For a generation of queer artists, Bruce LaBruce is the very thing. Founding father of the queercore movement, renowned for his provocative, sexually transgressive style of filmmaking specialising in all things taboo, there really isn’t much he hasn’t seen.
LaBruce rose to prominence in the mid-1980s for publishing the fanzine J.D.s which in turn launched queercore, a subculture of punk aligned with the gay liberation movement. The fanzine had previously exploded onto the punk scene. It was the ultimate form of fan expression; people would make publications dedicated to their favourite stars, with pictures, comics, stories and the occasional political diatribe. “We did the same thing but from a queer angle,” LaBruce recalls, “we would make the fanzine with all these proclamations about homosexuality.” The philosophy behind the movement was to empower the isolated queer youth. “They were closeted. They were frustrated. And so they rebelled.”
J.D.s is a masterclass in queer anarchy. The front cover of its first issue salaciously teases what lies within: Polymorphous Perversity!, Unconscious Fantasies Revealed!, and of course, Bum-Boys! What follows is page upon page of gorgeous pop stars in the nude, stories of young queer love defying convention and heteronormativity. One cartoon shows two women tying a police officer to a tree. They leave her there, semi-naked, spank marks showing, her legs tied together with a note that reads: “I AM A FASCIST PIG”. J.D.s was a celebration of the queer identity, its complexities and self-contradictions; every reference I don’t understand makes me yearn to be a part of the collective queer conscious it once represented. It was an unassailable force of queer revolution. It was also built on a lie.
“A lot of it was myth,” LaBruce admits, “we made it seem like there was a full-blown movement coming out of Toronto in the ‘80s by just pure propaganda and fake news. And then it became a self-fulfilling prophesy. It turned into a real movement.”
“It’s just like how everyone now on the Internet presents the most idealised representation of themselves. We did the same thing.” Even his name is an invention, a mythic character constructed in the early ‘80s, “a hard-fucking, hard-drinking, reckless juvenile delinquent”, “a carefully constructed persona [he] was presenting to the world.”
Queercore was born from punk, though their ethos served as a middle finger to the punk community, within which LaBruce and his contemporaries had encountered homophobia and sexism. “Our mission was to make these provocative, homosexually explicit fanzines and super 8 films to say to these radical punks: if you can’t take this, then you’re not revolutionaries. If you don’t have a sexual revolution as part of your manifesto, then you’re not radical at all.”
Nowadays LaBruce is perhaps best-known for his films. His 2011 short film Offing Jack is a domestic tragedy on speed, as we witness the two antagonistic lovers fight, fuck and fight again. His 2010 feature-length L.A. Zombie is about a zombie with the power to bring the recently deceased back to life by penetrating their wounds. Then there’s Gerontophilia, his 2013 romantic comedy about an elicit, intergenerational relationship between nurse and patient. They range in length, tone and theme, and yet each film feels distinctly his. I don’t know how to define a LaBruce film, but I know it when I see it.
Of course, one giveaway is his depiction of sex, often transgressive, blurring the boundary between right and wrong, consensual and non-consensual, alive and dead, and undead. Sex in a LaBruce film is a cinematic experience; it echoes the pornography of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, full of character, humour and artistic sensibility. It feels worlds away from the mainstream, commercialised pornography of the 21st century.
“Porn has become so ubiquitous,” he tells me, “everyone’s a porn star now so there is this kind of acceptance of porn and this willingness to exploit one’s own body for money. OnlyFans is basically prostitution.” He then adds, “I have no problem with prostitution. I consider myself a hooker, at least philosophically,” a line so blasé I’m convinced he’s spent hours rehearsing it.
He cites the digital revolution as a main factor behind the evolution of the porn industry. The clips became shorter, because “people didn’t want long-form porn anymore, they wanted short, digestible scenes”. “People just wanted to see the sex and it was quicker to churn it out,” he says.
I ask LaBruce whether he mourns the old way and he argues that the Internet has paved the way for greater artistic freedom for creators, producing “alternative porn” that plays with “gender and body…ideas of what makes something attractive.” “I think it’s more of an art form [than before]”, he tells me. “It’s become more creative again because people are doing it themselves. It’s become a creative outlet for people.” He cites independent film director Erika Lust who creates feminist porn that he considers “aligned with the sensibility of the ‘70s.”
That said, he considers all pornographers artists, regardless of their budget or style. “My pet peeve is the people who look down their noses and judge pornographers and porn stars, while they consume it madly,” he tells me, “I mean how do they think it gets made? It doesn’t just magically appear on your Internet screen. It’s a business, it’s an industry and it’s an art form.”
“I like both types of porn,” he begins, “I like porn that is strictly sex…I’m not above looking at ‘bad’ porn that represents those kind of fetishes, porn that is very strictly about a banal capturing of the sexual act. But then there’s the other kind of porn, which I also appreciate, which can also be very sexy, and which I use for sexual stimulation as well, that has humour, that has characters, that has an aesthetic dimension…narrative in porn really can contribute to how sexy it is and how much it turns you on. People have forgotten that the sexual imagination is part of that process of stimulation. It’s like foreplay.”
LaBruce recognises the problematic aspect of the porn industry, which “attracts and preys on a lot of people who have been sexually exploited in their lives,” but views it as a necessary perversity: “The bottom line is pornography is necessary. It’ll always be part of the sexual imagination and I think of it as a largely positive thing because if you repress sexuality, if you don’t acknowledge your deepest and darkest sexual fantasies and aren’t allowed to give them some form of expression, then the repression of all that results in far worse consequences.”
Repression is a recurring theme in the LaBruce oeuvre. “I subscribe to the theory that a lot of horror is based on homosexual panic,” he tells me, “whenever the conservative institutions of culture are challenged, like the nuclear family, or the church or monogamy or what have you, then horror erupts. I mean all those slasher films like Halloween and Friday 13th are based on punishing teenagers for their sexuality. It’s built into horror.”
Low-budget and transgressive, his films take inspiration from the B-movies of the 1970s and ‘80s, which were, for him “a very raw and unprocessed expression of the zeitgeist.” They straddle the line between pornography and horror, a boundary LaBruce claims is less distinct than one might think. “Horror movies and porn movies are structured in exactly the same way,” he begins, “the narrative is structured as a pretext for a number of these explosive climaxes. One victim at a time, one sex scene at a time. It’s all based on achieving this orgasmic moment.” He recalls the phallic plunging knife and orgasmic squirting of blood from the infamous Psycho shower scene.
LaBruce examines the horror genre from a distinctly queer perspective. The titular Otto in Otto; or Up with Dead People, with his reluctant movements and lethargic expression recalls the somnambulistic sexual trance of the men LaBruce would meet in gay saunas and cruising parks. The regenerative ability of L.A. Zombie’s protagonist, who revives corpses through the power of penetration, serves as an attempt to destigmatise gay sex and draw attention to its unconscious pathologization in the wake of the AIDS crisis.
At times the gore can verge on the excessive. Perusing a collection of his Polaroids, entitled The Revolution is My Boyfriend, I’m struck by their brutality; men in camo wearing headscarves and balaclavas surround bloodied victims. His recent collection of previously unpublished photographs, Death Book, features photographs depicting gang rape, extreme violence and death. It seems indicative of a wider criticism of LaBruce’s work; skinheads ejaculating onto copies of Mein Kampf, zombies chest-fucking the deceased back to life, I question whether LaBruce’s work might be accused of going too far. Is it purely transgression for the sake of transgression?
“Sure,” he says, “what’s wrong with that? In my philosophical view, art should be provocative. Being gay should be provocative. Art that provokes is much more interesting to me than art that hangs on the wall for decorative purposes. I have no problem with [being provocative].”
Viewing his films and the images that tend to recur: teeming masses of white bodies, twinks with vacant stares, usually dripping in blood, I question how provocative his portrayal of queer characters can be given their white, able-bodied, cisgender uniformity.
“I’ve been criticised for that,” he admits, “my new one is the same. It’s even more accessible in that way. Saint Narcisse has a gorgeous leading man. But I mean…he’s playing Narcissus. I cast someone who has that classical bone structure that you associate with Narcissus.”
The seeming conflict between the conventional beauty of his leading men and his own radical politics is one he embraces. “It’s part of my influence from classical Hollywood. I appreciate all the glamour from that period. It’s part of my old school gay sensibility that I’ve always mixed in with my more radical queer politics. If it’s a contradiction, I think that’s fine.”
He mentions that he’s also made short films featuring actors whose bodies don’t conform to the conventional standards of beauty. Offing Jack stars two transgender actors, Give Piece of Ass a Chance features women of varying shapes. “[Those films] remain more underground because it’s easier to finance a film…,” he pauses, searching for the right way to phrase it.
“When I want to make a movie that’s more accessible, I do use the tropes and some of the conventions of the mainstream. And I just try to subvert them as much as I can within those conventions.”
The tendency to transgress is also integral to his politics. We discuss the ‘gay agenda’ and Bruce expresses an aversion to assimilationism. “The logical conclusion of assimilation is for two gay men, for example, to be in bed, in the missionary position, having sex, completely monogamous, trying to only have sex minimally because they have kids or something. Which is fine. That’s what some people do. I wouldn’t say that their sex is particularly radical.”
“It’s radical in the sense that it’s a betrayal of everything the gay liberation movement stood for…,” he begins as if reciting directly from the pages of J.D.s,“but most people don’t want to be radical and that’s fine if you want the world to regress into this cesspool of conservatism and blind religious zeal… It doesn’t make sense to me. What is the ultimate goal? To be so…normal?”
“I would say that sex is political in general but I wouldn’t say the act of gay sex is necessarily political,” he tells me, “you have to radicalise it yourself.”
“Maybe it doesn’t have to be radical,” I venture.
“But then the world will regress completely to a state of warlords…”
“So the world’s going to regress completely because two men choose monogamy?”
“Yes, it’s all about that,” he says sardonically, “I blame all the problems of the world right now on gay assimilation.”
He pauses, toying with this concept for a moment.
“I blame all the problems of the world right now on gay assimilation,” he repeats. Though I’m no longer sure he’s being ironic.
Photo credit: Camo