Bruce LaBruce: ‘Sometimes there’s a real love underlying fetishism’
The director’s latest film, Gerontophilia, a kind of gay Harold and Maude, is more accessible than the radical films he made his name with. LaBruce’s style might have mellowed slightly, but he hasn’t
‘Gerontophilia’ depicts the romance between a pretty young care attendant (Pier-Gabriel Lajoie) and his 81-year-old charge, Mr Peabody (Walter Borden)
Bruce LaBruce: ‘My friends and I abandoned the gay movement for being too bourgeois as long ago as the 1980s.’ Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
It seems only appropriate that Bruce LaBruce has a shock of ginger hair. Frankly, we would have been disappointed with a more common pigmentation.
“They called me cherry blossom at school,” he smiles. “They didn’t mean it nicely.”
LaBruce exploded on the cinematic landscape during the early 1990s. At a moment when the New Queer Cinema of Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, Cheryl Dunye and Donna Deitch was exploring life beyond the confines of heteronormativity, LaBruce’s milieu remained resolutely underground in form and content. His use of a pointedly degraded aesthetic, stilted B-movie acting and sexually explicit material owed more, by his own reckoning, to the post-punk DIY queercore subculture than it did to New Queer Cinema.
LaBruce made dirty-looking pictures such as Hustler White (1996), a wildly imaginative remake of Sunset Boulevard, replete with hustlers and amputee sex. He was the hippest of them all: the late Kurt Cobain declared that LaBruce’s No Skin Off My Ass (1993) was his favourite film.
Queer movies, including LaBruce’s edgier ones, had arrived. “The 1990s felt like a moment of real liberation,” says LaBruce. “In the 1980s, when the gay movement was struggling with Aids, it was – to put it mildly – a speed bump. But for a moment in the 1990s there were options. There was less policing or language and political correctness. It was a more experimental or libertine culture. It felt like homosexuals were accepted. Now it feels more like a certain kind of homosexual is accepted.”
The Palm Queer
La Bruce, a former student of the late, great Marxist film theorist Robin Wood, has never forgotten the political roots of the gay movement. He is particularly delighted to have been on the Cannes jury that presented Pride – a wonderful drama about the gay community’s support for the British miners’ strikes of the 1980s – with this year’s Queer Palm.
“Robin Wood was my Marxist feminist mentor and a very passionate social activist,” says LaBruce. “And I came out of the punk movement. I think the same thing is true for the feminist movement and the gay movement and the black movement. They were coming from the same place in the 1970s. There were Marxist-based philosophies. They believed in social equality. They believed in class warfare.
“And all of those movements have really capitulated to capitalism. Instead of fighting corrupt institutions, they want to participate.”
It must be odd for a radical thinker such as LaBruce to watch his former comrades embrace old-fashioned bourgeois institutions such as marriage.
“I think there’s a bit of overcompensation going on,” he nods. “There’s a willingness to participate in all these conservative structures and institutions. And in the movement’s fervour to be accepted on an equal footing, they’re not really paying attention to what they’re gaining equal footing with. These are the kind of institutions that we were once diametrically opposed to.”
He sighs. “But my friends and I abandoned the gay movement for being too bourgeois as long ago as the 1980s.”
LaBruce has subsequently blazed his own trail, with a daring milieu that trades on strong females, social taboos, sexual fetishes and good humour. His 2004 satire The Raspberry Reich declared meat, cornflakes, heterosexuality, Madonna and hip-hop as counter-revolutionary. In 2010, LA Zombie (2010) juxtaposed a zombie apocalypse with BDSM and drug-dealing. His 2013 drama Gerontophilia, premiering this weekend at the Gaze festival, does exactly what it says on the tin.
“Fetishes are often misunderstood,” he says. “Sometimes there’s a real reverence and appreciation and love underlying fetishism. That demands our empathy.”
The film, a kind of gay Harold and Maude, depicts the romance between a pretty young care attendant (newcomer Pier-Gabriel Lajoie) and his 81-year-old charge, Mr Peabody, as essayed by the veteran Shakespearean actor Walter Borden. It’s the kind of theme we have come to expect from a Bruce LaBruce movie. But the treatment of that theme is kinder, gentler and not sexually explicit. Is LaBruce mellowing with age?
“The idea was to do something more straightforward and accessible,” he says. “There are a couple of perverse things going on but it’s a gentle story. I worry that I’m always preaching to the converted. I wanted to do something with a broader reach.”
In this spirit, Gerontophilia is lovely to behold, and bears little resemblance to the trash aesthetic of the auteur’s earlier pictures.
“Apparently, I can command bigger budgets now,” says LaBruce. “I go back and forth between no budget and budget, depending on the project. I do enjoy the challenge of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But it was nice working with my highest budget to date. Much more luxurious in terms of camera and lenses.”
Beneath the slick packaging, however, there’s a definite sense of social malaise. When we’re introduced to Peabody, he is overmedicated to a near vegetative state.
“As the elderly get more numerous there’s less money and less social support and less government support to take care of them,” says LaBruce. “So that’s where Mr Peabody finds himself – overmedicated and isolated. He can no longer express his needs.”
LaBruce called his early memoir The Reluctant Pornographer. Does that label still apply? “I get a bit of flak for that. I always express solidarity with pornographers. But I’m not unaware of the problems within pornography, which can be exploitative and can prey on people who are damaged. I can’t wholeheartedly endorse an industry that exploits women. But it is different in the gay world. It’s a bit more proletarian.”
Since Gerontophilia, LaBruce has filmed his transgender-themed theatrical production of Pierrot Lunaire, which he directed for Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer theatre in 2011. It won a Teddy Award at Berlin in February. More than 20 years after his revolutionary debut, Bruce LaBruce is only just clearing his throat.
Gerontophilia is at Gaze International LGBT Film Festival, which runs from tomorrow until August 5. gaze.ie