The New Pornographer
By Michael Martin
Toronto in springtime is a postcollegiate paradise. Pretty kids hang out in dark, pretty parks and yards, playing guitars or just lying in another's lap at 11:30 p.m. The wide streets are scrubbed and empty. The free hospitals sit quiet, their driveways floodlit and clear of ambulances; no one seems to be injured or ill. We're on our way to dinner when Bruce LaBruce points out that two 24-year-olds were shot and killed in an SUV in an affluent neighborhood the previous night, a crime almost unheard of in the gun-controlled city.
'The Toronto sensibility,' he says, 'is this conventional heterosexual bourgeois life; under that there are a lot of extreme perversions going on.'
It's the perversions that LaBruce thrives on. His first feature-length movie, 1991's No Skin Off My Ass, a black-and-white, overdubbed Warholian effort, featured a beautiful skinhead, an early ironic appreciation of the Carpenters, a punk cover of Olivia Newton-John's 'Have You Never Been Mellow,' an on-screen DIY nipple piercing, and full-frontal nudity. It's easy to see why the film stood out like a quasar in a pop-cultural era in which nothing about being gay was funny, explicit, or tender. (This was not long after a 1989 episode of thirtysomething reportedly lost the ABC network more than $1 million in advertising revenue for daring to show two shirtless men in bed together.)
'I think he's really what auteur means,' says director John Waters, whom LaBruce considers a guru when it comes to rules about taste. 'He writes, directs, and he's even in his movies. In the beginning he was his own star. His personal life leads.' Waters says he became a fan after LaBruce's 1993 film Super 8' because 'it was the funniest title I'd ever seen.'
LaBruce's work has not met with unqualified support. In the early '90s it wasn't yet trendy to include pornographic elements in indie movies. LaBruce's next film, 1996's Hustler White, pushed the envelope further. Depicting a romance between an urban anthropologist (LaBruce) and a hooker played by Tony Ward, Madonna's former boyfriend, the film featured Ward jerking off, leather sex, and amputee fetish sex. LaBruce broke bounds again in 1999's Skin Gang, in which photographer Terry Richardson and model Nikki Uberti cavorted among Nazi skinheads having hard-core sex. The Raspberry Reich (2004) mixed explicit gay and straight sex in a comedy about a band of male terrorists whose female leader forces them to have sex with one another, screaming slogans like 'Heterosexuality is the opiate of the masses!' All the films were roundly dismissed as porn or worse; none has enjoyed widespread release.
'For me, porn is a very open genre that can be used for a lot of different purposes,' says LaBruce. 'It has great propagandistic properties. It's so ubiquitous, but also unexplored for other ideological reasons. It's there to be exploited in a good way.'
LaBruce's latest film, Otto, continues his boundary-breaking tradition. It's about a fetching gay zombie wandering the streets of Berlin, haunted by memories of a recent breakup. Meanwhile, a filmmaker shoots a tale about a rampaging pack of gay undead. Inspired by conversations with kids on MySpace who told LaBruce they 'felt dead inside' as well as by LaBruce's then-boyfriend, who drew connections between his Shi'a Muslim religious beliefs and his obsession with death, the director says he wanted to make a zombie movie that responded to the homophobic and misogynist elements in current horror films. 'They really love to see women being tortured. They always have this bizarre scene where someone is confronted with this homosexual scenario being foisted on them,' says LaBruce. 'So I wanted to make a movie that drew an audience in on the premise of a zombie gore movie and ends up torturing them with a gay love story.'
In one scene Otto devours the entrails of roadkill. There's also one in which a zombie has sex with another through a gash in his abdomen -- David Cronenberg to the omega. Thirty people walked out of the screening at Sundance. 'They probably walked out, first, because it was gay,' says LaBruce, 'and second, people were looking for a film they could market, and as soon as they saw that scene they thought, There's no way we can ever sell this film. That's very Sundance.'
As much as it's calculated to shock, there's a tenderness and humor to Otto that is found in all of LaBruce's films: Whenever the symbolism threatens to weigh things down, wry dialogue or a sex scene deflates the tension.
'I find it bizarre that people think my imagery is so extreme when our culture is so fixated on death,' says LaBruce. 'Like these CSI shows on TV. They're all based on the most extreme, gruesome torture and gore imagery. I happened to click on one and it was about this girl who had been supposedly dead in an attic for a few days. The top of her head was blown off and there were maggots crawling out of her head. Well, they discovered she was still alive. It was crazy! So I think it's really disingenuous for people to say that my movies are that extreme. I think what they object to is that my work is a critique of a culture that's obsessed with death and violence, and I exaggerate it in unexpected contexts.'
What does he consider bad taste? 'I think this whole new cycle of horror film -- American torture horror films like Hostel and Saw -- are in bad taste. They're appealing to a kind of vulnerability in the American psyche. They're dealing with ideas of asymmetrical warfare, torture, exploiting the most basic kind of fears of people, but in a politically expedient way. I have nothing against the idea of exploitation cinema, but there's a difference between doing it in a way that liberates people's anxieties and doing it in a way that amplifies their fear. They have no sense of fun. In [John Waters's] Female Trouble everything Dawn Davenport does is done with such style and a great sense of humor -- there's something so liberating about it.'
'His work is certainly in taste -- meaning it has a taste to it; whether it's good or bad depends on your political and erotic leanings,' says Waters. 'Diana Vreeland said the only thing worse than having bad taste is having no taste at all.'