BLaB: A Conversation With Bruce LaBruce
Ryan Alexander Diduck
, April 17th, 2013 08:21
Bruce LaBruce speaks to Ryan A Diduck in a frank conversation about his filmmaking, gay conservatism, technology, writing, bad trips and why he thinks he might have been abducted by aliens
Signs guide us through life. Humans make some signs; coincidence makes others. This thought will cross my mind twice as I walk up Saint-Laurent Boulevard, on the way to chat with iconic and iconoclastic Toronto-based director Bruce LaBruce - past the now empty American Apparel store; past the pop-up barbershop block; past the not-so-secretly rat-infested restaurants, with their laterally socially mobile clientele clothed in corruption chic, pacified by adulty-sounding lounge music and meals of high caloric content. The first time it pops into mind is as I'm crossing the modest square dedicated to the memory of Canadian filmmaker Claude Jutra, with its pitiful abstract sculpture, vaguely resembling a movie camera, often used as a surface for superficial graffiti or a waste receptacle for paper takeaway cups. The second occurs when I realise I'm running early for once, and stop in for coffee at Euro Deli. Upon entering the café, its patrons are greeted by a floor-to-ceiling black-and-white photograph of Federico Fellini, snapped in mid-whip, kicking up his heels. The idea of Jutra and Fellini as signposts approaching LaBruce's temporary Plateau district digs is delicious - not to mention the barbershop that I'd never bothered noticing before.
LaBruce's works for the screen have rightly won him praise from high places. Twenty years ago, his first feature, No Skin Off My Ass, was introduced to a new generation by Kurt Cobain who proclaimed it his favourite film. The legendary 1993 queercore classic, a male homosexual recasting of Altman's That Cold Day In The Park, contains an erotic sequence in which LaBruce himself, who plays the hair stylist, shares a climatic deep cleansing ritual in the bathtub with skin-headed co-star Klaus von Brucker. Dr. Thomas Waugh, Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema professor and author of the textbook on Queer Canadian cinema (because there is indeed a lot of it) entitled The Romance of Transgression in Canada, calls it "the hottest scene in world film history." No argument here.
Still, LaBruce shies away from the Canadian filmmaker label: "I'm not a nationalist of any stripe," he says. "So I don't have any great allegiance to any country or religion or anything. Canada always had a kind of milk-and-toast reputation. It was a peacekeeper, for one thing, but also had a reputation for diplomacy, and for being kind of reserved and modest. And unfortunately, with the [current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen] Harper administration, that's all been reversed. He's not a good representative of culture, or supporter of culture. That's one reason I made this film in Quebec."
LaBruce is currently residing in a warmly bohemian first floor flat in a Montreal neighbourhood known mainly for artists, students and radicals. So he's right at home. LaBruce is generous and relaxed, wearing a Red Army Faction t-shirt and jeans, and yellow tinted spectacles - a sort of creepy cult leader façade that could be read as ironic or completely sincere. I chose to believe in its willful sincerity. We sit at the kitchen table and chat as LaBruce sips red wine. Like a thoughtful filmmaker, he asks me if we should unplug the fridge, lest its hum ruin the recording of our interview.
LaBruce is in town doing post-production work on Gerontophilia, his upcoming feature film that centers on the story of Lake, an 18-year-old man who discovers that he has empathetic sexual feelings for the elderly. Lake's mother is an administrative nurse who works in a long-term care facility; when she lands him a job, his latent gerontophilia is made manifest. In contrast to LaBruce's early, cheekier films like Super 8&1/2, and the more recent horror cycle including Otto; or, Up With Dead People and L.A. Zombie, Gerontophilia seems like doubly mature subject matter. "In some ways, I was trying to make it like an after-school special directed by Ingmar Bergman," LaBruce laughs. "But a lot of my films deal with people who have fetishes -- even extreme sexual fetishes. And for me, it's always about humanising those characters, and making the point that they're quite often not that much different, emotionally, from other people. They just have this one peculiar fetish. It's not finished yet, though. We did show a short trailer at Berlinale. It has an international sales agent, MK2, so they've been showing that."
Where did you get your start?
Bruce LaBruce: I started out with fanzines, which was sort of multi-disciplinary, writing, photography, filmmaking. I also went to university. I got a masters degree in film and social and political thought, so I had a kind of writing background. And then, I started writing for CineAction! when I was in grad school, which was kind of an academic and political cinema magazine. Then, I was a columnist for Eye Weekly and Exclaim! magazine in Toronto, so I really got into the practice of writing op-ed kind of stuff. And then I left it to concentrate more on my art and filmmaking. And then recently, I went back and started a weekly column for Vice magazine, which I did for a year, and now I'm kind of on hiatus from that to finish my movie.
Where do you think the printed word is heading, at a time when so much writing appears online?
BLB: Well, I am on Twitter, and I find that interesting, because it is a different paradigm, and I enjoy the discipline of being pithy, and expressing yourself in 140 characters. But the internet is always a double-edged sword. It's so over-determined, there's so much written, there's so much there, that you have to sift through a lot of stuff. I was kind of the typical victim of modern technology where I got away from reading books because I couldn't relate to books anymore - I could only read on the screen. So finally, for Christmas, my family gave me a Kobo. So I've been reading full books again, which is great, and I realised how much I missed it. But it's part of the technology: everything is soundbites, or shorter pieces, or more visual-based. In terms of getting news sources, I use Al Jazeera and the real news, the kind of solid lefty-political sites. Increasingly, you have to read with a lot of discrimination. And also, just kind of the corporate collapsing of all information down to about six corporate entities that control everything, so you always have to factor that in.
What about criticism?
BLB: Film critics, for one thing, I find just so off-the-mark these days. Most of them are on the payroll for these corporate entities, quite often - for the movies they're writing about - so there's a total conflict of interest. And in a way, there's kind of no appreciation of, or distinction made, between the avant-garde or underground work and corporate work, so they're all judged by the same kind of criteria, which I find really bizarre. I get a lot of extreme hate and vitriol directed towards my work on the internet - and by critics, quite often. I'm famous for getting 0 stars, or negative stars, which is fine. Sometimes, you take it as a compliment.
There's kind of an unfiltered thing about the internet, which on one level I appreciate. And on another level, there's value in more classical kinds of writing or the process of having an editor and kind of thinking about what you write, rather than just spouting stream of consciousness. That does have consequences. It makes you… there's a certain politesse that's disappeared, that doesn't happen anymore, or just a certain tone that's disappeared. It really drives me crazy to read the comments on a lot of sites, because it's so toxic. There are so many trolls.
For Vice, when I'd write negatively about stuff, which I do all the time, I try to be, y'know, sometimes humorous without being cruel, to write in a more balanced way, and that's kind of more the old style of when I wrote my columns for magazines. There was an editorial process, and there was the distance between you writing the piece and submitting it, and thinking about it before you submit it. Yeah. In some ways, the internet has just exposed a lot of assholes. And, probably created quite a few as well.
Do you think they were already there and the technology just makes it easier to post anonymously?
BLB: … and the anonymity, too. Yeah, I think that's partly it. When we used to do punk fanzines and write, we would also write very opinionated things, critical things. But you would either do it in a punk way, which was in a more clever way without being so obvious - being more oblique or being ironic in a clever way, or being paradoxical - or just not so blatantly cruel. And the new politically incorrect kind of tone of everything, it's usually done by the kind of privileged white kind of voices.
Like the fool who hosted the Oscars. People were saying "well, he's taking the piss out of Hollywood and he's calling them on their hypocrisies." Well, perhaps, but he's probably the richest guy in Hollywood. And he's in a position … there's no risk in what he's doing. There's a difference between speaking out when you don't have a voice, or when you could be crushed or something, but being in a position where you're too big to fail?
Speaking of awards shows, there's been a string of high-profile public outings of late. Like Jodie Foster, for one. Do you think it's a responsibility to be visibly queer?
BLB: Not really. I've never really supported outing. I think people have their own reasons for doing what they do. I do think that the way the system operates, it's difficult. You can be pigeonholed or not be considered for certain roles, still. What is the point of visibility now? The gay movement has become so conservative that you just become another conservative voice supporting conservative institutions. There's nothing radical about it, there's nothing subversive about it. They just become another establishment figure.
You mention the gay movement and its startling conservatism. It seems like it's treated just as a market and not much else now.
BLB: It's consumerist, for sure. It's a demographic. That's what capitalism does: it tries to reduce everyone to a cultural stereotype, and then market accordingly. But it's more insidious than that, because it's more a sort of social/cultural shift, where it's about trying to gain admittance into the culturally conservative intuitions like marriage and the military and the church. So it's really kind of made difference irrelevant. The thrust of the mainstream gay movement is to be accepted.
The only difference between an average gay and the average non-gay is that they have sex with people of the same gender. But their values can be just as conservative, they can be just as family-oriented, they can be just as moralistic, they can be just as capitalistic. And in some cases, there's a bit of overcompensation. They're trying to prove that they can be just as conservative as anyone else. It's gone a little bit, sort of; at this particular historical moment, the pendulum has swung the other way. I think it'll probably swing back again. There was just an article in New York Magazine about gay divorce. I think a lot of gays have gotten caught up in this assimilationist movement, and haven't really thought it all through, like, what the real implications are.
It's the same with feminism; it's the same with the black movement. Women fighting to have combat roles in war I find appalling. The idea that you could be against any combat role is swept under the carpet in favour of this idea that everyone is entitled to be equal members of any corrupt institution. So yeah, it's unfortunate. And I think it's also going to lead to an identity crisis for the gay movement, because when they find out they have no cohesion, nothing unifying them, then it leads to a kind of identity crisis. The whole point being: everyone should have equal rights, obviously, but you don't have to throw yourself into the institutions with such fervor. You don't have to take them so seriously. And in fact, sometimes it becomes a betrayal of your original belief system.
It might be easier to say that here than in, say, small-town USA, though.
BLB: Or Afghanistan, yeah. I went to gay pride in Jerusalem six years ago. I went to the first-ever gay pride march in Athens about six or seven years ago, and there were like 500 people in a city of six million. And it was like these hardcore activists who'd been fighting for the right to have this parade for like 10 years. You have to take the geo-historical and political context into consideration.
In different communities, there's different levels of acceptability, I guess. Like, there are no openly gay hockey players, for example.
BLB: Well, that's a huge boondoggle. There's obviously, just parentage-wise, a large number of gay athletes, and they're all just closeted. And that's a culture of homophobia that still exists, for sure. But who cares? I guess I'm old-school in that I way. I think there'll always be homophobia, and in a weird way, I almost think it never should be completely eradicated, because it's boring, and it's utopian, and it's naïve. There can't be good without evil; there can't be redemption without hell. The fact that homosexuality does go against the grain - goes against nature in a certain way - isn't a bad thing. It makes things interesting; it challenges the status quo; it makes people think about the limitations of normalcy.
Artists and musicians are, to a large degree, representatives of certain belief systems and ways of being. Like, David Bowie was really important to me at a young age, understanding that sexuality didn't equate with gender.
BLB: He was amazing, and lyrically so complex. Sometimes really abstruse, as opposed to a lot of the contemporary singers: the lyrics are so banal, and the message is so bland. I hate to harp on Lady Gaga because at least she's trying to do something different, but this whole 'Born This Way' thing is so irritating, and her whole support of the military - she's emblematic of that kind of youth movement supporting conservative ideals, and capitalism. Fame is something that's desirable without any critique of it. I find it reactionary.
I wonder where she actually sits in that machine.
BLB: You get the impression that Bowie is much more authentic. She does seem contrived, whereas Bowie, when he made The Man Who Fell To Earth, for instance - which is a masterpiece, and a completely experimental film, and it's such a strong critique of conventional society and politics and corporate America. So there is a big difference, but he was born in a different era.
There is a sense that David Bowie couldn't do anything else, but Lady Gaga could have been any one of a host of different kinds of celebrities.
BLB: Yeah, and it's that way with most of the modern artists.
Music figures prominently in your films. Do you write to music?
BLB: I don't while listening to music, but I think about music when I'm writing scenes - like what music might be appropriate for a certain scene. In my earlier films, I stole a lot of music and I used a lot of 60s and 70s soundtrack music and mixed it with hardcore music. Like in No Skin Off My Ass, I used these great punk bands like Beefeater and Frightwig and some of my favourite 80s hardcore punk bands. And mixing it with more classic soundtrack music and obscure 60s and 70s soundtrack music was kind of the palette of the films. And I'd also quite often use music ironically, so a romantic scene might have really harsh music and a violent scene might have romantic music. Just to get away from the Hollywood convention of music emotionally, obviously, reinforcing the drama. But it changes from project to project. In my last film, L.A. Zombie, I got two composers to create music. I told them to think of 70s movies or early 80s movies that use Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream-type soundtracks, and then I had wall-to-wall music in the film. So it was almost more a mood piece. With Gerontophilia, this is the first time I'm actually hiring someone to do an actual score, and I'm also using specific music from various artists.
Who's exciting you, musically, at the minute?
BLB: I love Lil B. Even though he probably isn't gay at all. The way he raps in his videos is so obviously a critique of mainstream hip-hop - not only the form and what he raps about, but also the sound and the aesthetic and everything. He goes on and on about "suck my dick" and "bitches" and everything, but he never has a girl. He only has one video that I've seen with a girl in it, and she's just like a normal-looking girl who is a peer and not like a video vixen. He's almost always alone in his videos. I find him interesting. And there's a bunch of transsexual rappers coming out of New York that are great. There's a lot of bands I listen to, from Liars - I might try to use a track of theirs for Gerontophilia - to A Place To Bury Strangers to China Woman. I love Spiral Beach. Matmos. I saw them in Toronto. They were great.
Your early films had a very low production value aesthetic, which at the time was authentic because it was born of necessity, but has since come to signify authenticity, even when it's not - when it's used deliberately to seem authentic. I know you're a fan of Polaroids too. And now there's Instagram. Is format important to you?
BLB: Yeah, I struggle with it, actually. I hate to be one of those people who looks at digital or video and thinks, oh film is so much more aesthetically pleasing, and then try to make that film look. I think high-end video that is kind of close to film looks worse if it almost looks like film but not quite. If that's the case, I would prefer to used kind of low-tech or low-grade digital quality. Like Inland Empire. I think Lynch shot it on mini-DV or something. And I love the way it looks. It looks fantastic. And it's so cool because he shot it maybe with the same lighting or in the same style as he would have with a 35mm camera, but he just used this low-grade digital format.
I made a film called Skin Flick where I shot it half in this video that at the time was what everyone was shooting porn in - it looks like really old-school 80s porn. And the other half I shot in Super-8. And at the time I thought, oh this just looks terrible. It looks like a pure video aesthetic. It was about as far away from film as you could get, although it was cool to intercut it with Super-8. But now when I look at it, I think it looks kind of really cool. You know, it's all relative.
The problem is, now some people are writing about the digital disaster to come, which is the non-permanence of it, the degradation of the image. Film is so archival, and if you don't keep transferring the masters, it's going to completely degrade. That's a bit troubling. That's one reason why I really fought to finish Otto on 35mm. It was half shot on super-16 and half shot on HD, but we finished in both HD-CAM and 35. But Gerontophilia was shot on an Alexa, so it looks really great. There's no plan to finish on film, unfortunately. But I think aesthetics are always important. It's important to choose the right format for the story you're telling.
Have you ever done the Ayahuasca ritual?
BLB: I haven't, but I did this crazy drug in New York about a year and a half ago that is supposedly similar. It's called 2CB or something; it's like a synthetic cross between acid and ecstasy. But whatever I took was super, super strong, and I had this intense 12-hour trip that sustained the same level of intensity for 12 hours, and it was the worst trip I've ever had in my entire life - like 100 times worse than the worst acid trip I've ever had.
BLB: Yeah. I basically had a psychotic, paranoid breakdown. My friends almost took me to the hospital, but then I came out of it. And towards the end of the trip, I had this amazing spiritual experience. I kind of experienced my own death. I wanted to die, but I couldn't. It was super intense.
Did you get sick?
BLB: No, but it was basically a 12-hour hallucination.
That doesn't sound like fun.
BLB: It wasn't fun. It had a huge impact on my life. It changed the course of my life. I'm a Capricorn, and I'm very grounded and on the logical side, and I've experimented with a lot of drugs, but it's never had a negative effect on my work or felt like it was having a negative impact on my life. But after that, I really stopped. I do occasionally still do some drugs here and there, but it was kind of a turning point. I took stock of a lot of things, and became more interested in experiencing life in less of an altered reality.
I experienced things that'd I'd never experienced before, that I never want to experience again. It was spiritual. It was a God consciousness thing. I'm totally agnostic, but in the hallucination, it was about that: it was about the creator; it was about death; it was about some universal and eternal connection to the ancestors - that's what it was about. It's kind of a different dimension. But you need a guide. If I had a guide, and it was under totally ideal circumstances, I might do it again. But I've had friends who did Ayahuasca and it's changed their life - and not necessarily for the better. Some people can't readjust to the material world, or the exigencies of everyday life. You do have to be careful about that.
And after some successful trials with addictions therapy, of course it's been made illegal here now.
BLB: That's what government officials and the hierarchical institutions don't want: they don't want people to experience other forms of consciousness or whatever. They want them to remain slaves. And it's the same with MDMA - it was being used for couples therapy. That was one of my revelations in this extreme trip. I realised that, especially now in this contemporary world, you need your faculties about you. You really have to be careful about altering, especially in very certain ways. Drugs that heighten paranoia are not a good look right now, because there's way too much to be legitimately paranoid about. That's why meth was never used therapeutically. I did it for quite awhile before it caught up with me, and it was the most ecstatic. But it's one of those drugs that goes from heaven to hell.
You did a lot of drugs, then?
BLB: Yeah. I went through all sorts of phases. I took quite a lot of acid, and went through years here and there of smoking a lot of pot, but I'd always go in cycles. I did go through periods where I was drinking way too much as well. I went through coke periods. I only did heroin about a handful of times. I did get into a meth problem at one point, but fortunately got out of it. I got out in time.
Do you own an orgone accumulator?
BLB: I do not own an orgone accumulator but I've been in one. Where was it now? I can't remember. But someone built one, and I did spend a good 20 minutes or half an hour in it. I think it was in Toronto.
BLB: It didn't do anything for me, but maybe it wasn't built to the proper specifications.
Have you ever been abducted by aliens?
BLB: Well that's an interesting question too. I grew up on a farm. When I was about eight or nine, I had an experience that I kind of assumed was a dream at the time, but later found out that it had all the earmarks of a classic abduction. I woke up, I heard a high-pitched three-tone sound, and a light came into the house, and it came closer to my bedroom. I was alone in my bedroom, and my parents never woke up or heard anything, nor my siblings. And this huge ball of light appeared in the doorway, a kind of sphere of pure white light, and it enveloped me, and then I - this has never happened to me before - I woke up the next morning with a feeling that time had been elided, that time had been cut out of my consciousness. It was like, as soon as it came towards me, there was a blank, and I woke up. And that was before Close Encounters or whatever, so I didn't even have it in my consciousness - this idea of an orb or something, so I may have been. But I didn't have any of the other classic earmarks like, y'know, scars or a sore bum or whatever.