Norman McLaren

January, 1987

Animator. All of us have flickering grade‑school memories of the work of McLaren, the National Film Board's great animator (see R of T, Chapter 2). When the world-famous artist died at the age of 73 after a 43-year career and 60 films, his career had been crowned with distinctions (including the Order of Canada, the Oscar and the Palme d'or). In many ways Norman McLaren fit one stereotype of the gay artist perfectly──not the tormented self‑destroyer, but the sensitive, fastidious and solitary craftsman and visionary. One colleague commented on his "soft, sad, watching eyes, that sometimes searched me furtively and then left me for his heart of hearts." Others found a similar sense of mystery and unstated sexual tension in both his work and his personality:

So complex is McLaren that people who have worked with him for decades say frankly they don't understand him. The symbolism of his movies offers a fertile field for psychoanalytic interpretations. His humanitarianism, which led one writer to call him `a saint,' has a touching child‑like quality to it, of one reaching out to be loved as well as to love. He dresses like a college boy, looks twenty years younger than his age, and has kept the youthful innocence and enthusiasm common to great artists. Far from taking seriously any thought he might express about giving up filmmaking, one shudders to think of what life would be for him without it; the necessity brings him in to work sometimes when he is so mentally depressed and physically ill that he frightens those around him.


McLaren and his longtime partner, NFB producer Guy Glover, became a respected fixture within the NFB’s otherwise homophobic social world. Their fresco‑covered apartment became a legend, and one story of the early fifties told of the Hallowe'en party when the two men both showed up in full Spanish senorita drag, complete with white lace mantillas. Otherwise their careers pursued separate trajectories at the government studio, almost never overlapping. Among McLaren’s many disciples were filmmakers Claude Jutra and Ryan Larkin.

McLaren had been at the NFB since almost the very beginning, recruited by his fellow Scotsman John Grier­son in 1941. He very quickly established a world‑wide following for his lively un‑Disney abstract choreographies and radically innovative techniques of scratching and painting right on celluloid, equally at home interpreting wartime propaganda commissions, Quebec folklore, the risky cause of peace during the Cold War, and the latest in contemporary minimalism. In the mid‑sixties, McLaren turned to a new series with a processed photographic style that would celebrate the human body with an unprece­dented sensuality. The three films in the series, Pas de Deux (1967), Ballet Adagio(1971) and Narcissus(1984), all used ballet as the basis for haunting evoca­tions of movement and gesture, and, through the use of various technical procedures, magnified the ballet's inhe­rent eroticism (all the more so since the skimpy male costumes revealed the sexualized male bodies more than the compara­tively chaste female getups). Ultimately though, Pas de deux and Ballet Adagio dissect and celebrate a ritua­lized convention of heterosexual mating.

With Narcissus (1983, 22), McLaren was less cautious: this sensuous retelling of the classical myth of the self-absorbed dreamer is McLaren’s only explicitly queer film. A sensuous retelling of the classical myth of the self-absorbed dreamer youth, Narcissus is considered McLaren’s most autobiographical work and his testament, completed two years before his death. Some version of the Nar­cissus myth had been on McLaren's drawing board for over thirty years, and he was not the first artist to use it as a cover for male eroticism. But it was perhaps a good thing that it took so long to come to fruition, when the social climate and McLaren's unassai­lable status would permit a relatively explicit exploration of the sexual signification of the story. To an inquisitive gay journalist, the late Robin Hardy, McLaren indicated a long genesis for the film:

I think I can say with certainty that twenty years ago I would have regretfully dropped [the “homo-eroticism”] as not being “acceptable” in an NFB film for general public distribution... Around 1970, when I was making a 35mm b & w rough sketch of the film with Vincent Warren... I came across a version of the [Narcissus] legend that contained the homo episode (in fact it recounted that Narcissus was besieged by hosts of girls and young boys). The three or four other versions I had read uptil then had mentioned only Echo... When I discovered the encounter with Ameneius, I got very excited and dead set on including both the girl and youth encounters, as they would not only throw Narcissus’ auto-philia into even greater relief but would give me a very justifiable opportunity to portray a homosexual relationship on the screen. A thing I had often wished to do. I am not sure if at that time (1971) stirrings of gay lib had filtered into the backwoods of my secluded life!

An intervening didactic project put Narcissuson the back burner, all the more since McLaren was feeling “schizophrenic & neurotic” about both content and narrative cohesion in the project. He returned to the project in 1979, but assured Hardy that the 1972 film would have included the queer content despite pressure from Glover’s presence to put the brake on earlier impulses toward such delicate themes: “I myself would gladly come out (& officially), but I wish to respect the feelings of my partner—someone whom I have lived with for the last forty-five years!” McLaren also claimed that the final Narcissus would have been even gayer than it turned out, had it not been for factors beyond his control:

In 1979 on returning to work on “Narcissus,” what with the prominence of the Gay Lib Movement in the meantime, felt I would surely be a traitor, if I were to have left Amenieus [sic] out. The choreographer, Fernand Nault [b. 1921] who is one of us, handled that sequence of the film very gently. I would have wished for him to have done it a bit more boldly, but I didn’t see his choreography until the first days of rehearsal and it was impossible to ask for any radical changes, since we were so pressed for time... (1982).

The final 1983 version offered a simple three‑part narrative structure in which a dreamy and exquisite youth engages in two romantic pas‑de‑deux first with a female partner, a "nymph", and then with a male partner, "a hunting companion" (accor­ding to the ludicrous official summary). The two pas‑de‑deux may be equally luscious, but the male duet has a stunning effect as an unprecedented repre­sentation of gay male sexuality. Of course McLaren covers himself by equating the two gender op­tions for the tragic hero, and both options are equally rejected, but there is no doubt what side the weight of centuries of wish‑fulfilment is leaning towards. In keeping with the story, the ending is tragic: the hero rejects his two lovers, dances with himself (in another breathtaking homoerotic pas de deux!) and is finally revealed to be imprisoned by iron bars and a brick wall. It would be too easy to dismiss this film as yet another arty piece of closet beefcake, and to see the McLaren's lavish styliza­tion as yet another mechanism of avoidance. Still the prison‑bar ending comes across as an image not so much of the tragedy of self‑absorption but of sexual repression, even of the thwarted self‑realization of the closet. As tragic as it is beautiful, Narcissus stands up well as the testament and the yearning of the shy Scottish‑Canadian civil servant who was one of the more isolated queer contemporaries of Visconti, Cadmus, and Burroughs.

(1) Cutler, May Ebbitt. 1983. “McLaren Perspectives: The Qualities of Tragedy.” Cinema Canada , no. 99 (September): 22.