BRUCE LABRUCE: THERE IS A CERTAIN ROMANCE TO IT
Bruce LaBruce is ready to leave the blood behind but not without one final splatter. A self-described “reluctant pornographer,” Bruce’s films feature as many heart-wrenchingly romantic moments as they do scenes of explicit and extreme sex. For every gut- or stump-fuck, there is a glance or a line so scathingly heartfelt I can’t help but think Bruce LaBruce’s sincerity is his most dangerous weapon. This interview by Drew Denny and video of the shoot by Paul Rodriguez here.
I just read an interview with you in Butt magazine!
Oh yeah—I’ve worked with them a lot. I photographed Ryan McGinley for the cover, and then I wrote the intro to the Butt Book, which is a big thick compilation of the first 15 issues.
I’d love to read that! But we should talk about your show—
It’s completely out of control at this point—
You still have a whole day!
It’s called Untitled Hardcore Zombie Project. It was time for me to have a solo show, and I’d been doing a lot of stuff with zombies and blood over the past—well, since 2002, I guess. I think I’m going to leave behind all the blood and gore after this, but I thought I’d go out in a big explosion. The idea was to make—as an art project—a hardcore zombie splatter porn film. Because splatter and porn—it’s been done, though I’m not sure if there’s been a gay splatter porn. This idea of intersecting the gore and splatter genre—and horror—with porn really intrigues me because of these new ‘torture porn’ movies as they call them, which aren’t really porn but they operate similarly to porn in many ways. And they’re constructed the same way in terms of these narratives which build to orgasmic moments in which people either have sex or get murdered or end up emitting large quantities of fluid. The original idea was to make an actual gay splatter porn for the opening, but we realized we wouldn’t have time to pull it off, so I decided to make it more like a work in progress, and I’m actually shooting it here in August. The star of the show is Francois Sagat, the famous porn star and model. He’s in town, and I’ve been meeting with him and he’s going to be doing a live performance tomorrow with the guy who’s doing the special effects—Joe Castro. We’re experimenting with Francois’ look so we made a prototype for canine teeth and Joe’s going to airbrush him live. I also have five or six photographs that are examples of the bloody work I’ve done over the past few years with models and in movies.
A few of your photos remind me of the Abu Ghraib images.
That was a big inspiration for a lot of people. They were such strong, horrible images. Abu Ghraib was like a horror movie come to life, and that’s what a lot of my work has been lately in terms of the horror stuff—I do these Polaroid performances in which I do an installation then make it look like it’s some sort of abduction scenario or terrorist scenario where someone’s being tortured. Especially when Al Qaeda was at it’s height in terms of visibility, you’d see these videos where they were about to decapitate someone. It was all over the news, and we got accustomed to these scenarios. So I re-enact them but in a kind of gay way. There’s always an undercurrent of homosexuality in these things—like ‘mujahadeen’ has become slang for ‘gay’ or ‘faggot’ in Iraq, and they actually had this TV show where they would find terrorists—it was like a terrorist of the week show—they’d find a terrorist and put him on TV and humiliate him. They’d call him a faggot and say he was homosexual. It’s the idea that people are so used to passively accepting these violent images, so I like to give the public a chance to participate in these kinds of set ups—like one of those violent videos. It’s very cathartic. There’s always a vibe—it surprises me—the vibe is always more therapeutic then negative.
I was definitely surprised by that—Otto is the most recent work of yours that I’ve seen, but Hustler White is still my favorite.
I just saw Tony Ward last night at Diamond Dogs—Brian Rabin’s club—and I hadn’t seen him since we toured with the film in ‘96. He looked exactly the same—he’s so beautiful.
One of the most wonderful things about Hustler White, for me, was how it blurred the line between narrative filmmaking and documentary—you used non-actors and the sex was real. Now you’re re-creating in the public world situations from the media and the war. What’s the idea behind your combination of fiction and documentary?
My films have always—even from my short experimental films that I made in the late ‘80s when I was in the punk scene—they’ve always had a documentary element to them, and I did fanzines and stuff. It was all just taking pictures of friends or Super 8 movies of friends and incorporating them into a narrative or inventing stuff that’s fictionalized. But there’s always a core concept of documenting the scene that I was in. I think I’ve kept that process. Although with Otto, it’s obviously the biggest budget that I’ve had and the most ambitious film I’ve made. I think it’s almost completely fictionalized, although I still found the actor who played Otto on Myspace, and I used Katharina who played Medea—Katharina was a friend I met in Berlin who happened to be a woman filmmaker who made a documentary about horror film. So I still base characters on people I know.
As I watched Otto, I was surprised by how different it was from your other work—until the love scene. When Otto’s remembering his lover, he says he smelled of chlorine then you cut to that shot of them falling into the pool. You do love really well! That moment recalled the sincerity and realism I appreciated in your earlier work.
I always throw in the romance, especially when dealing with a lot of extreme subject matter. Like in Hustler White there’s a lot of sexual torture—or sexual fetish and amputee sex and that kind of stuff. First of all, I think that stuff is really corny if you’re too serious about it. Secondly, I think it’s important for people to know that there are real people with normal emotions participating in a lot of these extreme sexual fetishes all the time—so they’re just really average people. Thirdly, it’s just an unexpected representation. You don’t expect to see these kinds of people in a romantic way or with romantic impulses. In Otto, part of the whole point was a reaction to this new wave of torture porn which is so brutal and non-romantic and really cynical.
I appreciate that you take what is considered ‘subversive’ or ‘extreme’—people and behaviors that are either not represented at all or are exploited to create spectacle—and depict it casually, with a certain amount of respect and even grace. Hustler White exemplifies that sort of representation for me, which is impressive because at that time in the ‘90s, there were all those filmmakers—like Tarantino and his ‘gimp’—exploiting such people and behaviors, using them as a gimmick—
Unfortunately at that time, Tarantino represented the zeitgeist—it happened some time in the ‘90s—where it became a politically incorrect posture… this kind of irony through which you could be misogynistic or you could be homophobic but you were laughing—like it’s an inside joke—but you still do it. You get away with it. It’s still nasty. Those things became acceptable again in a weird way. That’s why I think being sincere almost became politically incorrect. My films—despite the extreme subject matter—there’s always a sincerity behind them.
That’s what shocks people.
A lot of people don’t get it. They think, ‘Oh, he made a movie where one guy fucks the other guy in a hole in his stomach, so he can’t possibly have any kind of romantic ideas.’ Actually, the gut-fucking scene is in a film within the film—which is very romantic. It’s about these two rebel zombies who are on a crusade together, and they’re boyfriends. It’s very romantic.
You mentioned your involvement with the punk scene in the late ‘80s—I’ve always really enjoyed your soundtracks, and I was wondering what your relationship is with these musicians. How do you curate your soundtracks?
For the early ones, I either used music by people I knew, or I would use obscure soundtrack music from the ‘60s and ‘70s and mix it up with really obscure punk music. For my first couple of films, I don’t have a lot of music clearances which is why they’re so hard to get a hold of—people are really reluctant to release them. I’ve done that with all my films. My last two—Raspberry Reich and Otto—I got a lot of music through people I know or friends of friends. With Otto in particular—that was sort of at the height of the popularity of Myspace—I sent out word that I was looking for music for a melancholy gay zombie movie, and I got flooded with so many people saying they’d donate the music for free just in exchange for credit. I ended up with 23 hours of material, and I tried to use as much as I could. We ended up using 55 tracks by 27 different artists. Most of it was for free. I got Antony and the Johnsons and Cocorosie because of my friend Kembra Pfahler who has a cameo in the film—
Who does she play?
She’s in the dance scene. In the DVD extras, there’s a short film of Medea’s that got cut out of the film—it’s called Messy in the Afternoon… it’s a take off Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, and Kembra features very prominently in that.
You mentioned Raspberry Reich, and I’d like to talk about that—it seems to be your most overtly political film. I’ve read a few interviews in which you discuss how subversive political movements become co-opted by capitalist society then turned into empty signifiers which can be filled by whatever content the market provides—Che Guevara t-shirts and the like.
That certainly came back to bite us in the ass because we got sued by the estate of Korda, the photographer who shot the famous image of Che Guevara—
Everybody else uses that image!
I know! Korda was Che’s personal photographer for ten years. He sued us for a million dollars Canadian for using the image without permission. It was a long protracted thing—we had to go to court, and the suit was launched in France. We had a lawyer in France to deal with it. We ended up having the damages reduced to eight or ten thousand but we had to pay court costs. Technically, we’re not even supposed to show the film anymore. We basically lost. But my American distributor wasn’t named in the suit so I think we’re still distributing it here. The European version had the image right on the box. But they definitely watched the whole thing. The subpoena was fifty pages long—they thought the film defiled the image. There’s so much irony involved because the film is anti-capitalist. It’s about the way capitalism exploits not only Che Guevara but radicalism and terrorism and the Baader-Meinhof Gang. You can read about it—I just posted an article I wrote about it for Black Book. That’s what the film is about—the commodification of radical imagery and the way it’s made fashionable. It’s also about left-wing idealism—how it can turn into dogmatism, and it can also quickly switch into becoming the very thing to which it stands opposed. These left-wing radical groups like the Baader-Meinhof gang start out with lofty ideals about improving the world and equality and class and fighting corporate control, but then they become completely ethically and morally bankrupt when they start killing people. Of course it’s more complicated than that because they consider themselves at war, and the rules of war are different from normal law. But one of the themes that runs through my films is the idea of the oppressed becoming the oppressor and about not practicing what you preach. When I went to university and graduate school, I had a lot of professors who spouted a lot of extreme anti-patriarchal and anti-capitalist rhetoric yet they were in monogamous marriages—
Working in institutions—
And living in nice houses!
What did you study?
I was a film undergrad and then I got an MFA in basically film theory and social and political theory.
I wanted to ask you who you’re reading—in terms of philosophy—because your dialogue and those t-shirts from Raspberry Reich—
Put your Marxism where your mouth is! For Raspberry Reich, I went through all my old notes from university. I steal a lot from Marcuse, and I was always into the Frankfurt School. In Raspberry Reich I also steal from Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life and the Situationists. I’m much more into that practical enterprise of dealing with realpolitik rather than the French Post-Structuralists—
I’m reading Deleuze now—
I should’ve read more of that actually. I took a course called Psychoanalysis in Feminism, and I had to read all of Lacan translated into English—that was what almost killed me.
Let’s get back to your show—if I’m picturing the image right, there’s a flag in the background of one of the photos. Since 9-11, there’s been a void in art that uses that kind of imagery for critical purposes—
Raspberry Reich was a response to what happened to the left in America after 9-11 because the left was silenced. Castrated really. It was amazing—even now people are so quick to call someone a socialist or a communist —like Obama—that’s why in Raspberry Reich people are constantly spouting leftist rhetoric, and the text is flashing across the screen. I wanted to bombard the audience with that imagery and ideology. In terms of the flag, that was from a performance piece that I did in London a few weeks ago—Ron Athey and Lee Adams curated a performance spectacle called ‘Visions of Excess.’ They curated a bunch of international performance artists and it was in the Shunt Vaults under the London Bridge—it’s like a dungeon. It’s a huge space. My piece was an IRA zombie concept—it’s the Irish flag and the British flag. An IRA zombie being tortured by British zombies—you know, the IRA coming back from the dead. It was also this idea of the war going on in Northern Ireland. It seems to have gone away but there were a couple incidents when it was coming back. The idea that war and violence become fetishized not only by the media but by the participants and the whole military aspect becoming very aesthetic and sexy—even for the participants—so there is a certain romance to it as well. There were a couple people who were shocked because it was so directly political. He’s standing in front of the Irish flag. A zombie. Covered in blood. Licking his gun. Also, he’s got a hard-on. So it’s basically terrorist porn!
When you discuss the politics of your films, how much do you concern yourself with gender politics and the politics of sexuality—the decision to work almost exclusively with male homosexuals, for example?
After my first feature—I had been politically correct in terms of my representation of sexuality. It’s partly because of my academic training. I had a couple friends who de-programmed me. They said, ‘You’re policing your imagery. It’s politically correct.’ So I started trying to deal with gender in a much looser way—in Super 8 1/2, Richard Kern, the famous photographer, was in a wig with a strap-on dildo fucking a woman—which was kind of an inside joke because people consider him misogynist. So it was kind of a mind fuck. With Hustler White, we decided to have not a single woman in the movie—partly as an expressionistic thing wherein this fantasy world of johns and hustlers, they are living in this utopian world where they don’t have to deal with women. Then I often have lesbian characters like in Super 8 1/2 and in Otto. I haven’t done as much with the transgendered as I would like. I did a photo series with a pre-op transsexual in Toronto named Nina Arsenault. I don’t know if you’ve seen the photos, but they’re quite extreme because she actually allowed me to photograph her penis which had never been photographed before. She just had one of her breast implants taken out because there was a problem, so there was a scar and just one big breast—and she was covered in blood and carrying a gun. So it was a take on gender terrorism. I’m totally into that. In terms of politics and the gay thing, I always try to carry on that tradition of the gay avant-garde which is going back to Warhol and Morrissey, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Curt McDowell, and John Waters—because I think it’s necessary and I think it’s what sets homosexuals apart—that kind of experimentation and celebration of difference. In terms of more straightforward politics, my husband is Cuban. He grew up in Cuba and didn’t leave until he was in his early 30s—so he makes fun of me for my political posturing. I’m kind of a Marxist sympathizer, and I’m anti-capitalist and anti-corporate which came from my punk training… I did grow up below the poverty line on a small farm, but compared to what was going on in Cuba or in a third world country, I was living an incredibly privileged life. He’s lived the revolution and seen how the revolution went sour, so he’s a good reality check for me.
How long have you two been together?
We’ve been together for four years, married for two years.
Considering the work that you do, isn’t it difficult to be married?
It’s not a monogamous relationship—it’s an open relationship.
Oh, much better—I was shocked!
I’m not into the institution of marriage but he’s Cuban, and I’ve sponsored him for citizenship—so it was done for those reasons. Strangely, it actually made our relationship stronger. But I never would have done it without the immigration angle.
A friend of mine shot porn for a while and says it ruined her sex life—does it affect your sex life?
I make it so rarely. I’m more like an artist who works in porn. I’ve really only made two movies for actual porn companies. Most of my films do have sexually explicit content but I certainly don’t work in the industry so it’s not-—like I know people, friends who are porn stars and directors, who make forty to fifty films a year so they’re constantly saturated with it. It’s like a fatigue—sexual fatigue. Also, it’s not glamorous shooting porn. That’s what I gathered when I made my first industry porn which is Skin Gang. It’s not glamorous—it’s very contrived. The guys are certainly hot and sexy, but they are professionals and they’re doing their job. They take their Viagra, and they have to insert the cock when they’re told to and have to hold it there and keep it hard and turn cheek towards the camera and hold in an awkward position for a long period of time. And then they’ll have anal leakage and someone has to come wipe it up. So it’s not that sexy to shoot—to make. The whole idea is to present this illusion of this seamless fantasy of sexual perfection that climaxes in a fountain of ejaculation. We all know that real sex doesn’t often happen that way.
Does that label bother you—’pornographer’? Hustler White, for me, is an art film in which the sex is real rather than simulated.
Right, but then I did actually make films for porn companies. Skin Gang was nominated for nine Gay Adult Video Awards. Also I wrote a memoir in the late ‘90s called The Reluctant Pornographer. But, yeah, I was just talking to somebody about that the other day. There is a glass ceiling for pornographers. There’s a lot of hypocrisy where people kind of look down—even if they are an avid consumer of porn—when they meet someone who works in porn. I was out with a porn star last night, and he was saying how tired he is of people coming up to him and asking him how big his cock is and taking these kinds of liberties. I experienced that after I made my first two films, and I was having sex in the film. There’s a certain line that you cross which I call the ‘corn-hole line’—once you’ve been penetrated, people look at you differently. They assume you’re immoral, amoral or unethical. I always say—you actually need a very strong moral compass to navigate the porn world because there’s a lot of exploitation that does go on, and there are a lot of damaged people and sexually abused people. So you have to be careful not to be exploitative and to be really responsible for what you’re doing.
Considering the amount of exploitation involved in mainstream filmmaking, this all seems very hypocritical.
The hypocrisy of it is really sad. That’s why I’m making this hardcore splatter zombie movie. The hypocrisy that you can show the most disgusting, over-the-top, gory torture—women being tortured and mutilated—and yet you can’t show two people having sex? If an alien came down from another planet and saw that phenomenon, they would be so disgusted.
Violence—OK. Naked people—not OK?
I’ve heard you say you incorporate all types of sex in order to depict all types of fantasies that real people have—is there a limit to what you’ll represent?
For one thing, I think porn in general is—it’s the collective unconscious. It allows people to work out their most extreme and most politically incorrect fantasies, which is what I really explored in Skin Flick—which was racially based fantasies of domination and submission and rape. It was kind of a heavy movie. I had a lot of gay black guys contact me on the internet—even though there’s a black man raped by white power skin heads—who were totally turned on by that scene. Then in Hustler White, the white character is gang banged by the black gang. I think anything is fair game. That’s what the function of art should be—to explore those kinds of things. In terms of where else there is to go? Well, I’m not really talking about my next film. I’m working on the script for a larger movie—the title is Gerontophilia—so you can draw your own conclusions.