Since his feature debut in 1991 with No Skin Off My Ass Toronto based director, writer and photographer Bruce LaBruce has been producing provocative and politically charged works punctuated by acidic wit and sexually graphic imagery. LaBruce first emerged as an artist through the 90s queercore movement and zine culture, with the DIY aesthetics, hybridity, reactionary themes and surreal satire that has carried on to define his career. Sexual and romantic taboos are explored with both sensitive compassion and defiant voyeurism in Labruce’s cinema. His iconoclastic works question everything from capitalist conservatism, body politics, traditional masculinity, heteronormativity and dominant queer culture itself.
In 2013 following his impressive low budget body of work and experience in the adult film industry LaBruce branched with a more subtle and accessible realism in the intergenerational love story Gerontophilia. His most recent project, the theatre production turned experimental film work Pierrot Lunaire, which weaves a compelling narrative of a trans man and his lover into the opera by Aarnold Schoenberg, premiered at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival and received the Jury Teddy Award.
From being beaten up after screenings of his explicitly queer super-8 shorts at punk gigs to having his 2010 feature L.A. Zombie banned from the Melbourne International Film Festival, LaBruce’s subversive work has continued to confront and unsettle, while cementing his status as an art-cinema and cult film favourite.
MOMA is holding an upcoming retrospective of your work. Have you re-watched any of your early films recently and how do you feel they’ve held up over time?
I wouldn’t say I’ve recently, occasionally a film festival will show an older film of mine and I’ll watch it so I usually end up watching one of them every three or four years or something. And when I do I usually have a different reaction every time, sometimes I think ‘oh that’s fantastic, that’s amazing blah blah blah’ and other times I’m like ‘ahh it’s so awful’. But when you look at them in context, and where you started from and where you’ve end up, everything kind of seems to make sense and fit in.
Your films feel often more defined by location than time.
Yeah, I mean location is very important. I learned a lot of tricks along the way in terms of independent film making or no budget film making and locations are always really really important because you have to figure out how to give value to something that doesn’t have a budget. In some ways I used explicit sex as sort of cheap special effects, you know, you can get a lot of bang for your buck – it’s something that is kind of a spectacle that gets people’s attention. I mean, that’s not the only reason I did it, I used it also for political reasons and just because I was interested in transgression and taboo. But yeah, to have a spectacular location can make all the difference for a low budget film.
Your aesthetics obviously shift so dramatically from film to film, I mean the visuals in LA Zombie couldn’t be further from Gerontophilia in a lot of ways. Yet there is definitely a sustained voice that is feels defined by your humour, and a dark campness. How did this sensibility develop?
I would characterize it as a certain kind of satirical comedy with camp elements but also strong romantic strain, that also has an irony to it. For me it’s really a class of civilizations, or I guess a clash of cultures, or counter-cultures. Even though I was alienated by both the gay subculture and the punk subculture, peripherally I was involved with both. So I kind of ended up forming an identity in opposition to them, to even the counter-cultures. So I took elements from both. Punk and gay were very oppositional in terms of aesthetics and politics. And then there’s the classic Hollywood influence; I was really raised on Hollywood classic cinema so that’s where I got a lot of the camp and humour and the romantic element as well. Hustler White was a kind of remake of Sunset Boulevard with some Baby Jane thrown in, mixed with, for example, Andy Warhol’s Flesh. So when you mash up all those kinds of elements you come up with something, I guess, that is uniquely me.
I actually wanted to ask about the romantic element, I mean obviously you have become infamous as a director of sex and pornography but what I have always found most striking about your work is the romantic narratives. In a weird way a lot of your films follow a classic ‘will-they-won’t-they’ romance. Watching Gerontophilia, the audience really wants Lake and Melvin to be together, and likewise in Hustler White with Jurgen and Monti. At their heart a lot of your male protagonists are really just quite earnest, genuine romantics, while also being tortured by lust.
It’s kind of all over my films, even in Hustler White with Piglet the hustler who is in love with the amputee hustler, and all he wants is a kiss basically. In fact a French critic said of Hustler White “in a world full of extreme fetishistic sex and brutality the last taboo is tenderness”. So it’s a kind of irony but it makes sense to me. It’s just something that’s unexpected, the general public expects people who have extreme fetishes or anyone who would deal with pornographic imagery or be in a porno movie, they expect them to be a certain way; they expect them to be cynical or harsh or impersonal or detached or disaffected. And I just haven’t found that. In fact, in terms of art, a lot of the artists I know who deal with the most extreme work like Ron Athey whose in Hustler White or my friend Kembra Pfahler, they do some of the most extreme performance art and yet they are the most sensitive people I know. So with my characters, for me there isn’t a conflict between fetish and romance. I think fetishes are romantic. It’s about this kind of extreme deep appreciation for the love object that is both aesthetic and also sexual, and it’s like a reverence for it. So there’s something very romantic about that to me.
You’ve previously said that you’ve felt like the problem child of the New Queer Cinema. It seemed that particularly in the ’90s there was this paranoia about not making us look bad in front of heterosexual audiences now that they were finally paying attention. Do you think there’s a shift away from that now and that you’ve been retroactively embraced?
Not really, I actually think I’ve always had the same kind of ambivalent response from the gay community probably partly because I’ve been pretty critical of the gay movement myself, in my movies and in interviews and columns that I write. So, for example, I was always very anti-GLAAD and especially at the point where they were getting a hold of scripts in Hollywood and pre-censoring them for any negative representation of gays, which I thought was very Stalinist and anti-art. I don’t think you should try to pre-censor any kind of art. You can protest it when it comes out or denounce it but to try to pre-censor it is ridiculous. I mean what is their standard? What standards are they using to deem it inacceptable. It goes down a very troublesome road.
In terms of the gay movement it’s only become even more assimilationist and conservative. In the ’80s my friends and I abandoned the gay movement for punk because of its politics and aesthetics and, even then, we thought it was hopelessly bourgeoisie and conservative, and had all these problems of racism and sexism and what not. And in terms of today it’s even more assimilationist in a lot of ways and I think there’s a new strain of moralism and slut shaming and things like that going on. So it’s kind of divided into a more vocally radical and sexual fringe and then a mainstream movement. Even from early on I was embraced more as a filmmaker by international film festivals and programmers. So that’s I think where a lot of the retroactive appreciation is coming from, in cinematic terms. When LA Zombie was programmed in the competition at Locarno it was just a recognition that, even though I was making an extreme gore porn film, I did it cinematically, as an art film.
Many of your films involve conceptual jokes: the hairdresser with the skinhead, the zombie fucking people back to life, even the number swap in Gerontophilia with the 18 year old and the 81 year old. How did this interest in a sort of witty duality come about? For me it always felt like a metaphor for the natural contradictions in human sexuality.
I would say so, or maybe my OCD is coming out a little bit there in some ways. I’m working on one project now called Twincest which has a lot of these strange dualities in it. I don’t know, when you start out with an ironic or seemingly contradictory premise it just brings out such a wealth of material to work with. It’s basically paradox, which is what I’m interested in a lot. A hairdresser falling in love with a skinhead is a paradox basically. And in Hustler White the amputee fetish, it’s sort of desiring something that is either unattainable or the opposite of what you are. One character is in love with the amputee and he wants to be romantically involved with him – it’s a kind of La Ronde situation where every character loves another character but they are somehow unattainable, so there’s a tragic element to it as well. In Gerontophilia, Desiree loves Lake but Lake loves the older man, so it’s kind of a weird tragic triangle.
Your work definitely has elements of some traditional ‘impossible love’ stories. These paradoxes also feel reflective of your tension between being in the opposing forces of both punk and gay communities.
Yeah and also the whole Neo-Nazi thing, I mean that really taught me something. I had a hustler boyfriend that turned into a Neo-Nazi and I still had these strong feelings for him but his politics had become disgusting to me. So it set up this weird ambivalence in me, between my sexuality and my political sensibility. And then I realized sex is extremely dark and complicated and you can’t always control what turns you on. And sometimes a kind of a brutish character, in the Sylvia Plath sense, will turn you on but it sets up a conflict between your sexuality and your intellect, which is something else that sort of runs through my work.
You began working on the J.D.s zines and your early super 8 films at roughly the same time I believe. Do you see your films and visual 2D works as exploring similar themes at a given time and are they in conversation with one another?
I think my early super 8 films and the zines were very much coming from the same style and aesthetic and political sensibility. My films have really tended, even up until today, to use some of the same techniques; even with Gerontophilia where it’s become more strictly narrative and bigger budget I still use some of the same tricks like collage and the juxtaposition of unexpected elements, ironic use of music, [narratives] thematically about characters who are misfits or outsiders or revolutionaries – and aesthetically, this idea of borrowing or stealing actually from bits of narrative or scenes or dialogue from other movies; to this day I think I’ve stolen a line from Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf in almost every movie I’ve made. It gets to the point where I can’t even remember where I get the lines from and I just kind of incorporate them seamlessly into my movies.
You’ve worked with cinematographer James Carman on quite a number of your films. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that collaborative partnership?
Yeah, well he’s probably one of the few people that would have put up with me and Jurgen, and the conditions under which we made the films. It’s hard to explain to people how no budget my films have been, like Hustler White was made in 1995 on 16mm film for $50,000 including post. It’s almost mind blowing you can make a film that looks as good as it does for that. I’ve always had very limited shooting days, Hustler White was shot in 12 days I think, even Gerontophilia was shot in 17 days. So the thing that James taught me was really, well, first of all he’s straight which is great – I have a straight guy shooting gay porn, so he really brought a different kind of eye to it. He’s a very spiritual guy, very open and has that kind of fearlessness that you really need for guerrilla filmmaking. That doesn’t come naturally to me. So because I had someone that is such a kindred spirit he would take me to a lot of places I probably wouldn’t have gone by myself, in terms of stealing locations and letting nothing really stop you and really being inventive on the fly; you know there’s that scene in LA Zombie with the donut shop, and that wasn’t even a set location. We were just driving home from set one night and I just saw it and said we have to shoot there, and we had the actor in costume already so we went in and asked if we could shoot there, they were just closing so we paid them to stay open longer. And he lit it on the fly and beautifully, you know it looks like a beautiful set. So stuff like that, he is continually inventive, making a lot out of a little and has a kind of fearlessness in terms of shooting.
I wanted to ask you about your relationship to German cinema. Your early work caught the attention of German producer Jurgen Bruning and then a number of your films – Raspberry Reich, LA Zombie, Otto, Super 8 ½ and Pierrot Lunaire – have been German co-productions.
Well Jurgen is the other key figure, I mean right up until Pierrot Lunaire. Gerontophilia was the first film I did with other producers, and without James. He saw my early super 8 films when he was at Hallwalls Art Gallery in Buffalo as a visiting video and film curator, and he was scouting in Toronto for work to show and he saw my super 8 films. And then we became friendly and I asked him to produce No Skin Off My Ass which he did – which the total budget I think was $14,000, including the blow up to 16mm. But then it became a very complicated relationship, so long story short I played a character named Jurgen Anger, which is a cross between him and Kenneth Anger in Hustler White and then after Hustler White he started a porn company in Berlin called Cazzo and started directing porn films himself under the name Jurgen Angar, and then I started directing for Cazzo. So it almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy where people regarded us as pornographers, but we weren’t real pornographers. I always thought I was just making art films, sexually explicit art films, really, and then we actually got into the porn world proper. But, you know, he’s also somebody who is a real champion of underground cinema and he likes to make interesting and sometimes artistic porn, and sometimes just straight porn. He is a classic kind of leftist, radical in his politics and that remains consistent with the kind of work he produces. He just produced Dennis Cooper’s upcoming first porn film. Dennis wrote it and Dennis’ boyfriend directed it. It will be coming out soon.
Do you feel your work has been more accepted in Germany and has it been easier to work within the Germany cinema world?
Yeah the thing is I really couldn’t get financing for my early work in Canada. And in fact I had all these experiences in Toronto in the late 80s and early 90s where the labs would call the cops, both photo labs and film labs, and the police would show up and try to confiscate my negatives and destroy my work. And then I couldn’t get any financing for my film, so the first official financing I got was from the Berlin Film Fund for No Skin Off My Ass. Then after my first two films I went to LA and did Hustler White, and then I made three films in Berlin, two films in LA, shot one film in London. It has only been in the last maybe five or six years that I’ve started to be able to get Canadian government or arts council funding.
What was the process of adapting your own directed stage production, Pierrot Lunaire, into a film? What was the urge to transform the work and how do you see the dialogue that these two projects form?
Susanne Sachsse, who stars in Raspberry Reich and Otto, and the conductor Premil Petrovic invited me to direct the opera by Arnold Schoenberg on stage, which was totally outside of my forte but I thought it would be a good challenge, and the thing is I was really happy with the stage production that we did. Susanne worked incredibly hard on it, she studied for four months with a vocal coach, and it was very challenging thing for her as an actor and then it was just four performances, which we documented on HD. I thought it was a really interesting interpretation so I thought it should be more widely seen and I got the idea to shoot additional footage of location and combine it with the stage footage.
Were you trying to reach a new audience with Gerontophilia?
You know for me it was really almost an experiment, a real departure. It was something I wanted to try, a new process. I felt like I had really explored the pornographic a lot and I thought, well, I could continue doing that perpetually or I could try something different. So I worked with new producers, a new way of financing, I shot it in Montreal it was all Canadian funded and I did everything in a more industry style. So everything from using casting agents, to a union crew. Just even the whole writing process, and showing the rough cut to people and getting feedback and all the kind of stuff that I’d never done before. But I didn’t want to betray myself or alienate my people, you know people who’ve like my works previously, so I tried to choose a subject that was in itself still transgressive and one I think is somewhat subversive. So it was just a matter of the process and the approach.
Even though your films often involve characters navigating a queer sexuality and homosexual love for the first time, there rarely is an explicit pronouncement of a sexual identity. The drama in your films doesn’t come from a crisis regarding ones homosexuality; even in Gerontophilia Lake’s panic is regarding the fetish, not his attraction to both men and women.
I try to avoid clichés of gay cinema throughout, but it kind of goes deeper than that because it’s really about my philosophy of homosexuality, which is another thing that kind of alienates me from the gay orthodoxy I guess. My films are often about characters who have homosexual sex but don’t identify as gay. So you have the skinheads in Skin Flick, the hustlers in Hustler White, you have the left wing radicals in Raspberry Reich who are being forced to use homosexuality strictly for revolutionary purposes, political purposes. For me there is a certain amount of fluidity to sexuality that I think, especially in the last five to ten years, that the gay community has really tried to repress or deny in terms of this “Born This Way” mentality, which I think really discourages people who have bisexual impulses not to act on them in a certain way. I believe in Freud’s idea of constitutional bisexuality, that everyone is born with a certain amount of bisexual potential, and the Kinsey Scale which showed that a lot people have bisexual tendencies. And some of us do have completely repressed either heterosexual or homosexual impulses, I myself am a Kinsey six, so I’m not denying that there is exclusive homosexuality in people, I just don’t think you can make that blanket statement about everybody. It’s also a kind of statement against identity politics where you adhere to or adopt a certain set of sexual behaviours simply because that is the way that the gay community has decided how you’re supposed to present yourself as a homosexual, or how you are supposed to express your homosexuality. The first thing my film prof at university, the late great film critic Robin Wood, taught us was ‘question authority’, even if that authority is coming from a minority authority.
Increasingly we are seeing in pop culture a championing of a digestible Modern Family gay male character that is very desexualized. And I think what is really interesting about your films is that you actually combine this camp flamboyance with a really aggressive corporeal male homosexuality. You show the theatrical gay man as having a tangible sexuality on screen. It seems that because your work has both elements it is far more threatening to mainstream heterosexual audiences. Was it a conscious choice to combine these themes or did it just evolve organically?
Well I think one of the things we really emphasised with J.D.s zines and the early films was this idea that the most reviled thing culturally even within the gay community, but in the dominant cultural as well, is extreme effeminacy in men and extreme masculinity in women. Those are still things that are frowned upon and quite often with gays they, even now more than ever, want those things toned down. You know you’re supposed to not be too flamboyant and if you are then you’re not, as you said, regarded as a sexual being. So we sexualized the sissy and the butch dyke, as again romantic figures, that they had their own kind of sexiness and that was very important to us so. But then you don’t want to be too politically correct either, so I’ve always steered away from that as well. For a lot of people when I use really super attractive muscular guys like François Sagat in LA Zombie then people are like ‘oh why are you conforming to that body fascism and blah blah blah’, and I’m like ‘oh because it turns me on? I’m sorry?’ It’s just like I was saying about the ambivalence of the sexual drive, if you try to control your sexuality in terms of political correctness or political righteousness then you’re going to end up being really frustrated.
Would you ever insert yourself so directly into your work as the protagonist again?
I doubt it. About ten years ago I had a script that I couldn’t get financed and, at one point, I was going to play the protagonist. So I wouldn’t totally rule it out I guess, but I never really was very comfortable as an actor. I just performed in my first three features and my early shorts, because that’s a low budget trick where you cast yourself because you know you will show up and you don’t have to pay yourself. I think people don’t believe me when I say I’m not really much of an exhibitionist, it is not something I get off on, and you have to be an exhibitionist to be an actor.
What was the first time you experienced cinema as an artistic medium? Have you had a long standing affinity with B films or exploitation films?
Well really I guess No Skin Off My Ass was a remake of Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park which I saw on TV as a teenager and it totally freaked me out. First of all, it was so weird and sexually perverse that I thought it must be what pornography was like. And it had a big impact on me. It was mostly’ 70s, the great period of ’70s art cinema that had a big impact on me. Like there’s a Canadian director, Paul Almond, who did three films with his wife at the time, Geneviève Bujold, and one of them was called The Act of the Heart which is about a young girl who ends up having sex with her catholic priest on the altar of the catholic church and then she goes to a park and pours gasoline over herself and sets herself on fire as the credits role. So that had a huge impact on me, I even borrowed it for Otto when he sets himself on fire. And then I would see Cassavetes’ films on late night TV, like Husbands or something, and it just freaked me out, and the King of Marvin Gardens by Bob Rafelson, films like that had a huge impact on me because they really seemed like artistic expression from an auteur. And then in terms of B-movies yeah I was like always completely into them; my parents took me to drive-in movies from a very young age, so we watched from an inappropriately young age scary B-movies like Picture Mommy Dead and all that kind of stuff.
One of my favourite scenes from your films is the sequence in No Skin Off My Ass when the G.B. Jones character is filming the other women and she says to one of them “I love your new look, it’s so revolutionary!”. You have a very affectionate and playfully deprecating relationship to feminism in your films and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
I know I love that scene too. That line was actually improvised by G.B Jones. It’s hard for some people to quite get that aspect of my humour and my strategy in general, that you can be playful with something or make fun of something and totally and completely embrace it at the same time. I mean it’s a good way of not getting so entrenched in an ideology, or in certain kinds of leftist orthodoxies, by being very nibble and playing around and with them, and poking fun at them, which is something I’ve always done. I mean like Medea in Otto, or even Desiree in Gerontophilia. I mean, I have nothing but pure affection for these characters and in some ways they often stand in for my point of view as a director. So it is self-deprecating, it’s making fun of your own subversiveness, or if you see yourself as a radical. When I got together with my husband, who is Cuban, he used to tease me because he came from Cuba and lived through revolution and almost starved during the special period and concentration camps for homosexuals and all that stuff. And then when he would see me posturing as a gay radical he would tease me about it and say “oh you’re so subversive.” So it’s good to have a healthy reality check about exactly what your position in the world is and what your radicalism actually means.
I know you judged the Queer Palm in 2014, who are the upcoming queer filmmakers that excite you at the moment?
I always have such a hard time with this question because I always blank on who I should be promoting. I have to say doing the Queer Palm, there weren’t as many queer film makers as you would perhaps expect or hope for, that were showing films at Cannes. Or sometimes you have queer directors who are making films that don’t have queer content. But Xavier Dolan, who I know, is incredibly impressive. And I think Ryan Trecartin is amazing. His work really is subversive, I mean he’s playing with language and tropes in a way that is sort of post…post everything! And I really appreciate the people from the New Queer Cinema that have continued making films like Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes and, of course, John Waters. I wish he was still making films.
It’s interesting that you mention Ryan Trecartin, I had kind of always seen lineage between your work and his.
I mean they are so different but I think if there’s something that lines up together it is a kind of camp sensibility and each one is interpreted through a different era and different influences. I wrote an article a few years ago called ‘Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp’ and it really argued against Sontag, that camp really is a political sensibility and it’s a radical sensibility. And that’s what it is, it is presenting characters, ideas, situations, narratives in a very flamboyant and extravagant way that is aesthetically very homosexual in terms of its references and sexuality. It is also really based on also shock and provocation and aggression, homosexual aggression. There is something very pure about it and unapologetic and also outside of any kind of conventional expression.
What’s next for you? Following the experience with Gerontophilia I am curious to see the direction you go in. Are you finding yourself more drawn to bigger budget and less explicit films or are you interested in going back to your roots of no budget and very political works?
Well you know everyone always wants you to pick a side. Just like being gay, you’re either gay or you’re not. People are like, ‘okay, are you going to make mainstream and non-sexually explicit films or are you going to choose the porn?’ Well, it’s like, why can’t I do both? Which is a bit naïve because it wasn’t easy even for me to make a film like Gerontophilia and to get it financed because a lot of the backers were afraid I was going to make an explicit film that wouldn’t be marketable. So you have to start from the beginning knowing what kind of film you’re making and why. But I have a couple of films that are a bit more loosely along the lines of Gerontophilia in terms of being about the same kinds of characters that I’m interested in and the same kinds of ironic situations but in a more mainstream form. And I’m working on an experimental low budget film that will probably be explicit and it will have more a low budget release, it’s kind of almost a sequel to the Raspberry Reich. So that is fulfilling my other needs.
Thank you so much for sitting down with us. It was lovely to talk to you.
A retrospective of Bruce LaBruce’s work is being held at MoMA from the 23rd of April to the 2nd of May.