Bruce LaBruce’s films are not for sensitive souls: the pornographic works explore the darkest depths of human existence, giving insight into the emotional world of the alleged outsiders of society.
To describe LaBruce as a man whose greatest obsession in recent times has been to combine yoga and sexual “peculiarity” already makes clear the fact that he is a man of opposing parts. The artist often toes the line of censorship with his films, photographs, installations and texts, which have been the object of police operations and confiscations. Born Justin Stewart on a farm in rural Canada, he came to Toronto to study; it was here that he had the freedom to explore his homosexuality for the first time.
As a reaction against the ultra-masculine punk circles in which he moved, LaBruce became the co-founder of the Queer-Core movement, which he developed primarily through collaboration with G. B. Jones; together they published the DIY zine, J.D.s. It was during this period, in the mid-Eighties, that he created his alter ego: extroverted, wild, insane, and what would become an expression of his true personality. A personality that is composed of intellectual and socially critical views, and also a fascination for explicitly pornographic content.
It is his numerous films, which have been shown at the Berlinale and Sundance Festivals, that particularly create a space in which society’s “outsiders” can find a home, whether they be gay zombies, prostitutes, or man-hating schoolgirls; sexual deviants; here, trash meets the meta, and the avant-garde is carried along more conventional narrative threads. As taboo as this constellation of themes is, Bruce LaBruce refines the content, time and time again holding a mirror up to his audience, in order to critique supposed liberalism, homosexual stereotypes and radical political correctness. The 53-year-old’s films are absurd declarations of love to the non-conformists, almost romantic.
Bruce LaBruce is the original voice of the underground.
When watching your movies, reading your texts or seeing your photographs and art installations, you wouldn’t think you grew up on a farm, in a rural part of Canada. It seems like an interesting contradiction.
I grew up in a farm and I was like a sensitive, kind of sissy redheaded boy in a very cruel world and environment. I witnessed a lot of slaughter, castration and crazy dramatic violence as a child. My father was a hunter as well as a trapper. It was this idea of nature as being very cruel and kind of savage. Other times, being very idyllic and kind of spiritual. Just the solitude of living at a farm and being close to nature and growing all around food. It’s kind of a clasp of my upbringing. I often use hyper-violent imagery in my films. It’s strange because I make porn as well and this too is disturbing for some people. There is no shortage of hyper-violence in the mainstream film industry, so I don’t think I am anymore blood-thirsty than anyone. I became relentlessly urban when I moved to Toronto because I became so frustrated living on a farm, so far from civilization. So that’s probably part of it. Also I was part of what they call the “velvet rage generation,” where the liberation movement was in full force. When I came to Toronto in the early Eighties, the AIDs wave happened, there was a lot of angst about that and anger, and not being able to express your sexuality at all. When I moved into the city, I felt like a lot of stuff had been bottled up and eventually found how to express it through my work in films and my writing.
You’d think that the punk scene would have been open-minded. But it wasn‘t like that at all, right?
My friends and I were even disillusioned with the gay movement in the 1980s because we thought it was kind of bourgeois. We were much more interested in punk, but then we encountered homophobia in this scene, it’s like the punk in America in the 1980s that is quite aggressive and quite macho. My reaction to these punks was that “if you are so radical, you should be radical in every way,” also with explicit, queer sex that we show in our films. It was a provocation and in my mind, pornography is always political because that’s the context I have put it when I started as a filmmaker.
But with pornography being available almost everywhere do you feel it is as political and radical as it used to be before?
I just made this short film, Refugees Welcome, in which a Syrian refugee has a very explicit sexual encounter with a Czech poet; it’s directly political. The subjects that I use are quite often directly political. So Skinflick and The Raspberry Reich I made as porn films. I made softcore versions and hardcore versions of them, but they both tackle very directly political subjects, usually involving radical politics, either on the left or the right. Quite often a critique of radical politics.
You mentioned that you were only able to live out your sexuality when you moved away from home. Your movies are often about outsiders, about being oppressed and then becoming radical. Do you think this is because you had to hide your sexuality and when you were able to live it out, it came out in full force?
I would say so. The other element is that quite often my films are about characters who aren’t necessarily identified as gay, but still have homosexual sex. It’s partly about that split in identity and your sexuality and you end up expressing it in a different way because you have no choice. But it’s also against the idea of identity politics and the self-consciousness of this kind of constructed identity. I am a gay person, so I have to conform to certain conventions. My films are always challenging conventions, both the sexual conventions and the conventions of filmmaking themselves. My films are always kind of deconstructive and there are often films within the film and devices that distance from what is being represented, distance the audience from what they’re seeing or make them self-conscious or program their relationship to the film. It’s distancing techniques that show certain ambivalences I have, from both being gay and to my own sexuality.
Most of the characters in your films are driven by different fetishes, which is a very explicit way of owning your sexuality.
Fetish is a big motif that runs through all my photographs and films. I studied a lot of Freud when I was in university. But the actual definition of fetish is just anything that doesn’t directly contribute to the actual act of procreative sex. So, by that definition, even a kiss is a fetish because you can’t reproduce that kiss. By that definition, it’s very broad, but also for me, fetish is a kind of religion. The fetish is so revered that it’s kind of an extreme appreciation of this revered object. So that’s why I am always interested in this intersection between sexual and religious feeling. But getting back to the outsider thing as well, it’s people who are considered sick or perverted or mentally imbalanced or whatever. I try to normalize that, or not normalize because they may be outsiders, but to make it clear that it’s still kind of a romantic sensibility and it doesn’t mean that they’re monsters. It just means that they have this spiritual dimension. Which is worse than organized religion that people practice by road instead of spiritual feelings.
Would you like to live in the movies or the art that you’re creating?
Well, my films are quite often dystopic, but I mean we already live in quite a major dystopia at the moment. So it might be a welcome relief. I guess, they’re fantasy worlds, but there is always ambivalence towards them. ‘The Misandrists’ was an amazing exercise for me because I created this very all-female environment and worked with women mostly, I usually deal with these hyper-masculine worlds. In a few of my films, there have been absolutely no female characters at all like Hustler White and L.A. Zombie because this idea of masculine delusion of a totally male world where only homosexuality exists – it’s almost like the opposite of the lesbian separatism that I show in The Misandrists. People go to extremes politically to express their sexual politics. So, in The Misandrists, it was the opposite of these male films. It was like creating and inhabiting a very forward world.
It sometimes feels as if society reacts differently when it comes to male versus female homosexuality.
It’s really interesting. I have a bunch of theories about it. There seems to be more about a fluidity to female sexuality in terms of bisexuality for whatever reason. Whether it’s cultural or natural. With men, a lot of men reject homosexuality. They have homosexual panic, they reject their bisexual potential in an almost violent way. They’re almost paranoid about it which doesn’t seem the case with lesbians. It’s also the lesbian politics that are obviously feminist, that’s why I called the film The Misandrists. There is the stereotype that lesbians hate men, but I mean in some ways, you can’t blame that. I used to hang out with a lot of separatist lesbians that’s maybe why I made the film. I was always a feminist, one of those annoying male feminists from the beginning. In university I took the course ‘Psychoanalysis and Feminism’, a grad school course, and I was the only male in the class. Then I went to San Francisco in the Eighties and hung out with very hardcore lesbians who had these almost separatist gatherings, but they would allow a few ‘faggots’ to come along, and I was one of the chosen few. I was very interested in that kind of extreme. And I had a soft spot for separatist lesbians because I understand that kind of impulse, too. To take it to that level, to recognize the weight of history, in terms of misogyny and the treat of women and that it is a logical response to history. I think that’s the difference. It’s tied up with this kind of historical feminist consciousness where men are still men. And gay men are still men. In fact, we call it the gay patriarchy sometimes. The gay movement is quite often controlled and run by middle-class white gay men. The narrative is controlled by males.
I noticed that you’re using mostly negatively connoted words like ‘faggot’ and ‘sissy’ quite often.
Yes, or even misandrists, you’re not supposed to use the term ‘manhater’ for lesbians. In some ways, it’s just as simple as demystifying a word and obviously words have consequences and they have power. But it makes sense to me to take power and control of these words yourself rather than allow other people to use it negatively against you. It’s just inhabiting words in a way that empowers you. And it’s particularly the fact against liberals because liberals quite often want to police words and this kind of ultra political correctness. Policing is very dangerous, it makes schisms that are counter-productive because then the left is just constantly concentrating on those rather than the real enemies and the real problem.
The way you’re reflecting things and using metaphorical elements shows a very intellectual background – which makes the combination with the rather trashy visuals even more interesting.
The trash is the antidote to the intellectual side. I started as an academic, I thought I would become a film critic. And then I was totally disillusioned with academia and I rejected this as a career, so I became a filmmaker. But obviously, my films still have academic elements in them. And I think that the B-movie stuff is to make it less serious and more fun and more visceral, more than intellectual. From the guts. With Erika’s Brain for example, in a way it’s like a dissertation on the relationship between the radical left and the radical right in Germany, but it’s done in a total B-movie style. Partly because the original stories about Erika and the Nazi leaders helped me. Those are stories that are like B-movies in real life already. I didn’t even have to push them too far. The stolen brains, bodies without brains were built into the original stories. It’s a shame that we don’t have B-movies like we had in the Seventies because B-movies were a way for culture to exorcise demons and cope with very horrendous things that were going on in the world politically or during the Vietnam war; that’s when B-movies were a direct response to what was going on in Vietnam. B-movies were like a catharsis for some people.
How did your parents react when you started your hyper-sexual work?
I mean it’s kind of a disconnect. My parents are very straightforward, simple people in the best sense of it. They both ‘only’ have public school and grade school education, but they are remarkably liberal. But they’re not on the Internet, they are so far removed from the references that I make, especially in terms of avant-garde filmmaking and pornography – they just know that I am a filmmaker and an artist. And they know that if they would watch my movies, they would be shocked. I am very close to them, but they are not really engaged with my work. They are also celebrating their 60th anniversary, a bit different from my reality…