Gay Times April 08 - Issue 355
Zombie Flesh Eaters
GT columnist and queer film terrorist Bruce LaBruce is premiering his new movie, Otto, or, up with Dead People, at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Here, The Times’ Tim Teeman meets the reluctant pornographer himself, his producer and his newest star, and asks, just who is Bruce LaBruce?
Bruce LaBruce, going mainstream? Flirting with respectability? Yes, and unapologetically so. His latest film — about a gay zombie, a cinema first — is called Otto; or, Up with Dead People and, at $500,000 (£254,000 approx at going to press), cost nearly ten times more than LaBruce’s usual budget. It’s smooth, mostly in colour, and almost wholly audible. It has one of the loveliest special effects you’ll see on film this year. One character is a silent movie star who exists alongside the characters of today as a magically flickering presence.
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LaBruce feels he’s reached an age (44) and stage where has to move away from the rough-and-ready, porny, political, graphic films which made him a cult film-maker, including Super 8 1/2, No Skin Off My Ass, Hustler White and Raspberry Reich. They cross and recross the border between arthouse and porn, sometimes feature terrible acting (LaBruce says he likes using real people behaving “naturally”) and wonky editing — but are absolutely original, challenging, rude and feature fantastic soundtracks.
LaBruce reveals that he’s aiming to raise £3m for his next movie, which, he intimates, might feature straight lead characters and no nudity. But he’s a contrarian, so when asked at the Berlin Film Festival whether he could see himself making a film not about gays or skinheads, his immediate reaction was to start planning his gayest, skinhead-iest, movie ever. (“Just because you like to be double-fisted in a sling doesn’t mean you can’t cry at a Hollywood movie,” he notes, mulling the wonderful contradictions of ‘gay’.)
Otto follows the adventures of a transfixing young man, who may or not be one of the undead, and who drifts into a relationship with another guy. Crisfar is not a trained actor — a photography student, he met LaBruce through MySpace — but he’s a natural and perfects a great, shaky zombie gait. LaBruce describes the film as a “summing up” of his previous work, so there’s explicit sex, a film within a film, violence, beautiful boys, skinheads, and an aggressive lesbian film director — there always seems to be one in a LaBruce movie.
“I’ve always liked zombie films and I’m a George Romero fan,” LaBruce says, “particularly a film of his called Martin, about a boy who may or not be a vampire. Another one of my favourite films, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide, features a woman who may or not be a mermaid. I’m interested in how these creatures can be metaphors of how we live today.”
Otto suffers the lot of any human outcast, though LaBruce fought shy of revealing whether he is a zombie or not: “It would have been too ‘Hollywood’ to have had a happy ending.” He cast the lead actor because “he was really young (18 at the start of shooting), good-looking, even under lots of zombie make-up.” LaBruce had photographed him naked for a magazine, “so I knew he was comfortable in front of the camera, and he has a blank, neutral quality.”
LaBruce had an isolating childhood: “I was a sickly child; I almost died a couple of times. I grew up on a farm, which was pretty idyllic, but it was a rough environment.” LaBruce was a middle child, with five years separating him from his older and younger siblings. “I was stuck in bed or on the couch. I read like a maniac — adult books like Lenny Bruce’s biography.” He had a sophisticated older sister, “who made me much more aware of the world than I should have been at 12,” and he became very precocious — the slightly terrifying, domineering women in his films are inspired by her. (His parents, married for 57 years, are semi-retired and haven’t seen his work.)
For years, LaBruce was tortured by his sexuality. “It was the 1970s. I couldn’t declare it. I was shy and introverted. I lost my virginity when I was 22. Since then I’ve certainly made up for lost time.”
He studied at York University in Toronto, where he now lives (although he likes to shoot his films in Berlin). He thought he wanted to be a critic or academic, but became disillusioned by his cerebral peers “not practicing what they preached” and moved in with some feminist Punks who didn’t believe in the art establishment; they were gay, but rejected the established gay scene. LaBruce started shooting his life on Super 8 1/2 and mixed in porn clips to make cut-and-paste films. He created a Punk fanzine. “In the mosh pits at Punk concerts you’d have these hot, straight shirtless guys who were homophobic, but also homoerotic,” says LaBruce — a dynamic played out in his films.
“I’d show my Super 8 1/2 movies at these clubs, and these guys would punch me on the nose so my feminist friends would make a protective shield around me. We’d get the straight boys drunk, make them take their clothes off and film them.” Amazingly, LaBruce claims not to be an exhibitionist. “Bruce LaBruce” is a “fictional construct”, he says. His real last name was “Bruce”, he adds, although his childhood name has been recorded as “Justin Stewart”. He came from a “Bruce County” and the “La” came from friends who mocked his diva-ish behaviour. “Bruce LaBruce” is, he says, the “idealised version of who I’d like to be. But now there’s no dividing line any more. The puppet took over the actor.”
LaBruce was discovered by Jürgen Brüning, his longtime producer, in 1987. Life and art fed off each other in his films. No Skin Off My Ass featured a real boyfriend. He once had a relationship with a racist skinhead — “a crazy experience” which “ended up with him beating the shit out of me.” He tried hustling, too: “I wasn’t very good at it. I’ve never been particularly successful at seduction.” Do his films glamourise right-wing skinhead racists? “If people think I’m doing that, it’s a comment on them. I’m holding up a mirror to them, our culture and the media.”
LaBruce married Antonio, his Cuban boyfriend, in Canada last December. “For me, once you get into your 40s, you look for different things. When you’re doing challenging projects you need support and stability.” Otto is a turning point, then. “It was the first film I really enjoyed making,” LaBruce says. “With more resources I had more time to think about how it looked, how it could be made.” Next he will probably make a dramatic melodrama. “But I’m not interested in a conventional direction: I’m more of the Godard school than Spielberg”, he says.
Brüning jokes that LaBruce “is more difficult than Madonna” in the way he works. “He doesn’t have her money. But he’s a semi-celebrity himself, everyone wants to have their picture taken with him, but his stuff is still controversial and it’s still difficult to raise money.” In Otto the actors and crew were paid if not mega-bucks, then at least respectably for the first time. “Audiences have put him in a box,” says Brüning. “Now he wants to get rid of this box.”
The world has changed since LaBruce first started making waves: porn and gore are now widely accessible. He’s always considered his movies “sexually explicit art films,” but he has another purpose. “Whenever Jean Genet saw a revolutionary moment, he supported it and tried to develop it,” he says. “When it became co-opted as the mainstream, he’d turn on it and actively fight against it. I’m like that. I’m not interested in the idea of commercial film-making. I don’t care about questions like, ‘Who is this film for?’, ‘Who’s the audience?’”
So even if he does raise pots of money and make melodramas featuring desperate housewives clutching their twin-sets, expect to be outraged, confused and muckily seduced by Bruce LaBruce for some time to come.
For information about the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, visit www.llgff.org.uk. To shuffle into Bruce LaBruce’s world, visit www.ottothezombie.com and www.brucelabruce.com