It is a true honor to sit down with artist, filmmaker, and man of letters Bruce LaBruce this month for Psychology of Aesthetics and Politics Magazine. An internationally acclaimed filmmaker, photographer, writer, and artist based in Toronto, Bruce LaBruce has written and directed nine feature films: including his most recent, Gerontophilia, which won the Grand Prix at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal in 2013.
Most recently in 2015, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hosted a retrospective of his work which featured all nine of LaBruce’s features, as well as a program of short films. All of the films have now become part of MoMA’s permanent film collection.
Welcome aboard, Bruce! Wow, I am so thrilled to have you with us today! I am almost speechless, but I have written down some questions beforehand so luckily I have something to start with for us 🙂
Bruce LaBruce: (laughs and giggles) Thanks for having me Robert, it is a pleasure to be on board with YOU.
(regaining composure) Thanks Bruce. Well to begin, I am really curious how you became interested in nude and fetish art? Was this something that you had always been drawn to since an early age, or did it develop over time for you? Were there any people who were influential in introducing this type of artwork and life experience to you?
This is an enormously complex question. I suppose I would have to start with my childhood. I was born on a 200-acre farm in Canada, the middle of five children. (A sixth, my parents’ first born, died in infancy. He was a redhead, like my father, and I was the only other redheaded child, so my parents often framed me as his “replacement.”) I was separated by five years from the siblings older and younger than myself, so I spent quite a lot of time alone and solitary, thereby developing a rich fantasy life. I had two imaginary friends, both male, one decidedly “gay.” I was a sickly child, suffering from bouts of glandular fever and other ailments that made me constantly weak and fatigued. I missed two to three months of school in the first grade, so I was always behind and playing catch-up. I remember cheating off the test papers of other students to gain an edge, and my reading comprehension was far behind. But I soon became an accelerated student, set apart from the other kids, favoured, and thereby resented by the average students. I had bright orange ringlets and thick freckles (I was often mistaken for a girl, which deeply humiliated me), and I always had a marked tendency to slightly outrageous dressing, even in early public school. When I was in first grade my parents were dismayed when they realized that all ten of the classmates that I invited to my birthday party were girls. (I was quickly “encouraged” to cultivate male companionship.) I skipped roped and became attached to my eldest sister’s Raggedy Anne doll. In grade three, a tall boy pulled down my pants in front of the class.
It was just my pants, not my underwear, but I was intensely humiliated, but also fascinated by the power of this transgression. As a preschooler, I was tortured by nightmares, sometimes involving erotic or, shall we say, oral and anal themes. They were so intense that I had to sleep with the light on for six months, and if I went upstairs to go to the bathroom, my mother would have to stand at the bottom until I was finished. One of the most intense dreams involved me sitting on the toilet while a skeleton was coming toward me down the hall to break in and kill me. Only my mother could save me, racing back from town while the monster thwarted the rest of my family one by one.
The other, a very early erotic dream (I was perhaps three or four), involved me entering my mother’s closet and being enveloped into the comforting arms of a large gorilla. As a sickly child, my parents often allowed me to crawl into bed between them, which I remember quite vividly. I also remember the disappointment I felt the night I was turned away from their bed for the first time. When I was around eleven or twelve I had a rather sadistic, handsome, and physically fit male math and gym teacher for homeroom. He wore very skimpy sports clothes in class that stimulated my libido quite heavily. I began to have rape fantasies about him involving confinement, bondage, etc. I have no idea where these came from, as it was obviously very much pre-internet, and I had no visual or conceptual references, aside from television and movies. But I know that I was deeply influenced and prematurely sophisticated by the movies, which my parents instilled a love for in their children. I became precociously adult-minded in my youth, encouraged by a brilliant and intellectually superior sister, five years my elder, who became my main mentor until we became estranged in my twenties. Otherwise, I was deeply influenced by the heavily coded gay character Doctor Smith on Lost in Space, who had a strong bond with sexual undertones with the young Will Robinson, whom I resembled.
The farm, which I now refer to as “the cruel farm,” was the site of constant slaughter and castration. My parents were wonderful, but my father was a bit of throwback, a kind of strong, silent Daniel Boone type, who also made his living from hunting and trapping using rather antiquated techniques. I refused to kill animals myself, but watched them being killed all the time, sometimes savagely or cruelly in the context of hunting and trapping. I watched as my father castrated the pigs, or killed two hundred chickens, one by one. My grandfather routinely drowned kittens in the trough. We had a bore and a bull to breed the livestock, so from a young age I also often saw animals having sexual intercourse.
My grandmother was a huge influence, a city “flapper” who participated in black-bottom contests, now trapped on the farm. She was extremely eccentric, wore thick make-up while feeding the chickens on their adjacent farm.
I had a dog when I was two or three, but according to my parents, it began to be jealous of me and bite me, so my father took Tippy behind the barn and shot him. I was only told this when I turned 18.
That’s the childhood background, which is of course always relevant in terms of early sexual development. I should also mention that I was badly bullied for a year in grade seven, to the point of feeling suicidal. I attended a rural public school with very rough kids and, for the most part, stern teachers who would shake you until your teeth rattled.
In highs school I was pretty obviously gay (I’ve always felt gay as far back as I can remember), but not so effeminate that there couldn’t be some doubt, or denial from everyone, including myself. My mother was always very ambitious for her children (she and my father only had grade eight education, but they were enormously bright and liberal), so we were all pushed out of the nest at eighteen and sent to university, and I had to work to supplement the cost, including a six-month stint at the local nuclear power plant. I wanted to be a writer since public school, and in high school decided to be a film critic. I had a difficult time dealing with my homosexuality at university.
I was forced to repress my sexuality all through high school, so it took me a while to sort it out. I lost my virginity at 22 to a young actor from New York that I took a summer dance class with, but then didn’t have sex again for another year. This was in the early to mid eighties, so it corresponded with both the gay liberation movement in full swing, and with the advent of AIDS, which always terrified me. But when I tapped into my sexuality, it was like the return of the repressed, and it came out with a vengeance, in full “velvet rage” dudgeon. I did a lot of drugs and alcohol, and generally had to be drunk to have sex. I went to gay saunas often and became highly sexually active. Although I realized much later that I was self-medicating, I have also always been a pleasure-seeker, someone who likes to explore altered states of consciousness and transcendent experiences, especially through drugs and sex.
At university, Robin Wood, a very well regarded and influential film critic who had come out as gay in middle age, mentored me. Reading his essay The Responsibility of the Gay Art Critic” could be regarded as the beginning of my “politicization” in terms of the gay movement, and Marxist thought. I began to relax more with my gayness, but it still developed with the same intensity, militancy, and experimentalism that characterized the sexuality of many gay men of the era. I attended grad school, eventually getting a Masters degree in Film and Social and Political Thought. I took a course called Psychoanalysis and Feminism, for which I was forced to read all of Lacan translated into English at the time. I became disillusioned with academia, and started to hang out in the punk and underground art scenes in Toronto, making fanzines and short experimental films. The punk scene at the time was transitioning to hardcore, which meant thrash music, the mosh pit, and hot, sweaty male bodies covered in tattoos and adorned with Mohawks, unless they were skinheads. It was a highly sexualized and homoerotic scene, but strangely repressed, full of sexism and homophobia. I was alienated from the gay world, which, already in the mid eighties, had become, in my estimation, conventional, bourgeois, and assimilationist. But my female punk friends and I were also distraught by the misogyny and homophobia of the scene, so we started to make fanzines and super 8 films that were frankly homosexual, featuring found gay pornography, nudity, and images of gay bondage altered to reflect a punk aesthetic. One particular friend, a transgender woman seven years my senior, became my main mentor in terms of far left and sexual politics, a replacement figure for my estranged sister, who never dealt well with my homosexuality. After being beat up several times at hardcore punk shows for being gay, even once by my own punk hustler boyfriend, who had turned into a neo-Nazi skinhead, for which I humiliated and taunted him, I developed a strong fetish for skinheads, particularly in the context of sexual domination and submission, but also aesthetically, although certainly not politically. My imagery was ambiguous and ambivalent, including a sexual stimulation by fantasies of submission to macho and even fascist figures (as was common in the gay leather scene), but at the same time critiquing the extreme right wing political posturing of certain youth subcultures.
We would get straight punks drunk and take nude pictures of them, then publish them in our homo-fanzine. I started pushing the porn imagery further and further, and began dabbling in making my own, albeit very naïve or “art brut” pornography, featuring myself performing explicit sex with others. Although I considered what I was doing as political art/porn, I gained a reputation as a pornographer, again all pre-internet.
I was influenced by the great gay avant-garde of cinema, filmmakers who always dabbled in pornographic and fetish imagery, starting with Jean Genet and Kenneth Anger, right up through Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, James Bidgood, the Kuchar Brothers, John Waters, etc. I was also heavily influenced by the great gay porn avant-garde, filmmakers who worked in 16mm film in the seventies combining hardcore pornography with experimental film themes and aesthetics, pornographers such as Fred Halsted, Wakefield Poole, Peter de Rome, and Peter Berlin. Punk was always about shock value, sexual and political ambiguity, sexual ambivalence, and political incorrectness, so I almost became addicted to the idea of pushing my imagery further and further, transgressing taboos, pushing boundaries, representing the unrepresentable. I started shooting for gay porn magazines, where I was able to explore fetish imagery. Meanwhile, my producer and I segued into the professional hardcore porn industry, and I began working with real porn actors and making actual porn films. I tried to work within the conventions of porn, but also drew attention to the conventions, or contravened them, for artistic purposes. Blood, gore, and gorn imagery began to emerge in my film and photography work early on – probably the result of witnessing so much carnage of the farm as a sensitive gay child. (Sublimation through art is always the best way to work through such trauma.) Eventually I began to incorporate a certain amount of religious and spiritual imagery in my work, mixed with blood, violence, dominance, submission, and transcendence. I became interested in the intersection between sexual and religious ecstasy. I also began to explore specific fetishes, such as sexual fixations on amputees, bloodletting, violent skinheads, extreme left wing revolutionaries, foot fetishists, zombies, necrophiles, gerontophiles, etc. But throughout it all I maintained a certain romantic sensibility, both in message and aesthetics, a critical distance, and a sense of irony.
I often use distanciation techniques that foreground the mechanics of narrative viewership and voyeurism. And I always tried to maintain a sense of humour, expressed through a camp sensibility.
Robert Frashure: Since your works might appear provocative to some viewers, I am curious what kinds of reactions you are hoping for from viewers and how you deal with it all!
Are you hoping they might be challenged or shocked, seduced and stimulated, tickled with humor and irony, or maybe inspired?
And since some viewers might react to provocation with criticism and anger, has your reaction to others’ criticism changed over time, in terms of how it impacts you?
Since my early films and fanzines started out as a kind of political provocation, the notion of provoking people for political purposes became part of the raison d’etre of the work. Although it has become more normalized with the Internet, when I started appearing having sex in my own sexually explicit films, it was really crossing a line. Once you did it, people looked at you differently, either as some kind of sexualized being who has no sexual boundaries, an exhibitionist (which I’m not at all, at least sexually), or a freak. A lot of people look down their noses at people involved in making pornography, even though they may watch porn privately. So you have to deal with judgment, or moral approbation, or even hostility. Taking a cure from the Situationists, I started propping myself up as a kind of spectacle which I hid behind, a carefully crafted persona that was quite different from my private self. My persona was a more brash, aggressive, and militant punk, wild and out of control, a hard-fucking, hard-partying, anarchistic character. Off-stage, I was a much more private, soft-spoken person, sensitive and cerebral, and a bit lonely. (I didn’t have my first proper boyfriend until I was 29, although I did have the aforementioned gay for pay, hustler boyfriend at 26, who was dating girls the whole time I was seeing him.) My film Super 8 ½ was a quasi-autobiographical work about how I dealt with my international reputation as a crazy pornographic punk. In the film, it sends me into a straight-jacket. I really did almost have a nervous breakdown in real life while trying to complete the film, which took me two years. My success, as underground as it was, still caused riffs with my boyfriend and some of my closest friend, so I became even more isolated. I went into psychotherapy for the first time, with an Adlerian, for close to a year, and he really helped me get through it. Sadly, while I was on tour with the film, he died of pancreatic cancer.
So that’s the background of my career as a provocateur. I became more reconciled with my split persona, and I continued to make provocative work. I became known for having a particularly transgressive shocking scene in a film, and it became almost a challenge for me to outdo myself with each subsequent movie – the amputee stumping scene in Hustler White, the neo-Nazi boy jerking off onto a copy of Mein Kampf in Skin Flick, the gut-fucking scene in Otto, the necrophilia and body penetration in L.A. Zombie, etc. I became interested as an artist in the idea of why certain things aren’t supposed to be represented, what makes them taboo, what the ethical and moral implications of showing extreme sexual scenes in a film. Early on, I had a policy of never making someone do in a movie something I wasn’t willing to do myself. I tried to work only with people who knew what they were doing and why they were doing it. So I was pretty comfortable with my methods, but it was still difficult to deal with the blowback. The number one credo of my mentor in university, Robin Wood, was “question authority,” which I took to heart. I was always driven to question conventions, question the rules of filmmaking, of representation. I wanted people to question their own assumptions about what art is, what pornography is, and to blur the distinction between the two. But of course I always work with humour, irony, and a camp sensibility, so it tends to make my work more accessible, less threatening. I also always wanted to make movies that stimulated people both sexually and intellectually, and I became convinced that I could do both at once. And because my work has always been a romantic view of queer outsiders, misfits, and disenfranchised minorities, I understood that my work deeply affected those types of people, and inspired them. I can’t tell you how many people now tell me that a certain film of mine came along at a certain time of their life, and it gave them permission to liberate themselves in some way, or to rethink their assumptions, or to challenge their prejudices or limitations. I’m also often told that people use my films as a litmus test – they show them to someone they’re dating, and if they can’t handle it or don’t get it, they toss them to the curb! Lol.
In the beginning, I was extremely sensitive about criticism or hostility directed toward my films, and myself and I would lash out in my public writing, or get discouraged or depressed. But over the years, I learned to cope better, and to understand that people are threatened when the status quo is put into question, or when their own safe assumptions about life or sex or politics are challenged.
My films are often ambiguous in terms of what my actual take on the subject is – is he being sarcastic or ironic, or is it meant sincerely. I’ve come to understand that I can do both at the same time – I can satirize a subject, or critique it severely (as I did with the Radical Left in The Raspberry Reich), and still embrace it and believe in aspects of it at the same time. But it also represents a certain ambivalence – toward sex, toward political commitment, especially when it becomes doctrinaire or rote, even toward homosexuality. My philosophy of homosexuality often goes against the grain of the gay orthodoxy. I support Freud’s concept of constitutional bisexuality, so I think that if you are a Kinsey 6 (or 7, like me), you have basically repressed part of your sexuality, and vice versa for Kinsey 1’s. I don’t believe gays are born that way, but that it is a combination of nature and nurture, and I believe that homosexuality does essentially go against nature. But for me, that’s a good thing! Some gays now find this concept almost heretical.
In general, I haven’t developed a thick skin, because an artist has to remain open and sensitive. But I have learned to take it less personally and to regard criticism as necessary, and, if constructive, useful. I am very found of my many zero star reviews over the years, or reviews full of contempt, and even hatred. I wear them as a badge of honour. Even the one critic who gave me below zero stars lol.
Robert Frashure: Over the course of your career, you’ve been interviewed many times! I am curious how this process of talking about your art and has impacted the kind of work you make and perhaps how you think of yourself as an artist.
Is there a favorite interview that you’ve done? Do you generally enjoy being interviewed, does it add insight into your life or is it a necessary burden?
I enjoy doing interviews, especially by email, when I can really think about and articulate my answers, or on live radio, which is more spontaneous. I’m not fond of on-camera interviews. I regard the promotion of my films – interviews, appearances, social media – as part of the artistic process. I started out as an academic of sorts, or at least aspiring to be one, so writing has always been dear to me. I’ve been a columnist for many years, and I still write film criticism now, for a website called Talkhouse. I find that interviews help me to understand my own work and find connections and subtexts in my work that I wasn’t previously aware of. Back in the day, I sometimes used to interview myself, using my real name as the interviewer (another instance of my “split personality).” One of my favourite interviews was when I appeared in France on Le Grand Journal on CanalPlus, a very widely viewed entertainment show that is viewed nightly be millions of people. I appeared with Pier-Gabriel Lajoie, the star of my film Gerontophilia, which was very popular and well received in France. It was fun to do something so high-pressure, especially when you’re talking about a delicate subject. JT LeRoy also interviewed me once for Filmmaker Magazine, the infamous teen prostitute transgender author who was later revealed to be the fictional construct of Laura Albert, a woman in her forties. It was a conversation between four people – two split personalities!
I’ve also interviewed a lot of artists and filmmakers over the years myself, which I find quite illuminating, everyone from Gus Van Sant to John Waters to Asia Argento to Paul Verhoeven to Joseph Stefano to John Doe to Peter Berlin to Udo Kier to Karen Black to Wakefield Poole to Holly Woodlawn, and on and on.
I studied a lot of psychoanalytic theory in university. I read a good deal of Freud, as well as post-Freudians like Wilhelm Reich, Donald Winnicott, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan, etc. I’m sure some of this theory has creeped into my work, particularly as I regard pornography as a kind of collective unconscious whereby people can work out a lot of dark, politically incorrect, and taboo fantasies, such as rape fantasies, for example. Rape scenes figure prominently in a number of my films, usually with the added political dimension of race or class. Sexual aggression, domination, and submission often figure in my work. I’ve always subscribed to Freud’s theory of the tendency toward the debasement of the love object. Probably because I do deal with a lot of psychoanalytic fodder in my work – fetishes, sexual fixations, projection, sublimation, schizophrenia (in my zombie films in particular), the death instinct, etc. – I have garnered some attention from psychoanalytic circles. A fellow named Francesco Bollorino interviewed me on video last year, on the occasion of my MoMA Film Retrospective in NYC, for the website of the International Psychoanalytic Association. I think he has a good grasp of my work. My mentor Robin Wood often used Freudian psychoanalytic theory in his film criticism, and there’s a lot of theory about how the very mechanics of film – the screen, projection, identification, the subliminal frames, the dream state, etc. – mirror a lot of the phases of psychological and psychosexual development. I think it’s good for filmmakers to be critics of other people’s films – to study them and parse them and psychoanalyze them. But I’m not sure it’s totally a good idea to do the same to your own films. I personally find the creative process extremely mysterious and ethereal. I often don’t know where my ideas come from, or don’t remember writing my screenplays. I think a lot of it is allowing yourself to be open to your subconscious and tapping into ideas and concepts that are universal, symbolic, or totemic. In my film Super 8 ½, the filmmaker character I play has made a number of porn films that the intellectual critics discovered and started to praise as art. Once this happens, he has a mental block, and can no longer make films. Self-consciousness of your artistic process is not always a good idea!
Several years ago I did a theatre piece at the Hau Theater in Berlin called The Bad Breast, which was quite a deep investigation into the theory and methods of Melanie Klein. I even had two Kleinian psychoanalysts come to one of my rehearsals so I could get a sense of what the therapy actually involves. One of them saw the final piece, and was very upset by it, partly I think because it was quite sexual and queer, and partly because I tackled taboos like mother-son incest and female hysteria in a highly melodramatic way. I also critiqued psychoanalysis in capitalist terms.