Gay porn and gore films might be what Bruce LaBruce is known for, but the legendary underground photographer and director is not reducible to X-rated material. While his work is voluntarily shocking, it has a political and identity-related aim. Bruce is a disruptive force. He is an anarchist––undisciplined and against all mainstream codes. But by playing with the very conventions of humiliation and authority, he also contributes to the edification of a new
New York culture––one that's gay, rebellious, and wild. His work has won him legions of fans, curator Javier Peres among them (as he expressed in our interview with him
). Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Bruce over the phone about everything from his career to zombies. Find out how it went below.
AS: Where did you grow up?
Bruce LaBruce: I grew up on an isolated farm north of Toronto, and I came to Toronto for film school at York University. I intended to be a film critic; I took a couple of years of film production and I got my master's degree in film theory. But I became disillusioned with academia. I finished my degree, but at the same time I started hanging out in the punk alternative art scene in downtown Toronto. That’s when I started making short experimental Super 8 films and queer punk fanzines.
AS: Were these shorts violent?
BLaB: There wasn't really any violence so much as explicit sex. In both my fanzines and shorts, I started using found pornography and appropriating it. But I also started making my own sexual imagery. I didn't make anything explicit, although I did shoot a few explicit scenes in the early Super 8 films.
AS: And in terms of violence per se?
BLaB: Well, you know, growing up on a farm I saw a lot of violence and bloody carnage––animals being slaughtered and castrated, kittens being drowned. My father was a hunter-trapper, so I would go hunting with him. I would never kill anything myself but I watched a lot of animals being shot. In a way, it was idyllic and close to nature––with beautiful gardens and fields––but there was this undercurrent of violence that was kind of normal.
It was also a pretty rough childhood, because I was kind of a sissy. The farm kids were really rough, and I got bullied. My friends and I were always interested in horror films as well. My friend Candy Pauker made an experimental short film, Interview with a Zombie
, around the same time that I made my first feature, No Skin off My Ass.
In her film, I play a gay zombie who is in love with another zombie, but they devour each other. This was in the early 90s.
AS: On the subject of zombies, I heard that George A. Romero hired Vietnam veterans to work on the set of Night of the Living Dead. They used their war photographs of dead bodies to design the zombie costumes and makeup for the film.
BLaB: Yes, that makes total sense. The imagery is savage in that movie. I mean, the point of Romero's Diary of the Dead
is ultimately: is humanity worth saving?
The zombie is a monstrous reflection of human nature. There are always images of torture [in Romero's films] and that horrible image at the end, where a ripped-up female body is suspended from a tree or a fence. So it seems to come from that imagination.
I studied with a film critic named Robin Wood at university. He passed away a couple of years ago. He was pretty famous. He edited a book called The American Nightmare
about the explosion of underground horror exploitation films in America in the 70s. He attributed it to the American experience in Vietnam.
AS: Is this when the American Dream became the American Nightmare?
BLaB: Yeah! Exactly.
AS: And is your vision of the zombie part of this larger current?
BLaB: For sure. My zombie film Otto; or, Up with Dead People
is inspired by Martin
, Romero’s early vampire film about a very sick teenage boy who likes drinking the blood of girls. Everyone thinks he is a vampire and projects this vampire mythology onto him. His grandfather is from Romania so he thinks his grandson is a real vampire, for example. But he is actually just a fucked-up kid who rejects this metaphorical language and ideas. The same goes for Otto––he could be interpreted as either a fucked-up homeless schizophrenic queer youth with an eating disorder, or a real zombie.
AS: I heard you have a new project, a new movie?
BLaB: Yes, Québec is financing the film. English Canada wouldn't give me any money so I had to go to French Canada.
AS: When will it be out?
BLaB: The script is finished and we plan to go into pre-production in mid-September, then shoot in October. It’s in Montréal. It’s called Gerontophilia
. It won’t be explicit; this is a bit more commercial—for me. But it’s still about a crazy subject—an 18-year-old boy who is a gerontophile. He has a sexual fixation on old people. Really old people. Really, really old people. And he gets a job in a nursing home.
AS: How did you become involved with the New York art scene?
BLaB: I was used to spending a lot of time in New York in the mid-80s, because Toronto is only an hour by plane. By the early 90s, New York became my second city. I got to know if really well and I started collaborating with people. Like a friend of mine, Glenn Belverio. He had a Manhattan cable-TV show called Glennda and Friends
, and a drag persona named Glennda Orgasm. He was really a drag activist––he was political and was very confrontational. He did a couple of shows with the critic Camille Paglia, and they would confront anti-porn feminists on the street and get into fights with them. You know, stuff like that.
Then, in the mid-90s, I started hanging out with Terry Richardson, and I met Ryan McGinley
, Gavin McInnes
, and that whole crowd. I was also introduced to the editor of the porn magazine Honcho
. His name was Mavety. He had a huge porn empire that was 90% straight and 10% gay, like Larry Flint from Hustler
. Richard Kern, whom I also knew (he appeared in the Super 8 ½ film that I made in the early 90s), was doing photography for some of Mavety's magazines like Big Ass
, and I started shooting for the gay ones––Honcho
, Black Inches
, etc. That was what took me down to New York a lot.
I also got involved with Index
magazine. It was published by Peter Halley and was supposed to be the new Interview
. I worked for them a lot, and photographed and interviewed people like Asia Argento, Paul Verhoeven, Bijou Phillips, Eugene Hütz, and Terry Richardson. I introduced Terry and Ryan [McGinley] to Peter, and they started doing a lot of work for Index
AS: How would you explain your interest in the radically opposed punk and queer identities?
BLaB: In the 80s, a few friends of mine and I were gay, but we rejected mainstream gay sensibility, aesthetics, and politics because even then
we thought it was becoming mainstream and bourgeois. We didn't even use the word queer
; we considered ourselves alternative to the gay orthodoxy. Then we turned to punk because, at that time, punk was a very strong reaction against capitalism, corporatism, and Reagan conservatism. But punk also developed into hardcore punk, which was very macho—homoerotic but homophobic too. So we indulged in that and critiqued it at the same time.
AS: Was it an uncomfortable identity?
BLaB: Yeah. It was unsustainable on a certain level. At the time, I had a boyfriend who was a hustler. He was a punk, but more like a punk-leftist in his views. Years after we broke up, he went really right-wing and became a neo-Nazi skinhead. I was still trying to maintain a relationship with him and was kind of turned-on by his image—this working-class, militant, macho guy with boots and a uniform. But his politics were disgusting so it wasn’t very sustainable, you know?
AS: It’s interesting how some energies meet and get to the point where it's totally unbearable.
BLaB: Isn't it the same for art? There is this ambiguity—these moral ambiguities—because nothing is ever straightforward. Your desires and impulses are complex. Artists are figuring it out I guess, or at least representing and exploring it.