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.�