All images via the Toronto International Film Festival.
For more than two decades, Canadian queercore auteur, writer, photographer, artist, (and frequent VICE contributor), Bruce LaBruce, has made films that have intended to shock us all out of a heteronormative (and homonormative) mainstream and conformist existence. LaBruce has a well-earned reputation for unapologetically demolishing taboos. Some of his previous films have revolved around neo-Nazi skinheads who have gay sex but don’t identify as gay and are actually homophobic, well-meaning but ineffectual lefty terrorists who jerk off onto posters of Che Guevara (link NSFW), and alien zombies that fuck people back to life.
LaBruce’s latest film, Gerontophila, takes a drastic step away from his traditionally NC-17 past—it’s his first feature film to not include any sexually explicit scenes. So we caught up with the filmmaker during World Pride to discuss his 20-plus years of filmmaking, what's changed about gay culture since he was just a young punk in Toronto, and the process of getting government funding to make a movie about a teenage boy who fetishizes the elderly.
VICE: Your films all tell stories about outsiders rebelling against sexual and societal norms. What's important to you about telling these stories, and what keeps drawing you back to that theme?
Bruce LaBruce: Well, for me, it's making films about characters that are underrepresented, usually in films and in media. I quite often have, for example, strong feminist revolutionary-type characters. Or characters who regard themselves as revolutionary. They're always presented affectionately—sometimes they're also made fun of a bit because revolutionaries always are a little idealistic and they paint themselves into corners or contradict themselves—but just to present strong female feminist-type characters is kind of rare in movies.
In terms of the gay world, the gay movement has become recently conservative and assimilationist and one of the bi-products of that is it tends to disassociate itself from its more unruly or fringe elements—the ones that were at the forefront of the gay liberation movement to begin with. I think people need to be continually reminded that those characters were the backbone of the gay liberation movement. And my films also question not only the dominant culture, but the gay orthodoxy as well. They challenge the conventions of what it means to be gay, or conventions about gender, or beauty, or aesthetics, or politics.
Are you trying to reach a certain audience within the gay community?
Sometimes. Even though I might consciously be trying to do that, it's not something you can control. I've often been neglected by the gay mainstream. Over the years some people haven't been very happy with the way I represent homosexuality in my work. So, it doesn't necessarily reach that kind of audience. Also for me as a filmmaker, I try to make films that are cinema first, and so that's why I've made a lot of films that have explicit gay sex in them but they've played at international film festivals. Three of my films have premiered at Sundance. Even LA Zombie— which is a crazy gore porn—was in competition at the Locarno Film Festival.
If you go with the idea that first you're making a film and that you're making cinema—not to be pretentious—then it has a broader appeal automatically because the content is secondary to what you're saying, how you're saying it, formal aspects and how it fits into the tradition of filmmaking.
How has gay culture changed over the course of your career and how have these changes informed your work?
The funny thing is, even in the mid-80s, my friends and I rejected the gay mainstream because we thought it had become too bourgeois and assimilationist. So you can imagine how we feel now, 30 years later. It's a bit disheartening sometimes. I grew up with this generation of the gay movement that was all about sexual militancy. The engine of the gay movement was sex and it was about challenging the conventions of the mainstream in terms of gender and sexuality. It was about sexual liberation. And then with AIDS in the 80s and 90s it was a real kind of…I guess as an understatement, you could call it a speed bump. Or it was a real kind of sea change in terms of activism; it became a health crisis, etcetera. Now we're at a point where there's a certain thrust of the gay movement that is more conservative. It even sometimes translates into a moralistic attitude toward this kind of extreme or militant sexuality.
I collaborate regularly with transsexual performers and artists and sometimes I consider gay porn stars and certain transsexual performers as kind of the last gay radicals at a certain level, because they really are challenging basic assumptions about sex and gender.
Today, there's a much higher visibility of trans folk and queers of colour. Laverne Cox is on the cover of TIME, for example, and RuPaul's Drag Race is a huge success. Do you think the politics of respectability are changing?
It's a complicated issue because then you have the backlash against RuPaul, for example, from within the LGBTTQTT-SI community, which is interesting. But that's always happened. If people will recall, there was a huge rift within the feminist community in the 80s between anti-porn feminists and pro-porn feminists about whether or not this kind of sexual behaviour can be controlled or policed, or if language can be policed, or representation can be policed or controlled.
I've always fought against that. I've always fought for politically incorrect expression as long as you can back it up and are doing it consciously or for some kind of purpose. That's something, to me, that's always important because any kind of orthodoxy needs to be challenged. Any kind of censorship or policing of representation or language also has to be really challenged, I think.
Image from Bruce LaBruce's 1996 film, "Hustler White."
In the past you've said that it's fashionable to be gay—I'm reading this from one of your VICE columns—so long as you're the “right kind” of gay. Do you think that’s changing or broadening?
Yes and no. Then there's the other issue, which is probably more problematic: what is the strategy of these subculture movements?
In the 70s and 80s, the black movement, the gay movement, the feminist movement, they were all very hardcore leftist, sometimes even Marxist-based kind of movements. That has definitely changed. Particularly now, it's like you have acceptance of some of these groups because they are playing in the same kind of playing field as the dominant culture. Does feminism make sense if women are trying to compete in the same kind of corrupt institutions that men are excelling in or that have power in? That's a certain kind of strategy. The other strategy is to actually challenge the institutions, and challenge the dominant ideology and the status quo because it isn't working.
The transsexual performers that you've mentioned are still operating in this specific idea of mainstream success—of glamour, and being accepted as these powerful women, but in the context of a system that you could say is arguably corrupt at some levels.
You mentioned that you wanted to reach a mainstream audience with Gerontophila and that this is your first film without sexually explicit content. Did that make it a different experience for you making this film?
It was a different experience and it was intended to be a different experience. I felt like I'd really explored the pornographic a lot and that I kind of got into—I don't know if you call it a rut—but this expectation that I would make a film and every time outdo myself and push further and make it more and more extreme. I made a neo-Nazi porn film where a character jerks off on Mein Kampf, and then in Raspberry Reich a character jerks off on a poster of Che Guevara, and then in Otto, one zombie fucks another one in the hole in his stomach, and then LA Zombie was kind of the ultimate where an alien zombie fucks dead bodies back to life. So I was like, Where can you go from there? I'd really pushed it about as far as I could go. So then, for me, it was like, What can I do that's kind of shocking? Maybe to make something kinder and gentler and more mainstream would be the most shocking thing that I could do. It was the idea from the very beginning to make that kind of film and to make a film in a completely different kind of process.
I quite often make guerrilla-style films with low budgets, a very small crew, very helter skelter. This one, the whole process of making the film was completely different. There was lots of preparation time, professional casting and actors, and working with a union crew.
Image from Bruce LaBruce's "Super 8 1/2."
I read that this was your first film that you had government funding for.
I've had Arts Council funding before for lower-budget films, but this was the first time I got Telefilm and SODEC, which is funding from Quebec.
I know this isn't really how it works, but it's funny to imagine the Stephen Harper government giving money to a film about gerontophilia. What was the funding experience like for you?
Well, considering that there's supposed to be a whole secret gay cabinet in the Conservative government, maybe it's not so strange. And they're all kind of old, so maybe they'd even like this film. But it was still a struggle. I had to go to Telefilm like three times before I finally got the financing. The interest in financing the film came mostly from Quebec, so we shot it in Montreal. But it was still a struggle. It's not as if I haven't tried this before. I tried several times over the last 15 years to get scripts that were meant to be not sexually explicit, slightly more independent narrative films made, and I just wasn't successful in getting the financing. So this is the first time that it really all came together.
I want to come back to Gerontophilia and your intention to make a more mainstream film. Were you hoping to draw more attention to the subject matter itself? We don't really hear about gerontophiles, or even sexuality within the elderly community.
It kind of annoyed me that sexuality in the elderly is almost always portrayed in the media as grotesque or something predatory—like the cougar. I just thought it would be interesting to do something more romantic, and still subversive.
Lake, the boy [in the film] who is the gerontophile, is questioning all sorts of cultural conventions and going against even nature, and going against culturally what is considered beautiful or sexual or sexually stimulating. So he's going against all these conventions and ends up kind of being a revolutionary in that regard.
The Baby Boomer generation is getting older, there are more and more old people because people are living longer.
They are being over-medicated in the institutions, their sexuality is being discouraged. There was a story recently about these old women in an institution in New Jersey who hired a male stripper to come in. The children and grandchildren were totally outraged because they thought it was the institution that did it, but it was actually the old women who pooled their money to bring in this stripper.
Women are outliving men generally and in mixed institutions women outnumber the men, and I've heard stories or read about how they put locks on the doors of the men because the women are trying to get into their rooms to have sex with the old men. There's a lot going on in those places. They have a lot of time on their hands. Sexuality doesn't go away.
Skin Flicks: The Films of Bruce LaBruce will be presented at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto until July 4, as part of the Bent Lens: Pride on Screen series hosted by TIFF and the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival.