Bruce LaBruce Takes On Gay Zombies

He’s baaack!

Contentious filmmaker Bruce LaBruce last came at us with The Raspberry Reich, which focused on gay “terrorists”. Now, LaBruce turns his iconic eye to a seemingly unrealistic, and quite timely, topic: zombies.

Otto; Or, Up With Dead People revolves around the titular, undead Otto (Jey Crisfar), who’s trying to find his place in a world where zombies have become common place. While humanity has learned to cope with invasive flesh-eaters, they’re none-too-happy to learn that the latest wave’s a bit lavender.

Endangered, confused and fighting his zombie urges, Otto falls in with a Medea, who’s making a flick about revolutionary gay zombies fighting back against roving anti-gay militias. The movie, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance, represents a huge step in LaBruce career, which started with Queercore fanzines and a little movie called No Skin Off My Ass.

Unlike some independent filmmakers, LaBruce’s career has only grown in recent years, which affords him higher budgets and more intricate aesthetics – designer Rick Owens did all the costuming for Otto, which artist Terence Koh co-produced. Despite his success, LaBruce stays true to his message: assimilation sucks. The director widens his directive in this offering, however, taking on a broader consumerism and corporation-saturated society.

Our editor spoke with LaBruce this weekend and the gents hit the obvious talking points – conformity, the devolution of gay activism – but also get deep into some other issues, like Internet-based bitchey, where LaBruce stands on bareback porn and how the Canadian government may soon start hampering films like Otto.

Andrew Belonsky: Did you know when you were a kid that your life would take an artistic direction? Is that something you always wanted to do: write and make movies? I know you started as a writer first.

Bruce LaBruce: Well, I don’t know. It’s sort of all tied up with me being gay. I knew I was gay always, so the artistic impulses were sort of part of that, I guess.

AB: When you say that you always knew you were gay – do you remember when you first knew what gay was? Obviously we’ve all had an alienation or difference that we can’t really pinpoint, but do you remember specifically when you knew what gay was?

Blab: Not really. The gay part was always being more girl identified. In first grade, I had a birthday party and I realized that it was all girls. In terms of having to deal with the actual gay identified thing, I guess you kind of start dealing with that in high school, but when I was in high school there was no possibility of being openly gay. It was this whole series and network of denial. Everyone knew the gay kids were gay, but they couldn’t say they were gay – the parents knew, the siblings knew and all the classmates knew, but there was this conspiracy where everyone doesn’t talk about it. In retrospect, it is pretty damaging, because it sets you up for all sorts of lies in your life.

AB: This has come up twice in recent interviews. One was with a politician named Jim Neal, who was once married to a woman, and he told me that some voters talk about how he was deceiving his wife and was a liar. Then I was talking to another politician, Jason Bartlett, and he just came out and we addressed the same thing: not being forthcoming. This man has been silently out for years, but he never told his constituents. In your opinion, is that sort of behavior a lie? If I’m a politician and I’m open with my friends and my family, but I don’t tell the people who are voting for me, is that a lie?

Blab: Well, it’s much more complicated when it’s a politician. Anyone else but a politician, I would say “no,” because – you know, I support the closet on a certain level. I think people should have their personal choice and I think it’s different for every individual. Even to be silently out, live your life and let everyone draw their own conclusions, I think is a perfectly legitimate way to go. It just gets too complicated when you’re a politician, because there are issues that come out that are specifically relevant to your sexuality. There’s the whole phenomenon of politicians overcompensating and becoming homophobic with their voting record because they’re hiding.

AB: I’m actually surprised to hear that you support the closet in some respects. Obviously people should have agency over whether or not they’re outed –

Blab: Yeah, I’m totally ambivalent about outing. I know for some people it comes down to a matter of not wanting to be forced into identity issues and they’re expected to, you know, become part of a community or to start identifying themselves as “gay” in terms of certain choices or the way they conduct their lives. I totally sympathize with people who don’t want to do that. I think sometimes it’s really difficult to do this ritual thing, entering the community and all that without starting to adhere to certain identity issues. Probably a good way of avoiding them is to not come out and be private about it. I totally respect that.

[The trailer for Otto.]
AB: That’s an excellent segue into your work, which has been highly critical of the conformist, mainstream gay – I hate the word the word “community,” because it’s an unrealistic umbrella term. We’ve seen it in your previous works, but your philosophy I think gets more complicated in your most recent work, Otto; Or, Up With Dead People, because of the main character’s – I don’t want to give away too much about the movie, but with regard to Otto’s position among the third wave of zombies, which are all gay and have elicited this huge back lash. Zombies are mindless, which I took to be your take on the mainstream uniformity –

Blab: Right.

AB: But Otto doesn’t want to be mindless. He doesn’t want to feast on human flesh. So, where does Otto stand – what are you trying to say here?

Blab: Well, it’s interesting – you know, in my movies, I never really take a black and white stand on anything, but I joke when I say to people that if you’ve ever cruised a public washroom or bathhouse, you know that it’s like Night Of The Living Dead.

AB: Yeah!

Blab: There are people in this trance. You get into these sexual situations that are orgies of anonymous sex and it’s not too big of a stretch to apply to zombie metaphor. I think what would probably be harder for a more straight audience to understand is that it’s not a total critique of it. The zombie-ness of of those situations make it hot on a certain level, so it’s not just a condemnation of that. It’s also a critique of – you know, in Medea’s movie, Up With Dead People, the zombie revolutionaries, Max and Fritz are leading this revolt. It’s a new wave of gay activism against the new wave of new homophobia as I see it.

I think there’s been a big anti-gay backlash in North America. In hop-hop and pop music, homophobia has sort of become acceptable again and allowed and cool and then there’s the whole religious fundamentalism, the return of that. Max and Fritz are getting back to this idea of gay activism and gay revolt in political terms, which has sort of been lost in the assimilationist movement, but, then again, I also portray them sitting at the breakfast table – the butch one is reading the paper and the femme one is being all hysterical. They’re falling into these bourgeoisie rolls of monogamy, despite the fact that they’re revolutionaries.

That has always been for me the big catch in the gay movement: this drive towards acceptance and being treated like everyone else, but, in the process, the oppressed being the oppressor. You become like the people that hate you or that you’re fighting against. Why are you so desperate to be accepted by and become like the people who hate you so much? For me it’s a failure of the imagination. Can’t you come up with other models of social and political options?

AB: That’s certainly an increasingly valid point, but, at the same time, with regard to the Queercore movement, which you founded, and the rejection of those bourgeoisie values, I think – as with any movement, people stop really considering the impetus behind the movement, so I think the argument can be made that a lot of queer punks or queer core kids today are just as assimilationist as someone who’s on the Human Rights Campaign, but they just happen to have different qualifications and markers.

Blab: Right. That’s why I make the critique more broad in the movie. Medea’s not critiquing gay culture in particular, but the broader culture. She’s critiquing a culture which has bred conformity. She’s against this consumerism and this materialism and this idea of an industrial, technological culture that’s producing these disaffected kids who are neutral and who are disassociated from their surroundings. They are a kind of zombie. For her, it’s a critique of the whole culture, not just of gay culture. And I see that a lot, too.

One of the reasons I made the film was because I was running into a lot of young kids who – not only gay ones – who said that they felt dead inside or they were spending so much time in front of screen that they felt like they had become brainwashed. There is a feeling of helplessness and corporate control of the media. That kind of thing is so locked in – corporations controlling evidence – it’s so overwhelming that there’s a hopelessness or helplessness to fight against it. Everyone has become a player. A lot of kids, they just seem more than willing to give in and try to work within these corporate structures and I’m really skeptical of that. I think it is breeding a generation of conformists.

AB: What’s it also is – you’re saying that you’re encountering these people in real life, they’re standing in front of you and saying these things to you, but the expansion of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook has created this parallel reality. People are coming up with – you create your online persona. That’s how you want to be perceived, but then you step out of that and back into reality and you can’t be yourself. The amount of time that you spend in reality versus the amount of time you spend in front of a screen is imbalanced. It worries me. I’m really glad that I’m one of the last generation – I’m 26-year old, so I was born before internet was in everyone’s home and I’m thankful for that. It’s a worrisome development.

Blab: Yeah, it is in a way. I think that’s why the Internet is so mean, too. It’s so cruel and it’s so nasty. People write comments about you or your work that – there’s a real snarkiness and a real jaded quality to a lot of the comments and it even becomes racist, sexist and homophobic and all that. People think they can get away with it. They’re much more liable to do it on the Internet because they’re not facing a real person. They would never say that to someone’s face. They think the anonymity gives them license to be incredibly cruel or nasty and I think it’s quite cowardly, actually.

AB: Technological moral disengagement.

Blab: So, there’s that aspect of it, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with creating a persona, that’s exactly what I did with JD’s and with my early films. I created this Bruce LaBruce persona and sort of put it out in the media, fed it and made a little myth about it. But it depends on what the persona is and what it represents. You have realize that it still is part of you and representing your beliefs. You have to really have control it and have it be your mouthpiece. I think some people get disconnected from their own persona and they’re not careful enough about what they’re trying to say with it. We’re definitely going into that direction.

The whole irony is that Otto – like in 2001, how Hal the computer is the most human character in the film. He’s more emotional and heartbreaking than any of the human characters, who all sort of act like machines. It’s the same with Otto. He’s the dead one in the movie, but he’s obviously quite sensitive and there’s something in there. He has made this shell and this armor to distance him from the outer world because it is so nasty and it is so dangerous. He’s withdrawn.

[A scene from LaBruce’s 1996 flick, Hustler White.]
AB: Back to what you were saying about the Bruce LaBruce persona. I’m curious to know, do your close friends – are you called by your birth name, Justin Stewart on a regular basis?

Blab: My old – really old – friends and family call me by real name. But the thing with me is – actually, in the 90s, when my films started to be shown more internationally, I had this bizarre thing where I did sort of become this Jekyll and Hyde thing. I became disassociated from my persona. It was sort of schizo: I was one person at home and then another person when I was out in public, which most people do anyway. I mean, it’s just more exaggerated, I guess, but it’s also the way I was representing myself in interviews. But then at a certain point, I sort of managed to reconcile or merge the two identities, but I’m pretty much Bruce to almost everyone.

AB: In your 1997 memoir, The Reluctant Pornographer, you say that pornography is an excellent way to express yourself, because you can’t really be criticized for what happens. You write, “I choose to work in pornography because it is one of the few remaining places where homosexuals can express themselves freely and radically without fear of censure.” With regard bareback pornography, which has been very controversial, is there room for criticism?

Blab: Actually, during an Otto Q&A, someone was concerned I was promoting unsafe sex because of the blood and everything, which points to the difference between reality and fantasy. There’s a difference between having people actually have unsafe sex in videos and merely suggesting it. I think, yeah, you can totally critique bareback videos. I personally would never make a porn movie or a movie where people are having unsafe sex in my movie. For me, personally, condoms would be necessary. My producer has a porn company and I think they make some bareback movies. For that, it’s up to the individual actor. I sort of can understand that, as well, if the people involved in making the film are quite aware of what they’re doing, that’s their personal choice.

AB: Have you thought about your next project?

Blab: I’m thinking about it now and I really want to – I started working in 8mm, then 16mm, and digital and this movie was shot on HD, so on my next project I want to do something a bit bigger, shoot on 35 and up the budget, but it’s difficult. I don’t know if you heard about it in the States, but we had this bill, C-10 that they’re trying to pass in Canada that would effectively deny tax credits to independent Canadian features based on what the government deems appropriate. So, if they think you film is morally questionable or too violent or whatever, then they can deny you tax credits and that’s how $5 million films are financed, through tax credits. It’s not getting easier to make edgy or darker work. The higher budget you get into, the more people you have trying to influence what you’re doing or tone it down.

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