissus, is in love with its own reflection. LaBruce has cited Saint-Narcisse as a tribute to Québec cinema of the 1970s, the era in which the film is set, and Purple City ambitiously constructs a furtive counter-history spanning across ancient history to the present day. Despite this, both films and their use of classical themes and iconography, seem especially timely in a cultural landscape caught between the poles of a flawed historical canon and an uncertain future.
Winnipeg is a city inclined to self-mythologize, the result of a dogged inferiority complex coupled with an arts scene that consistently punches above its weight. Between regional surrealism and deadpan delivery, Purple City shares some notable overlap with the prairie mythology of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007), which includes a political scandal surrounding the annual “Golden Boy Pageant.” It’s a comparison I hesitate to make since Maddin’s career casts a prominent shadow over the film community that can be hard to shake, but the affinity speaks to a broader impulse to mythologize Winnipeg and reflects the psychic disposition of creating work in a cultural periphery with a hostile climate. There’s an implied affection that lurks beneath the surface of these portraits, but the message is delivered satirically. Unsure of how we are perceived, or worse, if we’re perceived at all, Winnipeg fills in the void of this uncertainty by leveraging our love/hate relationship into a self-reflexive art form.
The title of Gonick and Walker’s film is itself an inside joke, the name given to a regional rite-of-passage undertaken by bored teens, which involves staring into the sodium-vapour lights of the Legislative Building grounds until your vision turns purple. The film is uncharacteristically faithful in its depiction of this tradition, which features three young men wandering the grounds on a winter’s night after dropping LSD. Like any good trip, there’s a destination, in this case, the eponymous ritual consecrated by the filmmakers as part of local folklore. Along the way one of the men entertains the others with a well-informed history of the Legislature, including the popular cruising spots, hermetic architecture, and the origin of the term 2-Spirit. Although generally playful in its reinterpretations, Manitoba’s colonial history looms large throughout. Undoubtedly, one of the most ruthless campaigns of self-mythologizing has been Canada’s erasure of Indigenous peoples, cultures, and the ongoing harm wrought by settler colonialism. One is acutely aware that the statue, made in tribute to the ideals of its formal title, Eternal Youth and the Spirit of Enterprise, is intended to bridge a gap between ancient Western civilization and the frontier of stolen land. These imperial ideals are undermined in the film by the palpably postmodern urge to level the playing field by drawing a line between ancient mythology and the popular stoner ritual.
If you were to poll residents about the city’s virtues, affordable rents would probably top the list. It’s the vantage point that frames Purple City, which primarily takes place in a rent-controlled mid-century apartment block overlooking the legislature. The suites moonlight as a few different sets, elaborately transformed in a nod to James Bidgood’s camp classic Pink Narcissus (1971), which follows a lithe and wistful hustler through his exotic daydreams, and was filmed in Bidgood’s modest NYC flat. One of the many guises adopted by Bidgood’s protagonist in Pink Narcissus is the titular twink of Greek mythology, and the inspiration for LaBruce’s film, a figure so beautiful he falls in love with his reflection in a pool of water and drowns. There is a latent queerness to the myth of Narcissus. The most famous representation of the story is possibly Caravaggio’s painting, which captures the youth in the pivotal moment when he falls for his own reflection. This is the synoptic image of Narcissus and the moment in which the work gains its queer echoes, as he locks eyes with his likeness and we witness the exchange of enamoured gazes between the mirrored figures.
Tapping into this implicit homoeroticism, LaBruce’s Saint-Narcisse follows Dominic, a man who habitually masturbates to polaroids of himself, as he discovers that, unbeknownst to him, he has a twin from whom he was separated at birth. The twin, Daniel, has been raised in a monastery and is the object of a sinister priest’s psychosexual obsession. Set primarily in rural Québec in the early 1970s, the film uses the backdrop of the Quiet Revolution to flirt with sexual and social taboos. Saint-Narcisse leans hard into classical aesthetics, both in the retelling of Greek myth and in the ample display of religious iconography, which delivers a sense of the sacred to the sexually charged and campy melodrama. The figure of Saint Sebastian riddled with arrows is a violent and tantalizing image that manifests in different forms throughout the film, illustrating an underlying dynamic at work in Saint-Narcisse: Catholicism, as both a primary antagonist and a defining aesthetic influence—a thorny tension that is aggressively present in contemporary Québecois culture.
When asked by his wife to name his favourite painter, John Berger recalls hesitating before naming, to his own surprise, Caravaggio. He admits that “there are painters I admire more, and painters more admirable...but there is none…whom I feel closer to.”1 Like all of Caravaggio’s work, Narcissus is visually moody and draws you into its shadowy depths. The painting was only attributed to Caravaggio in the mid-20th century: the content is outside his oeuvre but the tell was his style, the dramatic use of chiaroscuro, which in this work serves to draw attention to the youth’s curiously phallic knee. Caravaggio’s queerness has long been part of the critical discourse that surrounds his work, but whether this “knee” represents a Freudian slip, a queer easter egg, or a misidentification (on my part) is anyone’s guess. However, like Berger, I’m loyal to the intimacy that Caravaggio carves out in his own enigmatic way, a quality that in this painting, feels less like a revelation and more like a shared secret.
There’s a moral axis to the myth of Narcissus that feels exceptionally relevant. As LaBruce puts it “If irony was the ideological white noise of the nineties, narcissism is the contemporary malaise, the default sensibility.” 2 In Saint-Narcisse, Dominic’s selfie-taking habit is framed as a pathological tendency, but in today’s context, they’re part of a daily social media ritual for many. Both Purple City and Saint-Narcisse borrow from classical myth to reauthor the moral imperative while paying homage to the aesthetic, cultural, and esoteric weight these stories command. In an adoring essay on Joyce’s Ulysses, T.S. Eliot espouses the virtues of “manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” claiming that to do so lends substance to the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”3 The same is probably true today and explains the enduring appeal of mythology and iconography in popular culture. We find ourselves in the midst of a disorienting, and some might say tragic, period, so it's unsurprising that we’re witnessing a desire to return to something sacred and even moralizing. But for better or for worse, history, symbolism, nations, and morals are just as unstable as we are, and we are all narcissists.