Bruce LaBruce: Rebellion in Five Parts
2015, No Tofu magazine
Notable films: No Skin Off my Ass (1991), Super 8 ½ (1994), Otto: or, Up with Dead People (2008), Gerontophilia (2013)
Rebellions comes in all shapes and sizes: a toddler protests eating mush, a punk piercingly preaches anarchy, a continent doesn’t rebel against 1930’s Germany.
You can find countless waves of electrons breaking free from the flights of their forefathers, leaving electric ripples of atomic change in their wake.
People often sympathize with rebellions. Think Star Wars, the most prominent mythology in our pop-unconscious, where our heroes fly the Rebel flag.
We instinctively root for underdogs because A New Hope gives us just that.
To some, Bruce La Bruce is a revolutionary; to others he is revolting. For almost three decades, he has dryly and diligently obliterated the status quo. In Raspberry Reich (2004), the forceful female declares “Bourgeois marriage is nothing more than licensed prostitution” --
Bruce: That was from a feminist perspective, of course, but yeah I’ve never been a big fan of assimilation especially when it results in the gay movement disassociating itself from all its problem children, all its sexual renegades, people that don’t fit the mold of the exemplary “well behaved homosexual.”
I’ve always said equal rights but I’m not so into the idea of everyone buying into conservative institutions like marriage and the military so thoroughly and heartily till they become homo-normative. It isn’t consistent of my philosophy of homosexuality.
My politics tend more towards the anarchist or socialist, certainly anti-capitalist…anarchists have more rules than anyone else. Anarchism doesn’t mean chaos or disillusion of civilized behavior. It’s actually more about consensus and egalitarianism. It’s just a myth about the anarchist movement, that it’s advocating chaos and no rule of law…it’s based on wealth sharing, decentralized government, and the common good.
I’m unfortunately the kind of person that hates any kind of social organization so the idea of going to meetings or participating directly in those sorts of movements has never really been my thing. I can only express those kinds of ideas through my art.
Everybody has a critical side, even the bubbly folk. After all, negativity and criticality can be good things, can be driving forces for positive change.
Bruce LaBruce is critical of society and he has the weight of knowing that through his films, he can change it.
In Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, when the people are beaten and starved beyond recognition, their cries become animalistic, are wiped of all things human.
Although humans have developed sophisticated ways of rebellion and protest, we don't always use them. Sometimes Jesus becomes a freedom fighter. Contrary to Dante, those residing in hell don’t always wax poetic.
Bruce, although he didn’t grow up in Dante’s hell, did come of age in the not-so-homosexually-friendly North America of the late 20th century. Raised in Ontario, he was taught that his sexual identity was abnormal. Society rejected Bruce, and thus Bruce rejected society. He has however found some solace in Canadian Literature. He loves to read and when I asked him if Canada had a mythos similar to the American Great Gatsby East Egg/ West Egg dichotomy, he responded that:
Canada doesn’t really have the frontier mythology. In fact a lot has been written about how Canadian literature is more about a journey inward, into the interior. The first explorers came down the St. Lawrence river from the East, which goes right into the interior of the country and a lot of the imagery in Canadian literature is about the Leviathan being swallowed, interiority, a remote kind of feeling.
Fittingly, in a sense, Bruce is inwardly focused:
I’m totally an introvert… I’m not an exhibitionist by nature. People never believe me when I tell them that. When I did perform on screen sexually, for me it was kind of terrifying. It wasn’t something that I got a thrill from or something that turned me on sexually. It was more like revealing something incredibly personal and it was mortifying and embarrassing. That’s why I think some people respond to my work. They relate to the idea of being awkward or uncomfortable about revealing sexual stuff. In the beginning, I had a rule that I wouldn’t expect anyone to do anything, on camera, that I wouldn’t do myself. If there ever was any question of exploiting someone sexually, or making them do something they were uncomfortable with, when you do it yourself it takes that aspect of it away.
Bruce is famous for being in his own porn-heavy films, most notably Skin Flick.
Skin Flick is the weird moment. It was the first time I ever worked with porn actors, and I made the film for a porn company. That was the moment where I went into kind of an extreme porn direction, but it always felt like I was an artist, like an interloper. Like an artist who was working within the conventions of porn. For me it was about playing with the conventions of porn and seeing how the whole process worked and inserting myself into the process but always with a jaundice eye, with ambivalence.
I’ve always said that pornographers are artists. Even if it’s bad porn, they’re still filmmakers, it’s still a creative process, they still have an aesthetic etc. so I’ve always expressed a certain amount of solidarity with porn directors in that regard. They’re also sexual renegades in a way.
Almost thirty years in and directing, financing, and writing continue to be healthy challenges.
On writing: It’s is always pretty torturous for me. I’m a slow writer. I edit as I go so when I do get to the end, it’s a pretty solid draft but it’s kind of a painful process. There’s a lot of procrastination and self-doubt. I am not an “easy writer.” … I can only write maybe 3-4 hours a day. I’ve been writing movie reviews for this website TalkhouseFilm where filmmakers write about other filmmakers work (I just wrote a review for them) and even doing something like that should take like two hours but it takes like two afternoons.
On directing: Shooting tends to be kind of like a barrage of information, questions. You have to make a thousand decisions a day. The first AD is like your savior. They make such a big difference. They’re there for you, to protect you. I tend to not be too imperious on set, aggressive, I’m more focused on getting the shot, so the energy of the 1st AD really matters. I’m less of a social person, actually more antisocial which isn’t that great of a quality to have as a film director…
For the longest time I never imagined that I could be a filmmaker because it seemed to technical (and expensive). Super 8 helped because it’s such a simple camera to use and then it’s just a matter of trial and error. I did drop out of film production in University and took film theory. I was intending to be more of a critic. Super 8 gives a basic film working knowledge to help get over the fear of it in a way. But now these cameras, the Alexus that we used for Gerontophilia, it’s like flying a plane.
On finance: The process never really changes for me. It always feels like going back to square one. Gerontophilia was my biggest budgeted film and it did really well in France, so that doesn’t hurt. It’s gotten to a point in independent film where it’s difficult to finance a film without a celebrity, a star, a well known entity. Getting that range of film $1-3million was really tough; people seem to be making either micro, super low budget film or they’re making much bigger studio type pictures.
On style: I tried to switch it up aesthetically from film to film. When I was looking at my films at the retrospective in New York, I found it interesting that each film has its different style. My whole filmmaking arc started on film, either super 8 or 16mm and then gradually I made the shift to digital (Tarantino writer quote). My fourth film Skin Flick is actually half digital, half Super 8 and they’re juxtaposed really starkly so the aesthetic is jarring. Raspberry Reich was digital but pre-HD so it’s kind of almost like low-grade video. Then with Gerontophilia it comes full circle because I had this really high end HD camera which allowed me to make the film look like 70’s film because of the technology 35mm.
Rebellion can be evolution - one stubborn & free-spirited gene shaves against the grain and ignites the genome. Sometimes, though, rebels just fight gravity, are but whimpers and mutters against dominant selection. Sometimes, things are so dominant that a rebellion becomes laughable, becomes a high pitched kamikaze pebble.
Bruce breaks rules in ways that are sometimes tough to love. There’s a staleness in Bruce’s protagonists and in the action: his movies were definitively campy well before Sharknado. His films are also filled with a cacophony of insults and stolen terms: they seem to think that if you shout “oppression, bourgeoisie, revolution, sexual liberation,” enough times it becomes an argument, and this can be rather taxing for the viewer. His movies, however, remain a puzzle piece that inspires some who inspire many. If it takes Bruce’s movies to make Kurt Cobain feel communicated with so that Cobain can better communicate who he doesn’t feel communicated with, well I guess don’t kill it. Whether you love or hate Bruce’s films, it doesn’t change the fact that they have affected people; in the nature of “all press is good press,” he stokes fires.
I asked Bruce how he’s doing and what he thinks of upcoming generations:
In the 80’s, when I was in the punk movement, we were really motivated by a kind of total reaction against Reaganism, conservativism, and it was very anti-corporate, anti-establishment. For me, the enemy has only gotten worse and stronger, so there’s more at stake, more to fight against and question and challenge than ever before. There’s even a new kind of sexual conservatism in the gay movement of slut shaming and all that kind of stuff which I never had to deal with.
The world seems pretty precarious at the moment and the austerity model is discouraging on so many levels because it’s really about certain strata of society consolidating their wealth of power. There seems to be huge imbalances societally and economically. That doesn’t make me feel particularly encouraged and it’s only going to get worse with what’s going on with the environment and natural resources. I was saying to somebody, if you try and look at eras in terms of the Zeitgeist, if you look at the 90’s when the Berlin wall came down and the iron curtain disappeared, it seemed like the Cold War was over and there was a lot of optimism; before the American military adventurism in the middle east, there wasn’t so much clash of civilizations. But 9/11 permanently and demonstrably shift everything geopolitically and I don’t think the world has really recovered. It’s precarious, if not predatory. But on the other hand I am looking forward to continuing “the struggle.”
It’s always just about questioning authority and I think there’s a newer generation that are more thoroughly assimilated into the corporate reality of the world, the corporate control of media, and a lot of people don’t even question anymore. In my generation, that was the first principle: to challenge corporate interests that are only based on materialism and the accumulation of wealth and status, to question authority. My generation, those things were automatically questioned. A lot of newer generations have been automatically assimilated into that system from the beginning. That’s a broad generalization but just as a default attitude towards institutions, towards the government, towards corporate entities, the military, police, things that we automatically resisted against. There seems to be a lot of control. It’s started to get a bit Orwellian lately in terms of a 1984 model in terms of thought police, thought control, language police, surveillance, lack of privacy.
But then again, it depends on your idea of progress.
Fran Lebowitz was explaining how ridiculous it is to say that this generation doesn’t have friends, don’t have social lives like we used to, that it’s because we have a completely different model. The definition of what a friend is different from 40 years ago. You can’t expect them to conform to outdated models. It‘s a whole new kind of frame of reference, a whole new relationship between technology. It seems to be leading to a sort of singularity, a merging between humanity and technology.
I try not to fall into the whole “oh things were so much better.” You live in the present, you have to adapt. I do a lot of yoga. I do yoga 4x a week. It helps me to calm down, to be more meditative and contemplative.
It stings that he sees us as complacent. We are the least voting generation and is this not a form of blasé, passive Jesus-like resistance? We are the most accepting of diversity ever, are inspired by and condone Macklemore’s “I can't change/Even if I tried” and Gaga’s proclamation that she was born this way. We are not anarchical, but, if I’ve learned anything from LaBruce, rebels come in all shapes and sizes.