“I’m More Into Outsiders Than Insiders”: Auteur Bruce LaBruce on His Queer Canon, Porn, and Why Zombies Are Anti-Capitalist

I’m talking via Skype with Canadian queer auteur Bruce LaBruce, who tells me he hasn’t been in New York for a while. The city’s formerly seedy red-light district, Times Square, feels like a mythic entity since the Disneyfication of Manhattan — an oddly more perverse environment to welcome back one of cinema’s greatest provocateurs. MoMA’s retrospective honoring LaBruce runs from April 23 until May 2 and will be attended by the director. With three projects currently in development — one unannounced, a “slightly mythological, melodramatic film about twincest,” and a “low-budget, experimental film that is a loose sequel to the The Raspberry Reich, about feminist revolutionaries, or terrorists, basically” — LaBruce spoke about the trajectory of his underground career, insights into his queer canon, and those moments in his films that even he questioned.

j.d

Flavorwire: You’ve said that your relationship to the queercore or homocore movement, which you helped shape, is less of a political reality and more of an attitude. Can you talk about that pushback against the gay and punk orthodoxy at the time queercore was born?

Bruce LaBruce: In gay terms, I came from that ‘80s generation where you couldn’t be openly gay in high school. I was bullied in public school for being gay and had to be very nimble with my wits to survive in high school. I came from a very rough, rural environment. By the time I got to the city, I was still a virgin and trying to figure out being gay, but I didn’t find the gay scene very inviting somehow. Even in the ‘80s, I found it very hierarchical.

But in retrospect, the Toronto scene was pretty amazing in a lot of ways. The free bar rag was called The Body Politic, and it was basically a Marxist manifesto. It was very intellectual and political. And that was one aspect of it that I did like. But I always found it a little cliquey. I had a hard time fitting in. There was sexism at that time. There was a very strong division between gay and lesbian. I was one of the gay boys who would always go to the lesbian parties, which were great and kind of legendary. We rejected the gay scene for those reasons and were more interested in punk at the time, because it was so fresh, underground, in-your-face, political, do-it-yourself, and all that stuff. Aesthetically, it was much more interesting in terms of style and expressing politics through style. But then, of course, when we got into the punk scene, and hardcore music made it more aggro, we ran into a lot of homophobia in that scene as well. It became our mission to fight the problems of the subcultures or to challenge them. We found ourselves in the middle, torn between two problematic subcultures.

Your zine J.D.s made a huge impact on the queercore movement and beyond. How did it come about?

It was just part of the punk scene. A lot of people made fanzines. It was pre-Internet. It takes more effort, because it’s more hands-on and tactile. It was pretty process-oriented, documenting all our friends and crazy people we knew who were likeminded. We’d spend all night at the 24-hour Xerox store, and it was like making manifestos. It was quite romantic in those terms. We created these personae that were propped up as spectacles, half based on reality and half based on fantasy, fiction, and political strategy. We created the idea that there was a full-blown movement happening with these films and fanzines. Just the narratives we invented made it seem like there was this crazy, full-on army of queers and perverts in Toronto. When Gus Van Sant came to Toronto to make To Die For in 1993, I was introduced to him through mutual friends. We became friends and hung out. He always told me when he came to Toronto, he thought he was going to find this full-on, crazy, out-of-control, queer punk scene — and then it turned out to be me and three lesbians or something.

jds1

Have your feelings about those times changed?

I look back at it through rose-colored glasses in a way. It was romantic and had this sincerity. The whole thing about punk, it was all about ambiguity — so you never gave away exactly what your politics were, and you played with a lot of politically incorrect imagery and style. It was very playful. It was also playing with ideas of camp and how camp can be read. I always said, “If you think I’m being sincere, I’m probably being sarcastic. And if you think I’m being sarcastic, I’m probably being sincere.” It was really trying to be nimble and dance around a lot of things that were very serious or the status quo — trends, beliefs, and ideologies.

In that way, it was also very anti-capitalist, because the whole punk scene was really underground in a way that it’s difficult to be these days. We also invented these fake personae to avoid being harassed by anything from Canada Customs to film censor boards. When I made my early films and photography, I had several labs call the police. They would come and try to get me to destroy the negatives. You know, they say progress isn’t necessarily progressive. Even with these threats, everything seemed a little more free-form and like you could get away with a lot more back then. There seems to be a real political correctness now, on the Internet especially. When you couple that with the idea of the government monitoring everything you say to see if you’re some kind of radical or something, it’s a different environment now. I’m glad that I experienced that more idealistic time.

Given our culture’s nostalgia for things like the ‘90s, are underground manifestos like zines still important, or do you feel it’s more important to find new ways to express these ideas? Is there still an underground?

In the last ten years, I have gotten more financial, government arts/film financing. But in terms of the work itself, it’s so low-budget, I didn’t have to kowtow to producers or distributors to make it more commercial or sellable, because there wasn’t anything at stake in terms of the money. It allowed me to make these crazy films that really pushed boundaries and shocked people. I let my imagination go really crazy — and very specifically, eschewed political correctness. It made me a lot of enemies in the gay world. A lot of people thought my films were not a good representation of homosexuals.

That’s why the MoMA retrospective is a little bit of vindication for me, in a way. If you stick to your guns long enough and not feel intimidated or influenced by the mandates of these institutions, then it can pay off in the long run. In terms of the underground, even with punk, our strategy was always not to be nailed down to any kind of label or movement, so we were very contrary in that way. At least for me personally, in the ‘80s and early ‘90s we wouldn’t call ourselves artists. We rejected that idea, because it seemed like a tired way of presenting yourself. Even though I was very involved in the punk movement, I was always a bit alienated from it, too. I wouldn’t really call myself a punk per se. We even rejected the queer activism that was going on at the time, because it seemed to be heading in this very assimilative direction. We were always the outliers in that regard, I guess, which is where the underground is. It’s the refusal to affiliate yourself with any strict ideology or movement, and allows you to operate outside of the rules. That’s difficult these days.

Everyone wants you to choose a side. For example, in the gay scene, with its assimilation, it’s not challenging the very basic problems with the status quo anymore. It’s capitulating. You’re supposed to be a well-behaved, exemplary homosexual — which to me, just takes all the fun out of it and defeats the whole purpose. My philosophy about homosexuality has always been that it’s a great opportunity to be different and look at things from the outside. I’m much more into the idea of outsiders than insiders. The punk movement wasn’t about punk bands trying to get a major label rep. It was all independent labels and publishing, totally anti-corporate. You can never paint a whole generation with one brush, but the default now is that you have to capitulate to these corporate entities and that you can work within the system to change it — which I always thought was a false strategy.

Here we are talking about rejecting labels, but I don’t view your work as “countercultural,” as I’ve sometimes heard you described. I see you as anti-cultural, if anything — defying established notions of pleasure, sexual fetishes, and a normative kind of relationship, sexual or otherwise. Is it easier to just refute the notion of there being something “normal” and defy that categorization?

I don’t mind being called countercultural, because it just means oppositional. I had a great film professor and mentor in university named Robin Wood. I went to York University in the ‘80s, which was a real hotbed of political activism and oppositional politics. I had a pretty cool leftist education, but also activist education. My professor Robin Wood, who was a gay Marxist feminist, first taught us was to question authority. That was his main principle. That’s something I’ve always done. I always took as my credo something I borrowed from [Jean] Genet. He would say, whenever you find a revolutionary moment happening anywhere, go to it, support it, and stand behind it. But at the first sign it became rigid, ideologically entrenched, and institutionalized, he would not only reject it, but turn against it — which I thought was interesting and taking things to the next step.

I’ve always viewed homosexuality as the opportunity to do that. Now there’s homonormativity. There’s a lot of moralism. There’s slut-shaming going on now and things like that. People have to realize that the whole engine of the gay movement, and what got the movement to where it is now, was that things were militantly sexual, and this was challenging all sorts of ideas about how you’re supposed to behave sexually. It was that sexual energy that really was the engine of the movement. It was questioning gender roles, ideas about monogamy, and what constitutes social and personal relationships. It was questioning everything. Now it just seems like the trend is to try to make a success in the normative world. That’s a bit depressing.

women

Your films reject these traditional notions, of things such as romance. There’s also this value of irresponsibility present — of having experiences and ideas for their own sake. And, like you, your characters are interested in history as an evolving process, not defined by periods or labels. You’ve talked about who and what you’ve responded to throughout your career, but are there any key figures, like Genet, who really speak to that for you?

In terms of my filmmaking, I was always inspired by the great gay avant-garde, as I call them. It started with Genet and Un chant d’amour, up through [Kenneth] Anger, Jack Smith, the Kuchar brothers, Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Curt McDowell, and John Waters. Those were all people who were playing by their own rules and challenging ideas about sexuality, presenting queer characters as revolutionaries. Even someone like Paul Morrissey — I think he might even be a Republican — he sometimes made these films that were so in spite of himself, so pro-queer. Women in Revolt is a brilliant film, because it’s supposed to be a critique of feminism, but it ends up being a complete endorsement of feminism. It’s a very romantic and tragic story of women in revolt. In terms of filmmaking more broadly, I was a child of the whole ‘70s and ‘80s independent film movement with [Robert] Altman, [John] Cassavetes, Jerry Schatzberg, Frank Perry, and Maya Deren — filmmakers that were uncategorizable and really transcended the historical moment.

Is there anyone you define yourself in opposition to?

As a filmmaker you have to curse the [Steven] Spielbergs and George Lucases. I do like some of Spielberg’s films. I like The Sugarland Express. I actually like War of the Worlds quite a lot. Most of their films wrecked independent cinema, really. Also, all the directors who have gone to Hollywood and, to me, have squandered their mojo.

Anyone in particular?

Someone like John Woo.

But Woo really struggled against Hollywood when he started his American career.

I’m sure, but he really was trying to make those big tentpole movies with big Hollywood stars. I’m very ambivalent about the whole star, celebrity world anyway. I think it’s this weird cult that people don’t challenge. It’s very capitalist and kind of like worshiping the golden calf. I don’t think there’s nearly enough opposition to that. Now, to get an independent film financed you have to have a star attached, which is strange. I think filmmakers have to really fight against that. The film industry, the corporate industry, has colonized independent cinema.

I’m thinking about your affection for old-school gay culture and how that’s revealed in your films through your love of references to classic Hollywood and melodrama or camp. When I saw Gerontophilia, I was struck by one character’s resemblance to John Waters — the bookstore owner [played by Brian D. Wright] — not just in appearance, but his love for books. Was that intentional?

It was. I had a conversation with John Waters once where he said that if there was ever a Don Knotts biopic, he and Steve Buscemi used to argue which one would play Don Knotts. I wanted a Buscemi-like character. I had him in my mind mixed up with John Waters. So, it was a little tribute to John. What I love about that character, he’s one of those nerdy, nebbishy nothings — and I’m a huge Don Knotts fan, by the way. In the film he says, “What can I say, I have a thing for Canadian feminist writers.” He’s one of these guys who almost uses the feminist card to get the girls, or to try to, but he’s also sincere about it.

I think there’s this idea that being older means you have all this wisdom and you feel like a crank trying to impart this knowledge, but that’s part of the charm of being “old,” that you can do this. Do you ever feel that way?

Well, that’s why I love Désirée, too [Katie Boland’s feminist character who taunts the much older bookseller]. She’s kind of a step ahead of him on everything. She’s smart as a whip. She’s like, “Oh, SCUM Manifesto.” And he’s like, “First edition!” And she’s like, “I’m impressed, but now I might have to kill you.” You know, that kind of thing. If you don’t take advantage of your age for something, then it’s all been for naught. That’s why the only good thing about aging is that wealth of knowledge that you’ve built up — hopefully. It’s pretty selfish if you don’t try to share it. I’m such a cinephile. My movies always end up being a compendium of obscure film references. I even forget sometimes where I stole them. It becomes immaterial whether I stole it or not. But I’ve realized, I think I’ve referenced Klute and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in almost every film.

otto

I want to talk about zombies — that for me, they symbolize you railing against this conformity you see in gay culture and whatnot. Is that part of the integration of zombies in your work? How do you relate to zombies on film, and how have you incorporated that trope into your work, given how successful Otto was for you?

It has to start with the master George Romero, because he is such an anti-capitalist. Dawn of the Dead is one of the greatest anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist statements ever made in America. I always loved the tagline, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” There’s something so scary and dystopian about his whole vision. I just applied that formula to the queer paradigm. In Otto, it’s the manifestation of all the hostility, homophobia, and the threat of homophobic violence against this boy. It’s manifested outwardly as being dead or feeing dead. It’s pushing that analogy to its extreme. A friend of mine who is a yogi said he thought that Otto was an evolved soul. He evolved post-human, to a state of enlightenment, where he’s detached from everything and totally anti-materialistic, floating through life in a detached, but still observational state. I thought that was interesting. I relate to the zombie boy as a queer who came up through that period where it was dangerous and a hostile environment to be a homosexual. The character Medea is my artistic side. She’s a filmmaker trying to make sense of it all. She’s political and using the gay zombie trope as a political statement and queer statement. Then there’s another other aspect of it. If you’ve ever cruised a public toilet, park, or bathhouse by night, it can be like Night of the Living Dead — not necessarily in a bad way, but there’s a horror element to it, these creatures walking around in the dark.

You’re kind of reduced to body parts.

Yeah, but there’s something dangerous and exciting about that. And that’s one thing people have been trying to take out of sex, this idea of danger. There’s an inherent aggression in sex. It’s not always a nice package to be tied and presented to people.

I feel like this orthodoxy we’ve been talking about is present in the art world, too. You’ve had a lot of pushback because you use pornography in your work. This freedom from all boundaries is hard for audiences or other filmmakers, even, to accept whenever explicit images are involved. Can you talk more about this?

Using sexually explicit imagery was part of the strategy starting in the ‘80s with J.D.s and my experimental Super 8 films. It was a pushback partly against straight society who have a tolerance for homosexuality — but they always used to say, as long as you keep it to yourself, as long as you aren’t flamboyant, as long as you don’t push it in our faces. That, of course, being the contrarian that I am, made me want to push it in their faces all the more. I was using it as a political statement, being unapologetic, being in your face about gay sex.

I’ve always supported pornography. There’s always so much hypocrisy from people who watch pornography, but still look down their nose at people who make porn or perform in porn. I’ve always challenged that and expressed solidarity with pornographers. It was a naïve expression of being unapologetically homosexual in terms of sex, but then it kind of became a self-fulfilling prophecy, where I made these low-budget art films that I had sex in. I gained the reputation of being a pornographer, which I actually fostered myself. A lot of people thought I was a porn star that got into making films. I didn’t discourage them from believing that. And Super 8½ is totally about that. It’s presenting a faux biography of myself as a porn star. And then my producer Jürgen Brüning started the first porn company in Berlin, Cazzo Films [“cazzo” is Italian slang for penis], partly because of his work with me. I directed a couple of porn movies for his company. Then I got into experiencing what the real porn world was about — how it’s a very conventional medium, how it’s shot, and how it has its own codes and conventions, which I would try to break or use to question them and challenge them. That was a whole other learning curve.

How do you work with performers in porn or in movies with explicit sex?

There’s an art to that I picked up from Jürgen and the companies I worked for. It’s not as easy as it looks. I think most people who make porn, especially narrative porn, are artists and filmmakers. It’s the same basic process of shooting, editing, and lighting. But it’s also about just creating. The good porn companies, they respect the performers. They have to create an environment that allows performers to relax and have sex in front of the camera. You have to be respectful of their process and how they have to prepare. It’s about casting and casting people with sexual chemistry. It’s a lot of things. I worked mostly in Europe. I made LA Zombie in LA and worked with an American company in New York, Dark Alley. What I found is that porn stars are often totally dying to do something a little more challenging. The guys who did Raspberry Reich were so into it. In Europe in the early 2000s, a lot of guys were moonlighting in porn, so they were seriously doing porn, but they also had other professions as well. Their interests were quite wide-ranging, which I think is true of a lot of porn stars. So they were just really excited about doing something more challenging and political.

hustlerwhite

What’s it like to direct yourself in a movie like that, or something like Hustler White with such a heady environment, loaded with sex?

For my first three films and first two I had performed sexually in, No Skin off My Ass and Super 8½, we were so naïve about what we were doing. The guy who played the skinhead in No Skin Off My Ass was my boyfriend at the time. I made him style himself as a skinhead. When it came to having sex in front of the camera, I had a female friend behind the camera. She was my best friend, but I couldn’t do it in front of her. So the camera ran by itself, and she left the room. There was nobody behind the camera, it was just my boyfriend and I. It was like cheating. Later when I got into more industry porn, then I learned how it’s really done.

Often pornography and horror in film is used to provoke laughter or cheap shock. But your interest in the transgressive body goes much deeper than that. Almost like — well, I know you’ve worked with him on things before — Dennis Cooper.

That’s funny, Jürgen is just now in post-production with Dennis Cooper’s first porn movie.

Ah, wow.

Dennis wrote it. His boyfriend is directing it, I believe. That will be coming out. Yeah, I knew Dennis way back from the punk days in the ‘80s.

Gerontophilia

I was thinking about how the transgressive body is present in all your films. There’s the severed foot in Hustler White and the mother’s broken body in Gerontophilia — or even in the way that you linger over the aged of Mr. Peabody. Do you think that your focus on this comes from a specifically gay view or a queer focus on the physical?

I think it’s complicated, because then in LA Zombie you have the ultimate alienated body. Not only is the zombie character split in his own identification and possibly like this schizophrenic homeless person, but there’s the idea that fucking these dead bodies back to life is kind of a — although I’ve never really articulated this to myself that much — but it’s like an allegory for the regenerative body and post-queer body transformation. I grew up on a farm and saw a lot of slaughter and castration when I was young. It wouldn’t be unusual to come home and find a moose head on the front lawn or eight deer hanging from their hind legs with blood running down. We’d have the yearly chicken holocaust.

What’s that?

In one day, one by one, my father would chop the heads off 200 chickens, and then we’d have to dip them in boiling water and pluck them. I watched them castrate the hogs and things like that. I think it’s partly about my childhood traumas, which is related to the queer thing, because I always knew from a very young age that I was queer or gay or homosexual. I was a sensitive sissy, and being in that very harsh environment had a huge impact. In terms of the body itself, someone said it’s interesting in Gerontophilia how it relates to LA Zombie, because it is again the boy fucking this zombie back to life. There is a necrophilic attraction for the boy to the body as well, which is part of the subversion of the film that most critics completely missed.

How could anyone miss that? It’s such a huge part of the film.

I know. Nobody really mentioned it anyway. Because even the guy in the pool that [Pier-Gabriel Lajoie’s character, Lake] saves is a lifeless body.

And Lake draws Walter Borden’s character while he’s sleeping. The sheet seems like a death shroud.

That’s what’s subversive for me in the film. People don’t necessarily see that as something creepy or strange, because it’s presented in such a sincere and romantic way. The boy is so empathetic to the situation of the elderly that it doesn’t seem sinister. That’s part of the trick of my films, too. For me, extreme fetishes and breaking taboos is totally consistent with a romantic sensibility. For me, a fetish, even an extreme fetish, can be very romantic. It’s an appreciation of something to the point of worshipping it — an aesthetic appreciation. To present it romantically to me just seems like a normal thing to do.

I want to talk about music in your work for a moment. It’s very important to your films. Even recent movies like Gerontophilia still make use that melancholic ‘90s sound. Do you view it as an emotional counterbalance to the graphic images in your work?

Yes, even with No Skin Off My Ass, I stole romantic soundtrack music — for both No Skin and Super 8½. Again, this was before the Internet, so you didn’t have YouTube. It was my own vinyl collection that I would steal this music from. I opened up No Skin Off My Ass with this great punk song called “Fred’s Song,” by Beefeater. It’s basically a romantic ballad from a punk band about their fetish for skinhead boys. Skinhead guys just turn me on, and it really nails what I try to do with my films — to present something that most people would find disgusting, shocking, or politically incorrect in a romantic and gentle way. People always say, “Oh, he’s just being a provocateur. He’s just trying to shock.” I take a cue from John Waters, who had a book called Shock Value — what the hell is wrong with shock value or provocation? There needs to be more of that. Especially when it’s smart and maybe even generous in some ways. I sort of got a little bit known for that one scene in each movie…

skinflick

The scene that would push things over the edge.

Yes. And also trying to outdo myself, even. It was a game that I played with myself.

I was going to ask if you set out to overstep your boundaries.

There’s about three times maybe in my so-called career that I would say that I really stepped over a line where even I was questioning what I was doing, which is a good thing. One of those times was Skin Flick. And, well, the stumping scene [in Hustler White]…

Is that what they call that?

Yeah. It was, for me, still quite fun, because it makes sense to me that there could be a sexual fetish for amputation. But with Skin Flick, I was really trying to deal with the historical relationship between homosexuality and fascism, which is quite complex. There was the racial aspect of the film, which was very provocative, too. I did get accused of racism. I didn’t think it was racist, but I felt like I really pushed it. That was the first time I had picketers at the ICA in London and headlines like, “Sick Gangbang Fantasy” in a British tabloid. Once in the Winnipeg Sun there was the headline, “Filthy Flesh Film Fest.”

You revel in those things. That’s such a great headline.

I do, yeah. The two others would probably be LA Zombie, because it does really push the necrophile thing. It was banned in Australia. The softcore version was in competition at Locarno. This great, amazing man Olivier Père was the director at that time, and he fearlessly programmed it. People were calling for his head, they were so angry. I had this photo show in Madrid in 2001, Obscenity. It caused a national scandal in Spain. The mayor tried to shut down the show, because it was investigating the relationship between religious and sexual ecstasy in Catholic terms. There were picketers. Someone actually threw an explosive device through the front window of the gallery. It didn’t go off, but police were investigating it, and it made front-page news. It was a real roller coaster ride.

In thinking about your interest in performance or the spectacle, and how I am always reminded of Los Angeles when I see your name in print, I am curious about the creation of “Bruce LaBruce.” Where does the name come from, and what does it evoke for you?

It is a play on aspects of my origins. I don’t want to get more specific than that. For me, Bruce, especially Bruce in the ‘50s and ‘60s, was the go-to gay name. If someone were named Bruce in fiction, he would be gay. I doubled-down on that. The “La” is a grand thing, something a diva would use. I used to be pretty grand back in the day. It’s this super-gay name. And I always felt like LA was my spiritual homeland even before I ever visited. For me, it was like going to India or something. Not because of Hollywood, per se, but the underground of LA, which always fascinated me. You have this dream factory that everyone knows by its spectacle and its legend, but underneath is this extremely seedy underbelly where people fall through the cracks.

You really feel that in Hustler White, with you exploring the city for “strictly anthropological reasons.”

Yes, but also in LA Zombie, too, which I see as a companion piece. It’s like revisiting LA 15 years later. This homeless person is living this complete altered reality and observing all the violence and the symptoms of the exploitation that goes on in the entertainment industry.

Do you feel like this orthodoxy that we’ve been talking about is reflected in queer cinema today? Are filmmakers like Xavier Dolan, who has been influenced by your work, pushing against that orthodoxy?

I think it’s there. It’s difficult, because so many people have bought into assimilation that a lot of the movies reflect that. Even with some films about transsexuals, there’s this tendency to present things in a sanitized way or in a way that is more gender-normative, in a strange way. It’s this idea of choosing a side. You’re forced to side with the whole born-gay movement, which I totally question. I think it is a combination of nature and nurture. To insist that everyone is either born gay or not is absurd, because I believe in Freud’s idea of constitutional sexuality — that everyone has bisexual potential — or Kinsey’s scale. It’s really discouraging for me, that people who aren’t gay-identified wouldn’t explore their homosexual potential, or vice-versa. There’s a kind of insecurity about it — especially in indie films or films where you have to have a star attached. They become like mini Hollywood movies. There’s a tendency to be a little too safe and normative. I know Xavier [Dolan], he’s doing amazing work. People like Ryan Trecartin do insane work that really references a more post-human and super postmodern sensibility, where gender, sex, and identity are completely and brilliantly convoluted. Yeah, there are people doing amazing work.