The talented, Toronto based, director, photographer and writer talks to Dreck Magazine about his MoMA film retrospective, his inspirations, censorship and his future projects.
All images are property of Bruce LaBruce
Your films were featured in a special program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. How do you describe this experience?
My ten day film retrospective at MoMA was really a kind of vindication for me in terms of rewarding my perseverance in making difficult, challenging, and low- or no-budget movies, and pornographic ones at that. I think I can safely say that I’m the only filmmaker to have had a porn movie about neo-Nazi skinheads shown at MoMA (even though it was only the softcore version). It’s kind of difficult to talk about it without blowing my own horn, but I do think that it was an acknowledgement of a certain influence I’ve had in terms of queer filmmaking, underground and guerrilla-style filmmaking, and the necessity of creating a strong aesthetic derived from working within modest means and budgetary limitations. My work tends to give people hope, because if I can do it, anyone can! At least anyone who sticks to their guns and develops their own voice. As The Advocate said of the occasion, “if Bruce LaBruce is at MoMA, anything is possible,” which I thought was a lovely back-handed compliment! Raj Rajendra, the chief MoMA film programmer, said in his introduction to the event that he probably wouldn’t be in his position at MoMA if it weren’t for my work as an influence (he programmed my work way back in the day at New York’s Mix Festival), which I thought was pretty sweet. And it was great to have my friends Bruce Benderson and Slava Mogutin introduce two of my films, creative people whose work I greatly respect.
What do you enjoy most, making films or taking photographs? What are the different creative challenges and satisfactions you get from each of them?
Filmmaking has always been my main focus, mostly because I’ve always been such a keen cinephile. As a queer kid in an isolated rural environment, movies were my main venue of escape, and my education in many ways. I intended originally to be a film critic because I never thought I could make films – too expensive, too technical, too complicated. The whole process is still really challenging for me, but it pretty much forces me to push myself out of my comfort zones and do things I never thought I would be capable of. Photography for me is a kind of extension of filmmaking. I always take production photos while I’m making a movie, or when I do portrait photography, I’m always thinking in terms of cinematic imagery and narrative elements. The two disciplines really compliment each other.
Which artists have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
It’s always difficult to name just a few influences, because there are so many. I’ve been strongly influenced by gay avant-garde filmmakers like Genet, Warhol and Morrissey, Jack Smith, and Kenneth Anger, amongst many others. I’ve been inspired by European art directors like Agnes Varda, Godard, Fassbinder, and Passolini, amongst many others. I’ve been inspired by classic Hollywood directors, from Billy Wilder to Jerry Lewis to Robert Aldrich and on and on, and by seventies maverick directors like Cassavetes, Altman, Frank Perry and Jerry Schatzberg. I would also have to mention surrealists like Bunuel and Cocteau and DuChamp. So many!
What’s your favorite movie quote?
“I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be!” – Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes
Travelling is a part and parcel of your job. Where’s the best place to get ideas for your films?
I travel a lot with my films, so it’s a great opportunity to show the work and get inspired by the reactions of different audiences in a variety of cultures. I showed my film L.A. Zombie, a very difficult film – even the softcore version, which was banned in Australia – in Kiev and Moscow just before the new wave of homophobic laws and attitudes. When I meet people who struggle to make work, particularly queer work, in these kinds of hostile environments, it’s humbling, but also inspiring. I also love shooting films in other cities than my own home-base of Toronto. I’ve shot movies in Berlin, Los Angeles, London, and Montreal. It’s a great way to get to know a city.
Your work is often considered to be provocative, especially by mainstream audiences. How do you see this? Have you ever faced any problems with censorship?
Yes, I’ve been confronted with censorship my entire career. In the early nineties in Toronto I had both movie and photography labs call the cops because they thought my work was pornographic. My films have routinely been censored over the years in the UK, which has always had Draconian censorship policies regarding explicit sexual imagery. As I mentioned, L.A. Zombie was banned in Australia. In 2011 I had an exhibit of photographs in Madrid, called “Obscenity,” a name that came from the notification I got from Canada Customs after a gallery in Porto, Portugal tried to send me back a large batch of Polaroids that I had in a show there. I had to fight to get the work returned to me on the grounds of “artistic merit.” The show at La Fresh Gallery in Madrid, which explored the intersection of sexual and religious ecstasy, caused a huge furor. The Mayor of Madrid tried to have it closed down, and there were picketers outside the gallery for weeks. Someone even threw an explosive device through the front window of the gallery the day after the opening, but it didn’t go off. I also had picketers outside the ICA in London when they had a three week run of my neo-Nazi skinhead porn movie, Skin Flick, in 2000. It’s not always easy going through these tribulations, but it generally is a pretty good indication that you’ve pushed the envelope and have made a strong artistic statement!
One can see that the style of your work has changed during your career. Can you predict your evolution as an artist?
One of my latest films, Gerontophilia, is my most narrative and perhaps somewhat mainstream film to date, with the biggest budget. But the film I released after that, Pierrot Lunaire, was a relatively low-budget, avant-garde opera about a transman who violently acts out against society, and it had some sexually explicit scenes. So my intention is to continue in both of these directions. It’s always terribly difficult and unpredictable, at least for me, to get projects financed, especially if they are exploring taboo subjects, which is generally what interests me. I haven’t chosen an easy path!
What’s your next project? Are you working on a new film right now?
I have three projects in development at the moment. One is already financed, a low-budget, more experimental narrative film called The Misandrists, which is about a group of feminist terrorists. It should be out next year. Another one is called Twincest, but it is in the very early stages of development. But hope springs eternal!
Interview by Yiannis Skarakis