Bruce LaBruce is a filmmaker, an artist, a self-professed “reluctant pornographer,” and one of the progenitors of the enigmatic, self-marginalizing queercore movement. His underground Super 8 films of the 1980s and 90’s (including his debut feature, entitled Skin Off My Ass, about a hairdresser obsessed with a skinhead – which Kurt Cobain has cited as his favorite film) have made LaBruce an icon of gay cinema. His more recent films experiment with the same extreme and sometimes profoundly shocking themes: Otto; Or Up With Dead People is a porno-zombie flick with a political twist, while L.A. Zombie stars French porn star François Sagat as a schizophrenic homeless zombie (or so he thinks) roaming the streets of Los Angeles bringing back the dead by having sex with men. But even if LaBruce’s films are wrought with searing homoeroticism and overwhelming violence, underneath the blood-soaked sheets and layers of half-rotting flesh, LaBruce proves himself to be one of the greatest offbeat auteurs and romantics of the last two decades. There is a strange and wonderful sense of tranquility in the orgiastic tableau vivants of amputees and naked, masked men in rooms splattered with so much blood one would think a massacre had occurred within them. It’s not so much a glorification of violence but a visceral, analytical exploration of the darkest depths of the human psyche. LaBruce, who grew up in the 60’s on a small farm outside of Ottawa with its innate, paradoxical backdrop of slaughter and serenity, has come to view the entire fabric of life as a delicate, barefoot balancing act on the edge of a razor blade – and, in his view, our instinctive bloodlust is just as great as our ability to love. It would be remiss not to mention that many disagree with this point of view – LaBruce enjoys pushing boundaries. Entire countries have banned his films, and once an entire shipment of his Polaroids were confiscated and labeled “obscene” by Canadian customs. Obscenity, LaBruce’s latest exhibition in Spain, included sexually provocative religious imagery, such as a priest’s face covered in semen, and caused a near-riot among Catholics and conservatives who declared the show to be blasphemous, sacrilegious and depraved. What we mustn’t forget, though, is that some of the greatest art of our time has stemmed from a staunch refusal to abide by the rules. By that definition, all artists are outlaws in their own right – making Bruce LaBruce an outlaw amongst outlaws of the highest regard.
Firstly, you grew up in rural Canada in the 70s – what was that like? Can you always remember wanting to be an artist?
Well, I grew up on a farm, and sometimes I call it the “cruel farm,” because there was a lot of slaughter and castration going on. On a daily basis, so I’d routinely see animals being – we slaughtered our own animals and castrated our own pigs. You know, my father and grandfather would drown the kittens and all that stuff – so you know there was a lot going on that was kind of horrific, but on the other hand it was very idyllic too – it was a small two-hundred-acre farm. As a kid it seemed huge . It was really beautiful and we had our own vegetable gardens and fruit trees.
You just mentioned drowning kittens?
Yeah. Well, actually we had a little dog that was – I mean, my father was a hunter and a trapper as well, he was kind of a Daniel Boone type – and I would never kill anything myself, but I would go with him and watch him shoot and trap animals. Coon hunting was always really cool in the fall, because you would run through these cornfields at night with the hounds and the flashlights – so we had this little dog when I was like two or three years old that was named Tippy that was more like a pet, because the hound dogs were strictly for hunting, and they were kind of mean – it was okay, but they were a bit scary – and then the little dog [Tippy] was jealous of me, because – I guess this is the way the story goes – it was biting me, so my father took it out behind the barn and shot it.
That’s my favorite childhood story.
So, those kind of stories, or those kinds of memories had a profound effect on your art? Yeah, I would say so. Because I was always a little sissy. My parents were amazing people – really gentle people – even in this harsh environment. And they are still married after 57 years or something and still living on the same farm, so when I go up there it all comes flooding back. But yeah, I think my work expresses some of that violence and also it was kind of – I don’t know – it was a time where the world wasn’t so global – so it was very isolated and you kind of were able to live your life without processing so much negativity and everything – so it was a little enclave of sanity in a way.
So, were you creative as a kid? Did you know you wanted to become an artist? A creator? Well, the weird thing is I never took art classes so much – I mean I did in public school, in high school – and I was always more cinema oriented, but I did take theater classes in high school. So, yes, I always had creative impulses from a very young age, and I always knew I was gay from the beginning as well.
And your parents were pretty supportive? They are – they obviously don’t like my work and really haven’t investigated it much. But they are also very rural. I guess they’re more hooked in now than they used to be. My mother got her first email account when she was like 75 years old.
Amazing. I can remember the first text I got from my mom.
Mine aren’t that advanced.
So where did the name Bruce LaBruce come from and when did you become Bruce LaBruce?
Well, I mean, should I talk about this? I guess I talk about this sometimes. My real last name is Bruce and I was born in Bruce Township, which is in Bruce County, and I worked at the Bruce Nuclear Power Development Station as a summer student, and it’s on the Bruce Peninsula and it’s near the Bruce Trail….so, in other words, it’s all about Bruce, you know? It’s Scottish – I’m almost directly descended from Robert the Bruce, the king of Scotland – it’s obvious that the Scottish lineage is really strong. My friend Kathleen Maitland Carter - when we started going to university she started calling me LaBruce, because I was always acting grand.
In the eighties you co-published a zine called J.D.s, which was one of the main voices of the queercore movement - can you explain what queercore is? And if Johnny and Joey Ramone were the fathers of punk, would you consider yourself the father of queercore?
I mean I did J.D.s – my co-editor was G.B. Jones and my friend Kevin Hegge is currently doing – she [G.B. Jones] was in a band called Fifth Column – so Kevin is doing a documentary on Fifth Column which I’m interviewed in, but they sometimes called them them “the grandmothers of the riot girls.” But there were other people doing similar things at the same time – that’s how I met Vaginal Davis who was doing a fanzine called “Fertile Latoya Jackson” and there was kind of a – it was sort of a spontaneous movement that was an offshoot of punk, because there were obviously a lot of people at that time who were into punk and the punk aesthetic, but with the advent of hardcore and the mosh-pits it had gotten kind of macho and there was some homophobia – also with the intersection of the skinhead movement with the punk movement – so there was some of us that really wanted to adamantly be more sexually revolutionary, so we started these fanzines. It was a historical moment in a way.
So what did J.D.s stand for?
Juvenile delinquents was the main thing, but we always liked other J.D.s - like James Dean, Jack Daniels, not Judy Dench – Joe Dallesandro….I can’t remember them all….
This is kind of a simple question, but it’s open for elaboration. Who or what inspires you?
Well, it’s always been a juxtaposition of opposing forces, like classical Hollywood versus punk – two things that are seemingly incompatible. Lately, with YouTube, I’ve just been watching so many Hollywood movies, mostly from the 30’s and 40’s that I’ve always heard about or read about that I’ve never had access to, and now I’m just kind of obsessed with them – the sophistication of them and the writing and the performers and the stars and the direction – I mean, it’s light years ahead of what’s going on now in Hollywood, which doesn’t interest me at all. But I’m totally into revolutionary youth culture as well – so I’m totally inspired by the Arab Spring and that kind of stuff that’s going on. In terms of artists, new kids like… Ryan Trecartin is pretty amazing - I like his surrealist vibe.
So, what was the catalyst for you to start making movies?
Well, strangely enough, like I said, my parents were really simple farm folks, but they were totally smart and totally in tune with Hollywood cinema, so they would take all us kids to the movies. So I was really interested at a really young age. When it was time to go to university I went into film school and I actually planned on being a critic. I was more into theory – I took some production courses – but I intended on being more of an academic or a critic and then it was only after I graduated that I got into making Super 8 films and art films.
And your work focuses on a lot of the gay culture, but also amputees, hustlers, the transgender, zombies, etcetera - Do you think you intentionally set out to de-marginalize the marginalized, and why do you think we put everything in categories and subcategories in the first place?
Well, I mean, for me, it’s a question of your philosophy of homosexuality, and mine is more along the lines that the difference and the idea of being an outsider and being a misfit – or even a criminal – has always been my sort of romance about homosexuality, which doesn’t really translate so much in the current zeitgeist, because it’s all legitimization and domestication, which is fine, because there always have to be people who go against the grain, and just as a fairy growing up in a very harsh environment I learned to use my difference as a weapon, or live by my wits, and maybe I have a bit of a combative personality in that regard. And you know I made a short film recently in Berlin that will be premiering at the porn film festival at the end of October, which is a tranny porn that has two female-to-male transsexuals, so I think transsexuals, transgendered people are really at the vanguard of the gay movement, because they’re the ones that have to put up with the brunt of a lot of the judgment and fear and misconceptions about gender and they are also redefining gender – which is really a lot more interesting than the gay marriage movement which seems to be reinforcing old gender stereotypes.
Yeah, androgyny is really interesting right now. I see a lot of people trying to explore it in a way.
Or live it. It’s tricky because androgyny can be aesthetically challenging, but when people make it work – you can tell when someone really tries to make a leap forward and take it in a direction that is really avant-garde or revolutionary somehow.
So, what do you say when you read reviews of your work – I mean what do you say to yourself when people just don’t get it?
Well, I mean you have to acknowledge that a lot of people just aren’t that into you. You can’t kill yourself over that. Everyone can’t please everyone, but one the other hand, because of the nature of my work, people have a kneejerk response to it: a lot of people turn it off after the first five minutes or they look at the surface of what’s going on and they don’t really bother to explore the work. I think with my films, you really have to also look at the whole body of work, because I’m super referential, not only to other people’s work, but also to my own work and so…For example, I made two films that are companion pieces for each other, Skin Flick and The Raspberry Reich; one is about the extreme right wing and one is about the extreme left wing – so in a way you have to look at them both to really understand what I’m getting at, and you can even say that Hustler White and L.A. Zombie are kind of both investigations of Los Angeles and the street world; street people, made fifteen years apart – they kind of together give a really, what I consider, it’s a portrait of LA that’s rarely shown – the underworld street reality that’s rarely shown in movies. So, yeah, I would say don’t judge a book by its cover.
So, throughout the last few centuries there have been a few archetypes of homoerotic culture who created entire worlds behind their personalities - off the top of my head I can name Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, and Andy Warhol - do you think you fall into that vein?
Well, that’s August company. I do like to think that I work in a tradition of the gay avant-garde. The people you mentioned, or Kenneth Anger and some of the great porn directors like Fred Halsted and Peter Berlin, Jack Smith, all these people are very specifically dealing with the history of homosexual aestheticism and a very specific kind of avant-garde expression that has to do with the position of the homosexual in culture and what that means historically, the development of aesthetics, the aesthetic dimension – which homosexuals have always been the catalyst for all aesthetic movements - for many aesthetic movements - so for me it’s a really significant thread to continue. That’s why I find assimilation so disconcerting in a way, because the position of the homosexual as an outsider or as someone who can observe culture at a distance that, in some ways, gives them this opportunity to be avant-garde or to critique or comment on mainstream culture.
You wrote a memoir called The Reluctant Pornographer – what does pornography mean to you?
Well, lately I’ve been saying, which has sort of gotten me in trouble, because lately I’ve been calling myself a pornographer and saying I express solidarity with pornographers – that all pornography is art, really, because it’s a form of creative expression, it’s the mediation of reality, it’s made by people who use the tools of cinema, or making art, so why shouldn’t it be considered art as well? There’s good art and there’s bad art and there’s good pornography and there’s bad pornography, but it’s all sort of an artistic expression as far as I’m concerned.
How important is sexuality in art, or expressing sexuality through art?
For me personally, sex has always been an engine behind my work, both in terms of representing and in terms of making it, on a personal level, but I think the sexual and the creative drives are very much linked, but on the other hand I know people who are relatively, or fairly, or completely asexual who have very strong artistic drives, so I don’t think that’s necessarily the case for everyone. Certainly the gay movement was always based on that kind of sexual engine as well, which for me is yet another reason why the assimilation movement, which tends to be more domesticated and kind of based on ideals of monogamy borrowed from straight culture - it kind of dissipates the energy of the gay movement in my opinion. Yeah, sex is so ubiquitous in pop culture and advertising that it’s kind of hard to ignore it as an artist.
Do you think it’s more ubiquitous now than it has been?
Well, I think that what’s been happening in the last ten to fifteen years is that violence supplanted sex as the main driving force of popular fetish and popular advertising and certainly the media sells violence and death in a very titillating kind of sexualized way - which is kind of creepy.
Yeah, especially because it’s so blatant.
It’s blatant and it’s… in a way I don’t even know how conscious it is – you could talk about Naomi Kline’s Disaster Capitalism and how it’s a way the media keeps everyone frightened - inundated with terrorism and images of violence and that I think just pop culture and advertising almost unconsciously feed on that fear and turn it into capital.
Which is disturbing. In your work you deal with violence in a much more visceral way that sort of explores it in a much more human way, not for gain.
My argument is that my work isn’t corporate by any stretch of the imagination, for example, which makes a big difference, when you have a film like Final Destination in Imax 3D - and it’s this grotesque, brutal violence that is so magnified – I find that personally not entertaining. But I make L.A. Zombie for example - which is a micro-budget film with really, almost crude special effects that were all done in front of the camera – no special effects stuff – it’s more in the tradition of B movies where the fun is creating – it’s more like being very playful, and I think that has a different effect and your motivation isn’t quite so sinister somehow, and also my work tends to be a critique of popular culture or popular violence, so I always have a distance from the violence that I’m presenting.
And there always tends to be a tender, romantic notion behind it - hidden meanings come through.
Sure, and when I show extreme fetishes, for example, it’s always done in a romantic way - whether it’s the tone of the way it’s shot or the music and the characters who have these extreme fetishes are portrayed as kind of sweet or emotional, which is not how it’s usually done in these very violent, say, video games.
Yeah. So underneath all that, underneath all the blood and guts, would you consider yourself a romantic?
Oh absolutely, yes. I have always had a very strong romantic drive. I’ve always had this idea of classical Hollywood - certainly not having anything to do with the new “rom-com” mentality, where it’s sort of super sentimental and manipulative.
So, what’s next? What are you working on now?
I spent a year on the road with L.A. Zombie and then there’s also this documentary that someone made about me called The Advocate for Fagdom - a Parisian filmmaker named Angélique Bosio made this documentary over the past couple of years so I’ve been traveling a bit with it as well and with her - and I’ve been working a lot, I’ve directed a couple of TV shows for Arte, TV episodes of a documentary series called Into The Night, and I also directed my first opera in Berlin [last] March, an adaptation of Arnold Shunberg’s Pierrot Lunier, so now after all that I am trying to make another movie. I have three scripts in various stages of development attached to different producers - so that’s my new primary goal, is to get one shot by next year.
Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper for Autre Issue 2 (2012). Stay tuned for Bruce La Bruce's retrospective of films on view at MoMA in New York from April 23 to May 2.