Toronto in springtime is a postcollegiate paradise. Pretty kids hang out in dark, pretty parks and yards, playing guitars or just lying in anothers 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. Were 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.
Its the perversions that LaBruce thrives on. His first feature-length movie, 1991s 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-Johns Have You Never Been Mellow, an on-screen DIY nipple piercing, and full-frontal nudity. Its 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 hes really what auteur means, says director John Waters, whom LaBruce considers a guru when it comes to rules about taste. He writes, directs, and hes even in his movies. In the beginning he was his own star. His personal life leads. Waters says he became a fan after LaBruces 1993 film Super 8 because it was the funniest title Id ever seen.
LaBruces work has not met with unqualified support. In the early 90s it wasnt yet trendy to include pornographic elements in indie movies. LaBruces next film, 1996s Hustler White, pushed the envelope further. Depicting a romance between an urban anthropologist (LaBruce) and a hooker played by Tony Ward, Madonnas former boyfriend, the film featured Ward jerking off, leather sex, and amputee fetish sex. LaBruce broke bounds again in 1999s 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. Its so ubiquitous, but also unexplored for other ideological reasons. Its there to be exploited in a good way.
LaBruces latest film, Otto, continues his boundary-breaking tradition. Its 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 LaBruces then-boyfriend, who drew connections between his Shia 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. Theres 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, Theres no way we can ever sell this film. Thats very Sundance.
As much as its calculated to shock, theres a tenderness and humor to Otto that is found in all of LaBruces 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. Theyre 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 its 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 thats 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. Theyre appealing to a kind of vulnerability in the American psyche. Theyre 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 theres a difference between doing it in a way that liberates peoples anxieties and doing it in a way that amplifies their fear. They have no sense of fun. In [John Waterss] Female Trouble everything Dawn Davenport does is done with such style and a great sense of humor -- theres something so liberating about it.
His work is certainly in taste -- meaning it has a taste to it; whether its 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.
Bruce LaBruce was born Bryan Bruce on a farm 150 miles northwest of Toronto, the third of six children born to a hunter-trapper and his wife. An older brother died before he was born. My parents always said I was the reincarnation of the dead brother, which freaked me out, he says.
LaBruce knew he was gay always and grew up watching late-night Canadian TV, which was explicit by modern standards. He remembers a formative film starring Genevive Bujold as a governess who presides over the accidental death of her teenage charge, then sets herself on fire in a public park. (That scene was a pivotal inspiration for Otto.)
He has a good relationship with his parents, but they know nothing about his work other than the fact that they are not allowed to see it. LaBruce has brought his partner home to meet them, and one Christmas brought Gus Van Sant and his boyfriend over for a visit.
My mother referred to them as the boys, he says. Its weird, unless youre literally lying in the middle of the living room being fucked up the ass in front of your family, they will not -- if they can -- acknowledge your gayness. Theres this veil of denial that goes incredibly deep.
LaBruce escaped to Torontos York University, a leftist hot spot, right after high school to study film. He didnt lose his virginity until age 22 and didnt have his first serious boyfriend until he was 30. Ive always been a slow learner, he says. Always been four to five years behind everyone else. Attracted to the punk movement, where numerous artists were using Super 8 film -- and where male punks couldnt seem to handle gays or homoerotic imagery -- he was motivated to begin making zines and Super 8 films that were explicitly gay. Inspired by the Warhol Factory member Rod La Rod, he adopted the name Bruce LaBruce after a friend started referring to him as La Bruce -- the diva.
He was alienated by the gay scene early on. I used to go to gay bars in the late 80s and wear, like, a swastika earring and a Mohawk, which is, yes, provocative, he says. Id get thrown out, and there would be homophobic frat boys outside waiting to beat me up. I was always torn between the two subcultures and accepted by neither. It taught me to be autonomous.
LaBruce doesnt like gay films because, he says, theyre made by people who arent that interested in cinema, who are interested in making some point about homosexuality, which is precisely the criticism thats often lobbed at his films: that theyre heavily ideological. They are, LaBruce says, but theyre cinematic as well. Its about expressing political and ideological points cinematically. Today, he is supported by grants from the Canadian government and a few patrons.
He is not a fan of gay marriage, although he is himself married: His boyfriend is Cuban and needs immigration sponsorship. Im not a fan of the institution of marriage, gay or straight. I think its the ultimate sort of conservative institution and its designed to control people and control their sexuality. Its like a megacorporation.
Does the world still need a Bruce LaBruce? All the more reason to keep pushing, he says. You can still be iconoclastic. I think the problem of the world in general right now is capitulation. Everyone is so willing to capitulate to the consensual reality in terms of everything, in terms of bands now who feel that they have to play the corporate game or filmmakers feeling they have to make some commercial or independent film. The consolidation and control of corporate media makes people feel like theyre helpless to do anything but play along. Everyones a player
now. But Ive never really lived in the practical world.
Bruce is incredibly original, says Waters. No one copies him. Hes created his own genre. People can say Bruce LaBruceish. Think Marat/Sade -- an entire fetish named after a person. Hes on his way to that. In the future, getting Bruced will mean sex with a skinhead. Thats the best thing you can be. If your name becomes a sex act -- thats better than filmmaking."