By Michael Varrati
As far as I’m concerned, the advent of the internet all but killed legitimate counterculture. That is not to say that things outside the mainstream ceased to exist, but it is now infinitely easier to become “in the know.” That smug sense of inclusivity associated with the knowledge of an obscure band or film was rendered obsolete when it was revealed that the world at large could track down anything with a simple stroke of the keys. You can’t insult Johnny Football now with your favorite Black Flag lyrics, because a quick trip to Google later, and he’ll know the score.
Even more frightening, Johnny Football might even become a Black Flag fan.
With everything in the world being available to anybody at any time, there are many critics who argue that true renegade art exists no longer. While I tend to agree that a certain sense of ambiance that once was the glue of the outlaw community has been lost, I would never presume to definitively state that such things were left to the past. As long as there are social and cultural taboos, there is always the potential for artists to strike a note of discord amongst the moral majority.
With that in mind, I can think of no filmmaker working today who keeps that renegade spirit alive more than Bruce LaBruce.
A Canadian filmmaker and author, LaBruce first rose to prominence in the mid-80s with the publication of queer-themed punk zine calledJ.D.s. Co-edited with G.B. Jones, J.D.s was seen by many as “the catalyst that pushed the queercore scene into existence” (as stated by writer Amy Spencer), and brought LaBruce to a celebrated level as an underground punk icon.
In 1987, LaBruce directed his first film, an experimental short calledBoy, Girl that starred his J.D.s co-founder G.B. Jones, and featured a sequence of clips from popular culture. The short film debuted at a film screening hosted by J.D.s and marked the start of the prolific filmmaker’s storied career.
LaBruce followed with another short in 1988 (titled Bruce and Pepper Wayne Gacy’s Home Movies), before releasing his first feature film, No Skin Off My Ass, in 1993. A black and white manifesto of all LaBruce seemed to represent at the time, No Skin Off My Ass told the tale of a skinhead who attempts to bring a radical filmmaker and flamboyant hairdresser (played by LaBruce) together with comedic and sexual results. The film, which mixed images of hardcore sex with radical social messages, laid the foundation of LaBruce’s work to come. Celebrated by many on the film festival circuit (and even cited by Kurt Cobain as his favorite film), No Skin Off My Ass announced to many that Bruce LaBruce, the filmmaker, had arrived.
LaBruce’s follow-up, Super 8 ½, about an adult film star who attempts to make a comeback via the aid of a lesbian filmmaker, was released the next year. With gathering steam, LaBruce was collecting a sizeable cult audience from the buzz generated by his first two films. However, it wasn’t until the 1996 release of Hustler White that LaBruce revealed to audiences just how ferocious he could be.
Co-directed with acclaimed photographer Rick Castro, Hustler Whitefeatured Tony Ward (famed model and Madonna ex) as a male prostitute whose life is revealed in a posthumous account of sleaze and scandal. LaBruce himself is featured as a European writer who is studying Ward’s character and his exchanges on the streets, only to develop a crush on the working boy. With echoes of classic Hollywood and a more than subtle nod to Sunset Boulevard, Hustler White depicted the darker side of the City of Angels, complete with that trademark LaBruce grit and sexuality. Furthermore, the film shocked and disturbed audiences with a scene of a sexual encounter with an amputee, proving that LaBruce was relentlessly willing to go all the way. Revered and reviled in equal measure,Hustler White has become a much discussed and debated film in the “queer canon,” and serves as one of LaBruce’s most outstanding achievements.
Not one to rest on his laurels, LaBruce returned in 1999 to the world of skinheads with Skin Gang (alternatively titled Skin Flick). Courting controversy for its violent sexuality, Skin Gang kept a firm eye on the exploits of a gang and their various daily dealings. One scene, involving a member of the gang masturbating to Mein Kampf drew some fire from critics, but only served to further LaBruce’s infamous standing amongst his fringe fan base.
LaBruce further explored the violent sexual politics of skinheads and radicals in his 2004 film, The Raspberry Reich. Playing as a pastiche of the Patty Hearst incident, the film explored what LaBruce referred to as “terrorist chic.” Centering on a group of political extremists who kidnap the son of a wealthy industrialist, The Raspberry Reich serves as LaBruce’s most outwardly antagonistic to the establishment. As per usual, the film is permeated with visions of graphic pornography, but the visuals are often accompanied by long, sprawling passages of revolutionary rhetoric. In a deft move, LaBruce manages to put raw sex in front of the viewer, but somehow makes them more interested in the dogma of the narration.
Having taken on the force of extreme politics, LaBruce turned his lens onto a different beast in 2008. Delving into the world of horror, LaBruce’s zombie opus, Otto; or Up With Dead People, was considered by many to be the auteur’s most accessible film in ages. The film, about a wayward zombie who becomes the subject of a documentary filmmaker’s interest, proved LaBruce’s inherent understanding that good horror often serves as a parable to something far more real. In the case of the titular Otto, his undead status becomes a representation for the listless feeling of lost love and wandering through a world he no longer understands.
Most recently, LaBruce returned to the land of the undead with his 2010 film L.A. Zombie. Where Otto opted for a more subtle approach (for LaBruce, that is), L.A. Zombieserved as a sinful return to form. Telling the tale of a homeless man who believes he is an alien zombie sent to reanimate the dead via gay sex, L.A. Zombie was released to instant notoriety. As of this writing, L.A. Zombie is still traveling the world, screening at film festivals and the like. The movie has been censored and banned, celebrated and vilified. With such an extreme response, it can only be gleaned that LaBruce remains ever a master of the art form he created.
…and truly, what more could we ask?
To me, LaBruce embodies the very essence of what counterculture should be. His work challenges and alienates the audience, it plays on imagery and messages that make the majority uncomfortable. By combining raw sexuality with a severe social message, he seeks to show how we, as a society, are fucked in every possible way.
A fellow writer and LaBruce fan once said to me that he and his girlfriend loved going to see LaBruce’s movies because of the visceral response the films had tendency to evoke.
“It’s fascinating,” he said, “the movies are too gay for a straight audience, but are possibly too rough and violent for a gay audience. His films seem to searching for a viewer.”
Yet, we know that LaBruce has an audience. Revolutionaries, punks, and misfits have come to embrace his body of work, critics and scholars have debated their place in the world. Watching any single one of the filmmaker’s creations, it is instantly understandable that he has never sought to appeal to the mainstream, straight or gay. Rather, what becomes inherently clear is that LaBruce makes movies for people who have a fire in their gut, who want to question authority, and celebrate sex. He makes movies to piss off your parents, and maybe piss you off too.
This, my dear children of the popcorn, is what a true cult filmmaker should be. LaBruce’s movies may not be for everyone, but for those who have embraced them, they are artistic religion and a welcome breath of fresh air against the conglomerate world of entertainment media at the multiplex.
In addition to making incendiary films, LaBruce is a celebrated author of books and articles, has appeared on punk album covers, and even is the subject of an upcoming documentary, The Advocate for Fagdom. His constant presence and work forms the backbone of a neo-movement of disenchanted thinkers, his name evoking a constant rally against the “decency” instilled on us by those on high. Not just a filmmaker or writer, he is also every bit the revolutionary character his films so often celebrate.
Yes, in a world where the counterculture is all but dead, I maintain a glimmer of hope. After all, somewhere out there in the world, amidst all the glamour and sleaze is Bruce LaBruce.
…and he’s here to fuck everything you believe in.
Until next time.