Bruce LaBruce is no longer the reluctant pornographer

An interview with one of Canada’s most significant contemporary artists, the self-proclaimed Prince of Homosexuals, Bruce LaBruce.

With an homage to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., Bruce LaBruce’s third feature film, Hustler White, opens with a man facedown in a jacuzzi. His smooth voiceover lures us into a world of hustling, crime and decadence. The film, which features a gang-bang, amputee sex and various bondage scenes, is both subtly hilarious and provocatively violent, and it’s the perfect entry point to one of Canada’s most significant contemporary artists.

Bruce LaBruce, the self-proclaimed Prince of Homosexuals, has been shocking audiences for over three decades. In the early ’90s, he made three iconic feature-length films that fearlessly depicted transgressive gay sex. Are his films porn, or are they art? He’s worked within both realms, receiving funding from the Canadian government for feature-length films like his recent Saint Narcisse, a re-interpretation of the myth of Narcissus, and produced pornography for Tom of Finland and Erika Lust.

In the early 2010s, MoMa mounted retrospectives of his work. Now, at the Cinémathèque Québécoise (as well as the upcoming Festival du Nouveau Cinéma), the largest and more comprehensive tribute to his work yet has been mounted; appropriately, running at the same time as a retro on the late, great Pasolini

While some retrospectives represent an endpoint for filmmakers, Bruce LaBruce has the energy and imagination of a filmmaker just hitting his stride. He sat down to discuss his films, pornography, Pasolini and the future.

Justine Smith: I picked up your book of essays, The Reluctant Pornographer. It’s a lot like your Twitter account; there’s a lot of pleasure and humour to be found in provocation and language. Do you still identify as a reluctant pornographer? 

Bruce LaBruce: When I started making porn, I was very naive about what I was doing. I didn’t even really consider it porn. My first three features, No Skin Off My Ass, Super 8½ and Hustler White, especially the first two — I was performing sexually on screen. It was very shocking because it was pre-internet. There was no social media and no OnlyFans. You mostly only exhibited your films on a big screen with an audience. You had to be in rooms with people showing myself blow up really big, having sex. It had a profound effect on me at that time. It made me embarrassed sometimes, self-conscious. 

Sometimes people get very aggressive when you do things like that. They think they can take liberties with you. They not only touch you, which is one thing, but they like to ask very personal questions or confess very personal things about themselves, which can be fine, but other times, it feels like people step over boundaries. There, there’s reluctance. 

Then later, I got into more industry porn, working with professional porn actors. There are many problematic things that you have to talk about. There’s potential for exploitation and a lot of misogyny. There is porn, for example, that doesn’t treat women well — I mean the way they’re treated on set. These days, the kind of porn I make and the companies I work with are very ethical. People are even more conscious of those issues. 

On The Affairs of Lidia, for example, I worked with an intimacy coordinator for the first time, which was something we always did ourselves. Me and my producer would sit down with actors and talk to them before scenes and ask them what they were and weren’t comfortable with. We were conscious of casting people with sexual chemistry. We would find out who wanted to do what, their boundaries, etc. Then we made the set as conducive to sex as possible in terms of being relaxed. Now there’s a separate person who makes sure all that happens, which is good. 

Porn is vast, a gabillion-dollar industry, and there’s a lot of exploitative porn. You’d be crazy not to have some ambivalence about it.

JS: The largest porn companies are controlled by the credit card companies who dictate the content. Your films which include blood or, in the case of Saint-Narcisse, incest, would not be allowed under their rules.

BL: Right, everything that would make the work more interesting and more in line with the mainstream film industry. Which is kind of ridiculous that those prohibitions even exist because it’s all fiction? 

You have to start with the idea that there’s nothing wrong with porn itself — it’s necessary. Porn is one of the oldest forms of expression that goes back to cave paintings. It’s like a collective unconscious where people work out their politically incorrect and dark fantasies in a controlled environment, allowing them to give free rein to their sexual fantasies. Then, the other side is that it has to be completely ethical; it has to be based on consent.

I was very impressed when I was working on Lidia, someone in the North American industry had contracted HIV, and the whole industry shut down. It was a day or so, or as long as it took to trace people. I was very impressed by those basic health precautions, and in that way, I’m not so reluctant.

JS: The retrospective of your work is now playing in parallel with the retrospective of Pasolini at the Cinémathèque. Both of your work deal with similar ideas regarding mythology, religiosity, beauty and sexuality. How has he been influential on your filmmaking?

BL: I’m not even Catholic, but the influence of people like Pasolini makes me want to investigate all these issues surrounding Catholicism. I had a photography show in Madrid in 2012 called Obscenity at the la Fresh Gallery, where I investigated the intersection between sexuality and religiosity. I’m fascinated by this investigation as to why religious ecstasy is sexualized. 

I often start with the idea of a fetish; many of my movies are based on fetishes. A lot of people think fetishes are disgusting or perverted. In my films, I’ve noticed that fetishists have a strong drive of devotion and worship, an appreciation of the love object that’s spiritual. That runs through the lives of all the saints. Even the way Saint Sebastien has been taken on as the patron saint of gays, the (combination) of beauty and pain and martyrdom. 

The fact that [Pasolini] was an atheist but was able to make films like The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, a very religious film, fascinates me.

JS: The Vatican even included it under their list of greatest films. An interesting choice considering their relationship.

BL: But they probably didn’t go as far as including Multiple Maniacs.

JS: They didn’t include any John Waters!

BL: I’ve always argued that John Waters does a similar scene with the Stations of the Cross in Maniacs. It’s just as beautiful and artistic as Pasolini’s version because he plays it straight in a way, too. Edith Massey plays Mary, and it’s not tongue-in-cheek. He’s the master.

The Raspberry Reich, directed by Bruce LaBruce

JS: Sometimes, when you go back on a filmmaker’s work, they’ve been assimilated by the culture, and the work loses its blunt force. I don’t find that’s the case in your work. Are you trying to be shocking when you make films?

BL: I have nothing against shock! It’s a valid political strategy to make people think about things, especially shocking them out of their complacency or conventional ideas. It serves a function, and it’s fun. 

In my personal life, I’m not an atheist but an agnostic, but I’ve had very strong relationships with deeply religious and mystical people in their thinking or beliefs. I was with a devout Muslim for three years around the time I made Raspberry Reich, and I was married to a Cuban who was a priest. These are people with mystical beliefs and strong religious practices. I’m almost envious of people with such a strong devotion to their beliefs. There are also artists who have a similar devotion to the work that becomes obsessive and take it very far — they don’t hold back. They invest everything into it, they don’t censor themselves. I don’t think I’m enough of that kind of artist, because I can be lazy and not productive or driven enough. There’s something very liberating about diving into something controversial or contentious that will upset people.

I believe cinema should provoke people to think, and offend to challenge people’s principles. I even get to a point with some of my films where I’ve thought I’ve gone too far. That’s a good feeling, but it’s also kind of scary. You’re just questioning your value system or preconceptions. You’re at a point of not being afraid to represent what you’re not supposed to represent.

JS: Do you ever look back and reevaluate your work?

BL: It’s going to sound pretentious, but when I’m in an artistic mode, it’s almost like you’re channelling something else. You’re challenging big ideas and the dominant order. You’re almost outside of yourself. I hate to say it, but it’s like a state of grace. 

I’m well aware of my prejudices, or somewhat aware anyway. When I made Raspberry Reich, even though it’s a satire of the radical left, it was also a radically leftist film. It’s about sexual radicalism, and some consider it a revolutionary film. 

That’s why the Raspberry Reich had to be a porn film. I needed a sexually explicit film because it was about sexual revolution. I had to put my Marxism where my mouth is. 

My Cuban husband would make fun of me, saying, “I lived through a real revolution,” because he didn’t leave Cuba until the special period in the ’90s. He grew up reciting allegiance to Che Guevara every morning. He was separated from his family. He had to live through a real revolution and all the implications of that. Whereas I grew up in a kind of safe Canadian environment. I’m looking at it from a more intellectual or academic perspective, even though I come from a working-class background. I’ve had people point out that maybe I’m not as radical as I think. 

I gave up on academia. I was initially going to be a professor or a film critic, and even though I had some amazing professors, I ran into many who didn’t practise what they preached. They led their lives in a kind of ivory tower. So instead of an academic career, I became a filmmaker.

My films are based on many of my favourite methods like paradox and dialectical thinking. In a way, you’re undercutting your authority by presenting material in a way that invites different interpretations. That work tends to last longer because even if you contradict yourself, there’s something in the paradox or absurdist (way of thinking) that lasts longer.

JS: What are you working on now, and what does the future hold?

BL: I’ve had a couple of big rep perspectives, like the one at TIFF, then MoMA and this one is probably the biggest I’ve had. They’re these watershed moments that are kind of scary and weird and great simultaneously. It’s cool that your work’s appreciated and getting recognition, but it’s also kind of terrifying because it feels like a plateau or a crossroads. Then with COVID, I had a few films in development that were derailed. I made Lidia as a COVID film, so I had experience making a film under those conditions. There’s a lot of instability right now, and it’s hard to get financing.

The idea of cinema is rapidly changing, and everything is TV-based. So the people who continue to write and make their films struggle to get their voices heard. I have stuff in development in various stages. I’m in a weird, almost purgatory state because if I don’t have something lined up and ready to go, I start to get anxious and lose focus. 

Saint Narcisse, directed by Bruce LaBruce

The spotlight on Bruce LaBruce at the Cinémathèque Québécoise runs from Sept. 27–Oct. 26. The Festival du nouveau cinema runs from Oct. 5–15.

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