Film

‘Equality in an Inequitable System Is Ridiculous’: An Interview With Bruce LaBruce

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The provocations of the Canadian director Bruce LaBruce are proudly, defiantly political. In Hustler White (1996), he shows a disabled man having penetrative sex. In Gerontophilia (2013), he spins a Harold and Maude–ish gay relationship as a treatise on assimilation and healthcare. And in his most recent film, the 1999-set The Misandrists (in theaters today), he presents a lesbian separatist group in a country called “Ger(wo)many” whose feminist and down-with-capitalism ideals become irreconcilable with their own eventually exposed hypocrisy. The Misandrists mixes nunsploitation with political discursiveness; LaBruce, never one to back down from critique, confronts the left’s shortcomings (with regard to gender, queerness, and class) with wit and verve and a healthy dose of vulgarity.

LaBruce spoke with the Voice recently about the Catholic imagery of The Misandrists, the old and new schools of gay culture, and what queer films he’s been into lately.

The Met Gala theme this year was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” In The Misandrists, the use of clothing and iconography the nun imagery and the schoolgirl imagery — and how both relate to certain institutions is really interesting. Can you talk about the archetypes of femininity you used?

One of my favorite pictures is The Trouble With Angels. You know the director, Ida Lupino?

With Hayley Mills, right?

Yeah, with Hayley Mills. So that was one of the main references in the film. I love that film. I’ve always wanted to do a film with nuns, and then to actually play one myself, that was unexpected. We had a day off, and my DP [James Carman] and I just shot some second-unit stuff. Susanne Sachße, who played Big Mother, wasn’t available, so I donned the nun’s costume and did the cameo in the woods, just screaming and everything. It was amazing to actually do that little bit of theater myself.

I heard today actually that the Met is finally getting a little blowback for sexualizing Catholic imagery. I did a photo show in 2012 in Madrid at the gallery that represents me there, La Fresh Gallery. The show was called “Obscenity.” It was a show of my photographs, and the theme was [something] like “at the intersection between religious and sexual ecstasy.” So I had very sexualized photos, using Spanish models like Rossy de Palma and Alaska, a big pop star there. And I used the holy wafers as the main symbol, covering people’s eyes — I’d actually put the wafer over people’s eyes or in their mouth, or on their nipples like pasties, or on their genitals. It was about transubstantiation and the very sexualized idea of drinking the blood of Christ or eating the flesh. It was much more extreme, and it caused a huge stink in Spain and the mayor had to close down the show. Catholics picketed us outside, blasting Christian rock music. And finally somebody threw an explosive device into the gallery.

So I’m well aware of the power of that imagery — but I think the Met Gala ended up turning it into more of a commercial for the Catholic Church. I mean, Cardinal Dolan at the gala?

I think these occasions, as interesting as they are aesthetically, always end up turning into a vessel for very bourgeois ideals. That dynamic ties into your film because your characters live by certain credos — very anti-capitalist, very socialist, very feminist — even as you critique some of the more extremist gender essentialisms of those ideologies. Can you talk about how you wanted this film to be in dialogue with differing ideologies and philosophies?

When people talk about feminism as mainly a critique of capitalism or of class-based issues, I find it very strange, because a lot of times these things are symptoms of a corrupt system. People are just talking about the symptoms and not the root cause of them. One thing I’m critiquing is post-feminism, this idea that if women take over male roles or get equal representation in the boardroom or in politics, all these problems with sexism and exploitation are going to be resolved. I’m skeptical of that idea. The roots of the feminist movement, the Black movement, the gay movement, were all very much based on [addressing] the imbalance of power and inequity, the power of the ruling elite and economic imbalances, and marginalization of minorities. Now it just seems like everybody’s so willing to have the system that exists continue and just participate in it equally. So that’s what Big Mother is always railing against. Equality in an inequitable system is totally ridiculous.

One of the other major focuses of the screenplay was Ulrike Meinhof, who was one of the main members of the Red Army Faction, the extreme left-wing group in Germany in the Seventies. There’s a book of her collected columns she wrote for konkret magazine between 1959 and 1969, called Everybody Talks About the Weather…We Don’t. She was a strong feminist — and obviously an anti-capitalist — and this is one of the main references in the film.

You can’t look at feminist politics or any kind of protest movement in a vacuum. You have to look at the symptom itself and the inequities in society and try to change that system or tear that system down.

Many of your films subvert or rail against homonormativity. Now that we’re post–marriage equality — at least in the U.S. and some other countries — where do you see your filmmaking going from here?

I don’t know. I recently did a profile on Phillip Picardi, of Teen Vogue, for Fantastic Man magazine. I was talking with him and we were both making a reference to the idea of “old-school gay.” At a certain point I realized his idea of “old school” is the marriage equality movement — five years ago. Everything is so accelerated. As opposed to me: My idea of old school is [1970’s] The Boys in the Band. It’s an accelerated culture.

There was this wave of assimilation — which actually started way back in the Eighties. Which is one reason I became a queer punk, because back in the Eighties we thought that the mainstream gay movement had become too bourgeois and too much of an upper-middle-class white thing, and racism had infected it. So assimilation started way back then, and we really came through — in America at least, and the countries where these rights have been fought for for many, many, many years. That goal was achieved in marriage equality, and younger people have already moved on to other issues. People like Phillip, he kind of reminded me of the radicalism we were espousing in the Eighties, which was talking about the exclusion of transgender people, or violence toward transgender people, or how First Nations people are still completely marginalized, or how women are represented and black women are excluded from representation on the covers of magazines. Whatever the issue is, there’s a much more broad-based political platform than just the idea of rights for middle-class gay white men.

For The Misandrists, we really made an effort to [acknowledge] new kinds of queer representation. Some of the main characters are black and other races. It’s an almost all-female cast — and we also tried to have behind-the-scenes people to be women as well. The music is by one of the sound editors [Manuela Schininá]. We were really trying for new representation.

The Misandrists was partially funded through Indiegogo. Has it become easier or harder throughout your career for you to finance your work?

It relates to your last question because it’s still hard to get that kind of movie made. We had a pretty modest budget. People who we asked to finance this film, they were like, “Well, how are we going to market this movie? There’s no stars in it.” Which is always a big problem, name recognition. It’s an almost all-female cast, about lesbians, made by a gay man. They argued that gay men are not going to want to see it because there’s no hot guys making out in it — and that lesbians weren’t going to want to see it because it’s made by a man. They have all these excuses. I think they are excuses.

I never expected The Misandrists to get a theatrical release in America at all, and now it’s playing in almost 25 cities. Cartilage, my distributor, is doing a good job in that regard. Some people fall into these traps, into this mind-set, saying only certain kinds of films are marketable, and “this demographic only wants to see this kind of movie.” That’s frustrating as a filmmaker because you don’t want to just be making movies to try to suck up to certain demographics.

We got Kickstarter funding, we got some money from the Berlin[-Brandenburg] Medienboard, which is a provincial financing agency, and we have a few private donations. So we stitched that together. What Werner Herzog says now is that anybody should be able to make a feature for ten thousand dollars. We had considerably more money than ten thousand, but I know what he means. [Laughs] The technology is there. We shot on 4K, which makes a huge difference in postproduction because punch-in and close-up stuff is still high resolution.

So, it’s always a challenge to get financing, especially when it seems like it’s a completely unmarketable film. But I still seem to manage. Being steeped in popular genres kind of helps. Everyone loves nunsploitation movies, or the other references like softcore sexploitation movies from the Seventies, or horror B-movie tropes, things like that. Those help.

There are traces of Ken Russell’s The Devils in here, which I loved. On another note, you recently made an anthology film with the gay porn studio CockyBoys, It Is Not the Pornographer Who Is Perverse. What was that like?

Yeah, I’ve been making porn again more recently. I just shot two more short films for Erika Lust’s company [Lust Films], which is a Barcelona-based company that does mostly female-centric and feminist porn — mostly straight, and some transgender. Then I did this passion project with CockyBoys. One of the reasons I like to work with these companies is that they’re very broad-minded, and they said they’d give me free rein to do what I wanted to do. A lot of directors make commercials — but in the commercial world I think there’s a lot of constraints and there’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through. You have to please big sponsors and agencies. But with porn, I think it’s a little more loosey-goosey.

For example, for Erika Lust, I made a film called Refugees Welcome, which is a short porn film about a Syrian refugee who ends up having sex with a Czech poet. Normally they don’t get into tons of political [content]; there’s a religion angle to it, also. But they allowed me to do it anyway. I find it kind of liberating to work in those environments. They’re both trying to make more high-end, more narrative porn as well, so you’re working with a proper crew and a nice camera package. It’s just like making a regular movie — it just has hardcore fucking [laughs].

There’s one scene in another of your CockyBoys films, Diablo in Madrid, in which there’s an Almodóvar poster in the background.

That poster just happened to be in the apartment where we were shooting. I was talking earlier about my gallery in Madrid, La Fresh, and the owners of the gallery are quite good friends with [Almodóvar]. As I said, I photographed both Alaska and Rossy de Palma, and they’ve both been in Almodóvar films and know him really well. So it was just a little tip of the hat to the master.

One last thing: I know you didn’t like Call Me by Your Name, but do you have any particular films that you’re really loving right now? I also did not love Call Me by Your Name, for the record [laughs].

Yeah, that’s a little pet peeve of mine, conservative gay films where everything’s so demure and the sex is sort of tiptoed around because it’s trying to appeal to liberal tolerance and more to a straight audience. I don’t know what I’ve seen recently. Last year, I absolutely loved the documentary Chavela. I know one of the co-directors, Catherine Gund. I just found that documentary so incredible and moving. I haven’t seen Love, Simon. But in queer terms, I’m going to need you to throw out some titles — maybe I’ve seen them.

The Ornithologist was one of my favorites from last year. BPM, God’s Own Country —

Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, for me, God’s Own County was also kind of a conservative gay movie, because it always has to be the perfect masculine couple. I hated that the slut he had sex with in the toilet was effeminate, and he’s isn’t, therefore [the slut is] a disposable and nefarious love interest. And then [the main characters] have to end up being monogamous together and accepted by the family and all that kind of stuff.

But I loved BPM. I hung out with [director] Robin Campillo in Belgrade [Serbia] when I was showing The Misandrists at the queer [Merlinka Festival] in December, and he was there with BPM. I think it’s an extraordinary film.

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