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24 June 2014

Bruce LaBruce: "I am the problem child of the New Queer Cinema."

In conversation with Bruce LaBruce was Anna Pigareva - journalist, critic and student of the Master's Program: Art Criticism and Curatorial Studies at the Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences, St. Petersburg State University.

Almost all your films, except the last two Gerontophilia and Pierrot Lunaire are pornography films with frank scenes of gay sex and professional porn actors. However, you prefer to call yourself The Reluctant Pornographer. What do you mean?

Actually, I've really only made three true porn films Skin Flick/Skin Gang, The Raspberry Reich/The Revolution is My Boyfriend, and L.A. Zombie/L.A. Zombie Hardcore. For each one I made a hardcore version and a softcore version more suitable for festival and theatrical release. My first three feature films, No Skin Off My Ass, Super 8 ½, and Hustler White, are what I consider art films with sexually explicit scenes. The same can be said for my films. Otto; or, Up with Dead People and Pierrot Lunaire. Gerontophilia is the first feature film I've made without a sexually explicit scene. I named my premature memoir The Reluctant Pornographer after the Don Knotts movie The Reluctant Astronaut. I've always considered myself an interloper in the porn world, and as an artist who uses porn for political purposes. Although I express solidarity with pornographers, I've never fully identified with the term. My films are too analytical and too formally distanced from the subject matter to be considered unadulterated porn. I'm also ambivalent toward the more exploitational and unsavoury aspects of porn, as any salient being would be.

Critics also call you a pornographic Brecht because of using estranging techniques in filmmaking. For example, representation of sex in your films could be conceived as a political gesture. Do you believe that being sexual is in a way political? And in what way being a homosexual determines a political position?

I came to fruition as an artist, so to speak, during the gay sexual liberation movement. The engine of the gay movement in the seventies and eighties, right up to the mid nineties, was militant, extreme, and unapologetic sex and sexual experimentation. I used pornographic imagery in my films, photographs, and writing as a direct and confrontational expression of homosexuality, so it was political in that sense. I've also tried to present a complex and at times politically incorrect expression of homosexuality, intersecting its extreme and explicit representation with religious imagery, iconography and historical references from other militant movements, horror and gore imagery, etc. I've tried to present homosexuality in a historically and psychologically complex manner, not shying away from its darker or more disturbing manifestations. For me, this is also political in its challenging of the status quo of both the dominant culture and of the gay mainstream.

Shattering the borders of homo-normativity, youve criticized extreme left and extreme right gay-radicals, even made films about gay-zombies, which could be identified with anonymous majority of gay-conformists. In your last works youve switched over from topics connected with gay-culture to other themes. Do you feel like having exhausted the subject?  

Not necessarily. My work has always represented taboos, fetishes, and transgressive sexual behaviour in many forms. Lately, with my films Offing Jack and Pierrot Lunaire, with my music video for the Danko Jones song Legs, and with my photography, I have been collaborating with a number of transexual artists and performers, as I see them as the new queer radicals. I would still consider completing my gay zombie trilogy if I came up with a concept that was fresh and relevant. It's still an evolving genre.

In Gerontophilia a story about sexual relationship between a young male nurse and his 80-year-old patient instead of sex and violence scenes appears romantic comedy stylistics. Is this a turn to mainstream filmmaking or just a one more trick?

How dare you! LOL.

It was my intention with Gerontophilia to try another fresh approach, and to make a completely different style of movie. However, I still wanted to choose a subject that was consistent with my previous work. I approached the fetish of gerontophilia in what I consider a more gently subversive way, without the usual shock value and pornographic politics of my previous films. It is intended for a broader audience, but the message remains the same: transgressive sexual behavior and fetishes are not necessarily nasty or disgusting, they can have a romantic aspect, and can be emotionally affective. This idea appears in many of my films, but buy removing the sexual explicitness and concentrating more on aesthetics and a more conventional narrative, I've been able to reach a new and broader audience. This isn't necessarily a new direction in my work, but an attempt to try something different. Ideally I would like to make all kinds of films.

Do you feel limited after having refused radical forms of expressions with the view of attracting wide audience?

Not at all. Making a movie with a bigger budget and in a more controlled setting gave me more freedom in certain specific ways, including the professionals I had access to work with, more preparation time, access to better equipment, etc. This is not to say I don't still really love my guerilla style of films, their process and aesthetics. It's just a different way of working. Both of their advantages and disadvantages. I love the freedom and spontaneity and danger of shooting guerilla style, for example.

Your last film Pierrot Lunaire much differs both from your porn experiments and Gerontophilias style. How did you get an idea to combine Schönbergs opera with the transgender issue?

In my research of Schoenberg and Pierrot Lunaire, I discovered that although the title character is male, it is always performed by a female. This gave me the idea of applying the true-life story of a trans-man to my stage production, and also to the cinematic adaptation. Pierrot is traditionally a love-sick, lonely, and somewhat violent character, so it made sense to use this story of a trans-man acting out violently against a society that despises him and prevents him from pursuing his desires. Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire was also heavily influenced by the French Grand Guignol theater, which often depicted grotesque and bloody scenes involving amputation, murder and guillotines! So this story I'd heard about a trans-man who cuts off the cock of another man so that he can have A Cock of One's Own seemed to fit perfectly.

Can you tell about staging of Pierrot Lunaire that preceded the film?

My frequent collaborator and muse Susanne Sachsse and the conductor Premil Petrovic approached me with the idea of directing Pierrot Lunaire on stage, with Susanne playing Pierrot and Premil conducting the band. The secured the financing for a production mounted at the storied Hebbel Am Ufer Theater in Berlin. I applied the previously mentioned story, which occurred in Toronto in 1978, to the production, and adopted a kind of silent film aesthetic along with a German Expressionist overlay, techniques which I also applied to the film version, which incorporates some of the documentation of the stage production.

In Pierrot Lunaire youre jeering on gender stereotypes. Is it possible to say that protest against sticking labels on peoples sexuality is one of the main themes of your films?  

Absolutely. I've always believed in Freud's theory of constitutional bisexuality that everyone is born with at least some bisexual potential. The sexologist Kinsey also suggested that many people have a spectrum of sexual desires between the polar opposites of exclusive homosexuality and heterosexuality. I've always eschewed fixed sexual identity and presented characters with a more fluid sexuality. The dominant culture is sexually repressed, but so is the gay orthodoxy  that insists on the biological fixedness of sexual identity. So even though I'm, somewhat regretfully, a Kinsey 6, I often feel my bisexuality has been hopelessly repressed!

In Pierrot Lunaire you appeal to German Expressionist tradition, in other films one can find references to such classic pictures as Clockwork Orange and Fellinis . Is it important for you to reach a kind of multi-layer composition and why?  

Yes, my films are often hyper-referential, partly because, for better or worse, I come from that era of postmodernism, and partly because I've always been a rampant and unabashed cinephile. I often steal lines of dialogue, narratives, and characters from other films, but the important thing is to assimilate or sometimes recuperate  them in order to achieve your own unmistakable style.

Do you refer yourself to New Queer cinema movement?

Yes and no. I have certain affinities with what is considered New Queer Cinema, but my work has been far more underground, pornographic, and problematic than most of the films associated with that genre. Perhaps I am the problem child of the New Queer Cinema.

Do you think youve scored any success in breaking taboos and constraints of dominant heterosexual culture?

I think the fact that my homosexually explicit and confrontational, political, and politcally-incorrect films have played at countless international film festivals attests to the fact that I've had some impact, at least in cinematic terms, on the dominant culture. My films have premiered at the Sundance and Venice and Locarno film festivals, and have caused untold numbers of distrubed heterosexuals (and repressed homosexuals) to walk or run out of the cinema in disgust or rage (or occasionally boredom, I suppose). L.A Zombie was famously banned in Australia, and the gallery that hosted my photo exhibit Obscenity in Madrid caused Catholic groups to picket in protest and inspired someone to throw an explosive device through the window of the gallery.  So that's cool. Even a provocative, avant-garde film of mine like Pierrot Lunaire, about a trans-man, is playing at major international festivals like Edingburgh Moscow, and Karlovy Valy. Hopefully, in these contexts, my work has some kind of modest impact. 

Interviewer:  Anna Pigareva