By Mónica Delgado & José Sarmiento-Hinojosa
Filmmaker Bruce LaBruce (Ontario, 1964) was in Lima as a stellar guest of the 16th edition of OutfestPerú, the Gay, Lesbian, Trans, Bi Film Festival that takes place every year. It was a fantastic opportunity to explore his most recent work and to discuss the context of underground and queer productions in times of political correctness.
LaBruce is not only a provocative filmmaker, but also a total author of homocore, gay and queercore softcore, photographer, visual artist and writer, who has patented a universe without limits in order to crack the comfort zones of the LGTBI community itself. He has directed more than thirty works, between long and short, where he has explored several sub-genres, such as zombie films, thriller or B-series, all with pastiche marks and a lot of black humor. Works such as No Skin Off My Ass (1993), Hustler White (1996), The Raspberry Reich (2004) and It is Not The Pornographer That Is Perverse (2018) are part of a unique universe that questions, in every sense, the political and social order.
Desistfilm talked with him about his way of directing, the disadvantages of making a different and provocative cinema, his work with actors, Super8 cinema and about the current post-“Me Too” context and the censorship attacks on his cinema.
Desistfilm: Super8 has a particular texture, really linked to the underground. We were wondering how was this transition for you, from Super8 to the time you started working on digital…
Bruce LaBruce: Yeah, it’s kind of a complicated thing, because I went to film school, at university, in the eighties, and we studied Super8, it was part of the production curriculum. So I did one year photography and the second year was Super8, and that was my first introduction to it. That was pre-digital; it really was the most accessible and the cheapest way to make films. And then, I never intended on being a filmmaker, I was going to be a critic, or an academic, but I couldn’t go in third year in production, even though they wanted me to, because I couldn’t afford it, because it was 16mm and you had to pay for your own films, buy your own film stock, etc. And also I didn’t think I could figure out how to do it, because 16mm seemed really complicated to me.
Super8 is so easy, that’s what I like about it, and it’s very democratic. It’s like phones nowadays, everyone can use them. The editing was very simple, my first feature, I shot in Super8, edited it on a tiny little editor. Just did it by myself. Post dubbed the soundtrack and everything. But my thing is kind of interesting, because I started pre-digital, pre-internet, pre-social media. We did fanzines, which were very easy and cheap to make, you know, at the Xerox store. We made our Super8 experimental films which also were made with cheap, easy technology. It was a real DIY kind of thing, which is also compatible with its aesthetic, its aesthetic is kind of a little dirty, a little grainy, and it’s a very specific look. I shot it all in black and white, beautiful black and white.
So my early aesthetics were all film, and even my second film I shot on 16mm; it was a great leap for me to jump to 16mm, I did it all in film and I even edited it with an editor, on film, we had the strips of film and the flatbed and all that stuff. So I really feel like I learned the craft on film first, and then, even with Hustler White, my third film, we shot in color 16mm but it had a very early digital editing, a system called d-vision. It’s kind of mind boggling, because there was hardly any memory back then so you could barely fit all the material onto the drive. So you couldn’t cross-reference anything because you ended up back on film, you couldn’t re-use an image. You had to tag each of these files by eye. It was very crude and very tenuous as well, because it would crash all the time.
Then, I got into very early digital technology, pre-hd. Skin Flick was half shot on Super8 again and half on digital, it wasn’t even HD. And then Raspberry Reich was in HD. I really resisted the aesthetics of digital, because film, either Super8 and 16mm is all about the texture, and the grain, and the light, and digital was so flat, to me it looked cheap. I hated those films for a long time because I really didn’t appreciate the aesthetic. Now looking back at them they seem kind of cool and exotic because it was so early, and so primitive. But then I’ve gone on to making films with HD cameras, very high-end kind of cameras, and now Alexa and so on. But even my film Gerontophilia, even though it was shot on HD Alexa, I tried to make it look like a 70’s 35mm film, which we did using 70’s lenses, prime lenses. It’s not just about doing it in post, it’s actually using these old lenses, even the lights that we used were from the 70’s, they have a different temperature, different quality.
Desistfilm: We’re under the impression that all the interviews around your films are centered in queer stuff and LGTBQ topics and not really centered in your cinema. Have you felt something similar, or have the same impression?
Bruce LaBruce: Not really, I have both. My films haven’t fit easily into the gay genre. I often make films about homosexual characters that are not genre identified, so like, male prostitutes, hustlers, Nazi skinheads; they’re fucking each other but they don’t identify as gay. Or like, even radical left wing revolutionaries who are only having political sex, they’re having sex with each other because they think it’s part of the revolution. So they’re not typical gay characters and they’re quite often like very, you know, Nazi Skinheads are really horrifying. But it’s a kind of critique of gay culture, because I hate these kind of gay or lesbian films they make, I call them “gay cheerleading films”: they’re there to promote a good idea of gay. Those are my worst nightmare! I love evil gays in cinema.
Vito Russo wrote this book “The Celluloid Closet” where he critiques and dismisses all this great Hollywood films that have evil characters in them because he says they’re “bad representations”. Like The Fox, with Sandy Dennis, directed by Mark Rydell, this is a fantastic film about two lesbians that live in the woods, -in fact, my new film totally references this- and then this straight guy comes and steals one of them away, and then the other one ends up having a tree fall on her at the end and dies –Sandy Dennis-. I mean, he said “oh, lesbians always have to die at the end of the picture”. Well, of course they do! Because they are totally ostracized from society! Cinema is not only post-scripted, it’s pre-scripted, it describes what culture is like: homophobia exists. And the film, when she dies, and when the straight guy steals the other lesbian away, it’s told like a total horror trope. This guy is supposed to be “the fox”, he’s evil and sneaky, so the end of the film is totally horrifying. To dismiss that film as lesbo-phobic is preposterous. It’s based in a D.H. Lawrence story, and it was amazing that D.H. Lawrence wrote it in the early 1900’s about lesbians, and they were very positively portrayed. So, all that mentality, I don’t get at all.
However, my films are also appreciated in cinematic terms, I’m considered an auteur, the themes and motifs in my films are constantly discussed, regurgitated and reconfigured. For me to write is an unconscious kind of process, but I write my own films, mise-en-scène and decoupage is very important for me. And you know, I do get some amount of appreciation from cinephiles.
Desistfilm: Before you were talking about how do you enjoy, as a cinephile, things like the French New Wave, Chabrol, and people like Robert Altman…
Bruce LaBruce: Fassbinder, Pasolini…
Desistfilm: Yes. We ask this because one tends to think that your films are closer to, for example, the New York Underground, with people like Nick Zedd or Richard Kern or others like Vivienne Dick. How do you transform these cinephile references of yours to your own style?
Bruce LaBruce: Well, all of those 70’s films were very formative for me, because, as a teenager, that was my introduction to cinema. My first feature film, No Skin of My Ass, it’s a remake of Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, which I saw on TV when I was a kid.
I also went through a total transformation, because I was very political correct when I came out of the academic background, kind of Marxist-feminist background where I was afraid to even show female sexuality on film, because I thought I didn’t have the right to do that. I had very kind of rigid ideas about how gays should be represented and all that kind of stuff. I definitely had certain limitations about what I could or could not represent. And then, peers, and artist friends just had an intervention with me and said: “you can’t do art like that, you can’t do art that is entrenched ideologically or it’s following the party line. You’re limiting yourself, your imagination and what you can represent”.
I was critical of the Cinema of Transgression, you know, Lydia Lunch being fucked by a guy and all that… I was like “oh, she’s not really a feminist”. Now I think she’s a total sex goddess, and a great political conqueror. I had to go through my de-programming as well.
Anyway, I was influenced in part, by Altman, because that film, even though it wasn’t pornographic, it was about this woman who keeps a young man locked in her bedroom, and she wants him to be her sex toy. I was really young, maybe 10 years old, and thinking “wow, this must be how pornography is” (laughs). So I remade it, but I queered it, I ended up meeting the novelist, Peter Miles, who was gay. His novel is about an older woman and a young male prostitute, but it’s obviously a gay story. I changed it to me playing the hairdresser, with a neo-Nazi skinhead. It was queering Altman’s version, even if I loved the film. And it’s also the fact that I made it without any thought about copyright or anything. I queered it and had an avant-garde approach to it.
Peter Miles, he came to an screening in Los Angeles, and I was afraid he was going to say “how dare you do this to my book!” and he went “I love your version so much better than Altman’s” (laughs) “You got it right”.
And of course the whole Warhol influence was huge on me. Before it became super trendy, now everyone’s on all the minutia of Warhol, legends and superstars, and so on. Nobody had even seen his films, in the eighties I was totally influenced by Warhol, I saw his films in a theater in Toronto, that in the time we called “The Funnel”, which was playing Warhol and other films. Warhol was travelling in the eighties with three films: Chelsea Girls, The Loves of Ondine and Vinyl. My friend interviewed him for the art school newspaper, and he was amazing. We were totally into his filmmaking and aesthetics, and also this idea of The Factory. That was a great influence. I kind of transformed myself into this kind of Warholian character.
And then Super8½! I mean, not only is a remake of 8 ½ but it’s also totally influenced by Frank Perry, who’s one of my favorite directors of all-time (he directed Diary of a Mad Housewife, Last Summer, The Swimmer, David and Lisa and Play it as it Lays with Tuesday Weld). Also “White” was a remake, a weird mash-up of Sunset Blvd., What Happened to Baby Jane? and Warhol’s Flesh. I was mixing all these unexpected genres; I was this really old-school gay queen, who loved classical, Hollywood movies. I was also into European art flicks as a cinephile, and there was also punk, I was really into punk-rock aesthetics. It’s a weird combination. Also the avant-garde, I love formalist films…
The thing is, in university I had a mentor, Robin Wood, who was a famous film critic. He was an English high-school teacher who started submitting film criticism to Cahiers du Cinema and they published him, and he was one of the favorite critics there of Chabrol and Truffaut, and he wrote monographs about Chabrol and Howard Hawks, Arthur Penn and Hitchcock. These became very definitive readings. When he was in his forties, he moved to Toronto to teach, and he came out as gay. Then he wrote a famous article called The Responsibility of the Gay Film Critic which is hugely influential. We started this magazine called “Cine-Action Magazine”; I was in the original editorial team with him and a bunch of his accolades. That was where I got my super politically correct training. I mean, he was a genius but once he became a gay activist, he became super feminist and also a Marxist. His criticism got very pedantic and doctrinaire, so I eventually moved away from that.
So then I had my punk, punk scene downtown with G.B. Jones, whom I started a fanzine with. She was one of the ones who reprogrammed me, because she was totally into this radical, political aesthetics, but also glamour… She also was a little politically correct too, in terms of feminism; she was very against Lydia Lunch. So I later de-programmed myself from both of them and took the best of both, and forged my own identity.
Desistfilm: How do you go about when doing your castings? Because you’ve worked with non-actors, is that a personal preference?
Bruce LaBruce: Well, you know. Not everything is by choice, sometimes (laughs)… I usually wait for doors to open, I don’t usually force them open, but sometimes they never open. So, I try to make bigger budgeted films after Hustler White, and I couldn’t get the funding for the films I wanted to make so I started making porn films, which were films that were still based on my cinematic ideas and principles. Then I started working with porn actors, and people always say that the acting is always so bad in my films, and I’m like “well, for me sometimes Hollywood acting is really bad”, that kind of emotive, supposedly realistic acting seems so phony.
So I would cast friends, I would cast porn stars, fashion models, I would even create characters based on friends and them have them play the characters… The idea of good and bad acting is very subjective. This film I’m making now, I’m working with very professional actors and I’m trying to make it a film with that type of professional acting, but the subject matter is so crazy… But I love non-actors; my films have sometimes a documentary quality to them, like Hustler White really documents that hustler scene as it was dying, the street prostitution scene in Los Angeles. Skin Flick really documents that kind of London Neo-Nazi Skinhead scene. That’s my aesthetic.
Desistfilm: You were talking before, at the conference, about how the political correctness movement has affected cinema, and when asked who would be the punk representative of today, you said “people like Trump” because they are so outside the discourse.
Bruce LaBruce: Yeah, now the left is totally politically correct. Trump is politically incorrect, and his strategies remind me very much of punk strategies. That’s why I have friends who like him, because everyone’s like… if you’re from the left and you meet someone who remotely appreciated Trump in any way, they would just block them, pretend they don’t exist. I don’t judge people by their political belief, and he is kind of punk rock. One of my mottoes is “I try to contradict myself at least once a day”, and Trump is taking that to a ridiculous degree, where he contradicts himself a thousand times a day. His whole strategy is all punk, because it isn’t based on logic or really even reality; the difference between fiction and reality is really blurred. He refuses to be pinned down on anything, he’s kind of playful with the media, he knows how to manipulate it, and he’s very politically incorrect.
I despise the man and his politics, but I almost have to appreciate his strategies and the way that he is a provocateur.
And the left! The left now, I’m so disillusioned. They have no sense of humor; they’re in a circular firing squad, picking on each other while the conservatives are running everything. Let’s just say: If I have been American, I would’ve definitely not voted for Hillary. The left is lost, it’s floundering… I call them Stalinists; they’re policing language, it’s censorious, it’s judgmental, it’s virtue-signaling. My pet peeve is these feminist Hollywood female stars that are so morally above everyone and they take this moral position where they’re … the most privileged women, most of have gone into these Ivy-League schools, living in a very rarefied world, they are very naive about how sex works, how primitive and dangerous the sexual urge is. They’re living in some kind of fantasy, they want the world to work in some kind of perfect order where everything is manageable, and docile, and well-mannered. It’s just incredibly naive.
Desistfilm: Do you feel you’re being more appreciated in Europe, Latin-American, that in your own country?
Bruce LaBruce: Oh, I’m reviled in my own country. The Misandrists was rejected by three different festivals in Toronto. It was rejected by the Toronto International Film Festival; they said “oh it’s already played in Berlin”, right: a lot of films had been played in Berlin. Inside Out, the big gay festival rejected it because they thought it was “trans-phobic”. I even submitted it to this tiny little porno film festival (I thought, “I have to show it somewhere”), and even they rejected it. They showed it to one trans person, who was “offended”. Toronto Festival hast this big venue that shows films all year long, and they finally programmed it. But it was also rejected by all the major big gay festivals, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, for politically correct reasons.
I think that’s a good thing, though, because I showed it in over 75 film festivals around the world, including the Istanbul International Film Festival, in Turkey, so they had a film with almost explicit lesbian played in Istanbul, and also in India… it was showed all over. So whenever I’m rejected like that I feel like I’m on the right track, that I’m doing something good. My kind of self-test for my films is that, if I have the feeling during the film “Oh my god, this time I’ve gone too far”, then I’m doing the right thing.
The funny thing is, I got rejected by these film major gay festivals all around America, but then it got picked up by a distributor and it opened theatrically in like 35 cities in the US. It was the biggest distribution I had in the US, it played in places like Phoenix and Detroit, Minnesota, New Orleans, just everywhere, weird small places where you wouldn’t expect it to show.
Desistfilm: So, about the radical left, The Misandrists…
Bruce LaBruce: For me, The Misandrists is an affectionate critique for these kinds of radical feminists, but also, as far as I’m concerned, totally supports radical and even separatist lesbian feminism. I don’t support their rejection of transsexuals, this is partly what the film is about, but it is also a critique of radical leftists who end up not practicing what they preach or in fact, even going to extremes that betray the core values that they began with.
That’s my critique of the radical left in general, which is the theme of some of my movies: the oppressed becoming the oppressor. Once they get the power, and become conventional and kind of conformist, then they start disassociating themselves from people like me, or from the street transsexuals, the prostitutes, the pornographers, because they’re the dominant order now. They forget that it was street people and radicals and misfits that banded together to form the gay liberation movement in the first place.
There was this story 4 or 5 years ago, with the gay ghetto in Toronto, these white middle-class gays who had started out as the gay liberation movement, and now they were all home owners, they went out with flashlights, flashing the transsexual prostitutes were in their neighborhood, and try to drive them out of there. Is like, who the fuck do you think they are? With the ones in the street fighting for their right of… they just totally lost touch with their own kind of political roots.
Desistfilm: Here in Peru, the term queer is only understood academically. There’s a fear of talking about queer cinema or “fag cinema”. How do you perceive the Lima environment in this LGTBQ festival?
Bruce LaBruce: Well, I can’t really say. I did see Miss Amazonas and unfortunately it didn’t have subtitles, but I had a little bit of translation from my translator. So, what I got is that in Latin American culture there’s a small division in the gay world between macho and trans, and it’s also if you had one or the other. All these women in Miss Amazonas said that they couldn’t get boyfriends because they’re perceived like prostitutes, or not like real women. I think that’s part of it in here.
And also it seems that now there’s not much problem with homophobic violence? I might be wrong. The culture seems to be more tolerant.
You see, I think you got it better here. Because in America, they just want to be as boring and uninteresting as the average person. They say “oh, we need more mediocre roles for gays and transsexuals” Really? Is that your goal, to become as mediocre as the rest of the world? I have a very romantic idea of homosexuality: It is that is a total opportunity to be different, to be and outsider, to look at the predominant order from a distance with an objective view where you see like, “the matrix”, you’re conscious of how conventional everything is. So that gives you a real power as an outsider.
You know, in ancient cultures the people who didn’t sexually conform, in terms of gender, were quite often revered as shamans or prophets or poets, and now everyone seems to want to settle for this banal kind of reality where they’re just like anyone else.
Desistfilm: It happens as well here, if you’re a white wealthy gay person, you can assimilate yourself in the system, but the truly marginal people, like the poor gay, trans, native indigenous people, they’re not even on the map. People don’t talk about them.
Bruce LaBruce: And it’s interesting that this Outfest Peru, you can tell that it’s very old-school radical, they’re more Marxist, they’re more anti-capitalist, they’re more class-conscious, they’re more into racial diversity. But it seems that it almost the old guard, and the new trendy social media influencers have no contact with that! Because they become so apolitical, it’s very narcissistic, this bubble where they live. And they don’t appreciate the people on the front lines, allowing them to feel safe, to live their lives without violence or fear. It didn’t just happen.
Desistfilm: Do you see someone doing similar stuff than you’re doing right now? How do you see the future of this kind of cinema, and is people doing it right now?
Bruce LaBruce: Well, in some ways I think I’m unique (laughs). I sometimes get lumped in with the New Queer Cinema for example, which is fine: I love Gus Van Sant and John Waters, they’re friends of mine, I love Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki, and know all of this people personally.
The difference is that I was making pornography. None of them were doing porn. So the fact that I actually continued to be relevant as a filmmaker while still making porn, and trying to bounce back and forth between slightly mainstream independent cinema, and… You know I made a porn movie last year that won “best gay director” and “best gay film” at the XBiz Porn Awards in Las Vegas, which is one the biggest mainstream porn awards in the world.
I’ve always expressed solidarity with pornographers, there’s a glass ceiling with pornographers, and they’re not taken seriously. I just keep on doing what I do; sometimes it corresponds more with the zeitgeist, and sometime less. But now it seems that my work is more relevant than ever, because everything is so safe and politically correct, things have become sexually regressive and more conservative. So I think my work today gives me even more motivation, to keep on that struggle.