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Conversations with Bruce LaBruce at the coalface in Antwerp

Bruce LaBruce travels to Antwerp, and gets behind the camera for the latest edition of Doesn't Exist; he discusses pornography, the 1970s, Catherine Breillat, the #MeToo and the LGB movements, Netflix, and the illegitimate son of Fidel Castro!

Last year, DMovies once again joined forces with Doesn’t Exist Magazine. And we travelled to Antwerp in order to meet with the iconic Bruce LaBruce. DMovies’ editor Victor Fraga sat down with the director just after he got behind the camera in order to recreate Pasolini’s Theorem (1968) and photographed for the latest edition of the Mag.

Visit Doesn’t Exist’s website and purchase a hard copy of the magazine. This is where you will be able to see the full photo shoot, as well as the complete interview with Victor Fraga and Alex Babboni, the publication’s Editor-in-Chief)



Victor Fraga – Can you please tell us how “Fixations” began and how you landed in Antwerp?

Bruce LaBruce – Oh, I’ve known Carla and Suzanne for quite a while now, through Jonathan Johnson, who is jeweller from Hamburg that I collaborate with a lot, and we had planned this show before the pandemic and it was cancelled. Carla has known my work since she first saw No Skin off My Ass (1991), my first film, in the early 90s. She loved it and she said, “I was wondering, would you do something with me?” When we had this serendipitous kind of connection through Jonathan, so it just seemed like all the pieces came together.

VF – Let’s go one step further and talk about Europe more broadly. You have spent a large amount of time in Germany. Can you talk about how European sensibilities towards subversive pornography, which is what you do, compared to North America’s sensibilities?

BLB – Well, European art cinema has a long tradition of being very frank and casual about nudity in general, and about representing sex in their films. I am very interested in the erotic films of the ’70s, like David Hamilton and movies like Emmanuelle (Just Jaeckin, 1974) and Jess Franco, and people like that. I just like the aesthetic of that kind of ‘filtered look’, and the way that sexuality is presented. Erotica and porn are very different but the European tradition is more, I think, erotica. Really graphic porn which isn’t nearly as aesthetically pleasing, that can be quite harsh-looking, it seems like more of a US sensibility, in a way.

VF – Well, you talked about the ’70s. This year [this interview was conducted in 2022] is a double celebration, a double anniversary for both Deep Throat (Gerardo Damiano, 1972] and Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972). What would the history of cinema – what would Bruce LaBruce be without these two films?

BLB – I quite like Deep Throat, and a lot of people just assume it’s just a hard-core porn movie that has no other dimension to it but it’s actually a comedy, for one thing, and it’s also very camp. I relate to both of those things. In the pornography I do, it also has a narrative. I’m only interested in doing narrative porn. I use a lot of humour in my porn films as well. My porn films are very much influenced by 70s porn. The great gay avant-garde porn filmmakers from the 70s like Wakefield Poole, Peter de Rome, Fred Halstead, Peter Berlin, who were actually making porn. The intent of what they were making was porn, but now they’re almost avant-garde films. John Waters of course was… I just refreshed my John Waters… How could I say? I’ve just watched some John Waters films again… Because I was writing something about him. His early films like Mondo Trasho (1969) and Multiple Maniacs (1970) are very explicit. There’s a famous scene in Multiple Maniacs when Divine and Mink Stole go into an actual church. It was filmed in a church. Divine is penetrated by Mink Stole with a rosary, up the ass, which is mind-blowing. Then in that same scene he recreates the Stations of the Cross, like, Christ being crucified and Edith Massey plays the mother, the Virgin Mary. It looks to me as credible as Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964): it’s just as sincere, it’s just as beautifully shot, it’s quite amazing. John Waters, in general, those are my favourite films of his. Of course I also like Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble (1974) and specially Desperate Living (1977). He did influence my work. I met him when I was in my 20s and then when I started making films, he became a big supporter of my work; he’d always come to my premieres. So, I consider him like a mentor. It all comes down to the ’70s for me. The ’70s is my favourite decade of the 20th century, not only for filmmaking but in general, for style and aesthetics.

VF – We talked about Europe, we talked about Antwerp. Let’s talk about the world now. You have shown your work in many homophobic countries. You told me you showed your work in Russia shortly before they implemented the gay propaganda laws; you showed your films in Japan. Where in the world have you encountered hostility, or have you encountered nothing but love wherever you went?

BLB – Well, in a way, I first left Toronto, where I am from, because I was having bad experiences with the labs. When I began to make my films, the labs would see explicit sex in the films and they would actually call the cops. Once when I was trying to get a blow-up of No Skin off My Ass, from super 8 to 16… I had quite a good relationship with the lab owner but he claimed that he was obligated to report it to the police, if he saw pornographic material. The police came and they watched the film and they wanted me to cut three scenes from the negative, which were bondage and discipline, nudity with violence and sucking of toes. But then the lab owner told me about this and he said, “Well, I’m going to put the negative down here on the counter and I have to go make a phone call. If it’s not here when I come back, I guess there’s nothing I can do about it.” So, he let me go, basically. Also, the cops were called when I was getting my photos developed in Toronto. I was working with a photographer for a bunch of porn magazines in New York, Honcho, Playguy, Inches, Mandate. That’s when I moved to LA for a year and made Hustler White (1996).

Then, as a photographer, famously, in Madrid had a photo exhibit, which was called Obscenity, which was exploring the intersection of religious and sexual ecstasy and I used very high-profile stars and artists, like Rosy de Palma and Alaska, with imagery that was catholic but very sexual, using the holy wafer as a symbol of a sexual fetish on their genitals and nipples. Not on Alaska or Rosy [laughs] but on other people. Or on the eyes, the ostia as a symbol of censorship or making them into blind saints and prophets. Anyway, the Mayor tried to shut down the show and the day after it was in all the papers, and there was picketers outside at the opening and for the next few weeks. And the day after the show someone threw an explosive device through the front window of the gallery, which seemed to go off. But the police came and it was splashed all over the newspapers. That’s one of the few times that I’ve actually left the city thinking “I’d better get out of here or else I’ll end up in jail or something.”

VF – Has anyone ever called the cops for you somewhere further east, in Russia, in Japan, and an Arabic country. Has that ever happened?

BLB – No, I’ve been to Turkey. I’ve shown my films in Istanbul and Hong Kong but, I’ve been lucky, I’ve never been thrown in jail or been formally charged with obscenity. Although, LA Zombie (2010) was banned in Australia.

VF – Let’s talk about a movement that has changed a lot of things – about MeToo. Obviously there are two sides to the movement, You’ve got Asia Argento denouncing Harvey Weinstein. And you’ve got Catherine Breillat calling her a traitor. What are your views on #MeToo? Has it changed things for the better? Has it turned the world into a more sex phobic place? Has it affected the LGBT+ world?

BLB – Well, I think there is a systemic problem with sexism and crossing some sexual boundaries that should not be crossed. Consent and all that stuff, it’s important to recognise it. Something like the #MeToo movement had to happen. I think it’s a corrective that has maybe gone too far because it’s the first time that these issues have ever been addressed. I think maybe they’ll find more of a balance as time goes on.

VF – Would you agree with Catherine Breillat when she says actors are prostitutes because they play other people’s feelings?

BLB – Yeah, I would say actors could be prostitutes because I don’t morally judge an actor over a prostitute. Prostitutes are actors. [laughs]

VF – She goes on to say that prostitution is sacred. She doesn’t mean that in a derogatory way.

BLB – Sure. Well, there you go. I would broaden it. I’ve been saying we’re all prostitutes, we’re all hookers, everyone has a hustle.

VF – Let’s talk about the UK. You’ve done a few films about the UK. When I met you several years ago, we talked a lot about the 90-degree rule in the UK. When you film in the UK, do you go around with a compass or protractor to…

BLB – I used to. I mean, not a literal protractor but, you know, the “90-degree law” was that you couldn’t show an erect penis more than 90 degrees. I think it was actually 45 degrees. We used to shoot fully erect cocks but tilt the camera, so that it would look like it was 45. So, it was actually 90.

VF – You were literally using a protractor.

BLB – No, but we tilted the camera 45 degrees… [laughs]

VF – …to give the impression. [laughs] That’s wonderful. You have been heavily influenced by punk. We can see that in your early films, “No Skin off My Ass”, “Skin Flick” [1999]. Correct me if I’m wrong but you haven’t touched so much on the topic of punk in the past 20 years. And with people like Johnny Rotten going full Maga and pro-Brexit, is it fair to say that punk is dead?

BLB – Johnny Rotten is certainly not emblematic of punk. I mean, he doesn’t represent punk. In fact, he was kind of… You know, Brit punks from that era, it was like a two-year phase and then he wasn’t really a punk anymore. He had PIL, Public Image Ltd. I was much more into USA hard-core punk, which was a much more developed, much more diverse, much more political incarnation of punk that went on for much longer, for over 15 years. Punk is a state of mind, punk is an ethos. The trappings are irrelevant: you can be a punk, or act punk without a mohawk, without the obvious thing about it. I think I have a punk ethos that runs through my films, even to this day. It’s about being provocative and paradoxical; it’s about expressing yourself through style and not necessarily articulating a particular political position, but understanding, using dialectical thinking. For me, that’s all punk.

VF – Are you punk in your heart?

BLB – I don’t know it in my heart, I would say more in my brain, maybe. [laughs]

VF – You were just 27 years old, I believe, when you made No Skin off My Ass. Times have changed a lot since. What would you have done differently if you were 27 now? Would that film be possible in our modern context?

BLB – No Skin off My Ass was truly an experimental film. The film was basically… The narrative was constructed in post [production], in editing. There was some super 8 footage lying around of my friend G. B. Jones getting her ears pierced by a girl with a needle and I just threw it into the film, in editing – and built a story around it. It was just a… quite often in my films, things that are perceived as mistakes or poor-quality sound or whatever – it makes you become more inventive to make the film work. Like with the The Raspberry Reich (2004) for example, my producer Jürgen Brüning had a tendency to try to cut corners economically, by inadvisable ways. Like, he’d have a person record the sound who had never recorded the sound before, so, at the end of The Raspberry Reich we realised all the sound recording was shit, and we couldn’t use it. I had to post-dump the entire movie in post [production], which actually worked to the film’s advantage because then we had this very crystal clear studio recording of all the dialogue, which elevated the film. Also, I wasn’t really happy with the footage film The Raspberry Reich because it was a shitty digital camera and, in order to disguise that, I invented this aesthetic of using texts, constantly in the film. Huge texts running across the screen: it kind of turned it into a very stylish pop film, partly to disguise the shitty footage. Those are two examples of how you have to be inventive to make films work and that’s part of my process. I don’t regret that those things happened, that there is a shitty technical problem, because it’s all part of the process.

VF – I am glad you talked about The Raspberry Reich. It’s full of allusions to The Baader-Meinhof Movement, a far-left terrorist group… and you also talk about another far-left terrorist group in your very first film, the Symbionese Liberation Army and that’s all in the 70s. What’s happened to the left wing now? Have they become snowflakes?

BLB – The left has become Stalinist and the right has become fascist – that’s basically what’s happened.

VF – Let’s talk about The Affairs of Lidia (2022) and your collaboration with Erika Lust. You made a film about refugees with Erika Lust first. Now you’ve made The Affairs of Lidia, Are you looking at the same audience or at a broader audience? Do you think that some of your gay fans are going to be replaced by horny women? What kind of audiences do you think you will reach out with these films?

BLB – Her films do have a very specific audience and it’s largely a straight, bisexual porn company. That’s all a different experience for me. The Affairs of Lidia was made during and after the pandemic. They were very specific about the kind of film they wanted to make. I have a transsexual character, for example, and they didn’t want it to be a sexually explicit role. And I was happy to… because a lot of porn companies – like everyone else – have gone through economic hardship during the pandemic, so, they need to really focus on their core audience in order to sell the product. I’m happy working within those restrictions, as long as I know from the beginning what they are. I don’t think it’s going to replace my fans, but it adds fans. When I made my zombie movies, Otto (2008) and LA Zombie, suddenly a lot of young guys who loved horror movies and zombie movies became aware of my films. And that’s reaching a wider audience.

VF – Well, I’ll tell you what – my very good American friend, Mark, he was left traumatised after watching The Affairs of Lidia and seeing Sean Ford fucking a woman. What would you say to these poor and unsuspecting gay men, such as Mark?

BLB – There are two different extreme reactions to The Affairs of Lidia: there are gay guys who apparently have a fetish for gay men fucking women in porn – and they were like, “Oh, do more of that!”, “Can you get this gay porn star to have sex with a woman in a movie?” They were very excited, which I just kind of ignore it. And the other ones were like, “Oh, it’s a betrayal”, “You’re betraying the gay cause” – which is ridiculous.

VF – You are cis homosexual male. What are your views of the LGB movement, which started in Britain?

BLB – I don’t know if it started in Britain. I guess so. I have friends who subscribe to that. In some ways, I can understand how women, in particular, are… they feel like they’ve… it took women a lot of time to gain the rights that they have. They’ve been such an oppressed kind of class historically. They feel it’s a certain encroachment on that kind of emerging autonomy. There’s a theatre company in Toronto, which was started by a gay man and became a huge theatre company, and now the people who run it are mostly lesbians and trans people. They removed all the urinals from the building.

VF – Wow, what’s that about?

BLB – Well, because it’s supposed to be, like, trans inclusion. And for me, the urinal is a very loaded thing for gay men. Gay men have always had to have sex in toilets, in cottages, in tearooms and toilets because they had to, because they were married, whatever. There’s no place else for them to have sex, so. And also, traditionally, gay men stand at the urinal and look at each other’s cocks and look at straight guys’ cocks. It has that kind of sexual connotation and it’s fun and kinky. So, it’s like taking our toys away, in a way. I don’t support that kind of thing.

VF – What is the dirtiest thing, in the sense of most subversive but most inspiring thing that has happened in cinema in the past ten years?

BLB – Well, I guess maybe the emergence of Asian cinema is an amazing thing. The popularisation of…

VF – As is porn or as in Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019), as in mainstream?

BLB – Yeah, yeah, Hong Kong film, Korean film, anything from art films to gangster films.

VF – Have you ever worked with Tsai Ming-Liang? Have ever had any connection with him?

BLB – No. I met him in the Vancouver Film Festival, when he was showing Vive l’Amour (1994) I think it was his second feature.

VF – Have seen The River (1997) and Days (2020)?

BLB – Yes, of course. And the whole…

VF – Do you think that these films have influenced you?

BLB – Of course, yeah.

VF – Let’s turn things around. What is the worst thing that happened to cinema in the past ten years? Most regrettable thing?

BLB – Well, I still believe in cinema, in watching films in the cinema. It was already going in the direction of people not going to see films as much in cinemas and because of the pandemic it’s been exacerbated. I think it’s a shame that cinema isn’t… films aren’t seen in cinemas anymore.

VF – Particularly the younger generation. Definitely got that attitude.

BLB – And also, the advent of Netflix and TV series. Quite often I see a whole season of a TV series, and I think, “That could have been done in one two-hour movie”. I mean, it was kind of drawn out. To me, that kind of Netflix TV series phenomenon is a narcotic and it’s anti-cinema, in a way, because it makes people just become… slavishly watch whatever is on… for me, it’s a real time-waster; it’s a time suck, and it’s also… My pet peeve is that you see particular shots, the way things are filmed, the way things are framed, certain narrative devices: they’re all now cliché and they’re all repeated over and over and over again. There’s a dearth of creativity, there isn’t as much innovation in story-telling. It seems like the same cliché angles and narrative…

VF – Is it fair to say that we won’t be seeing your films on Netflix anytime soon?

BLB – Well, my films play on Amazon Prime. Would I make something for Netflix? Would I make a TV series? People tell me that I should, all the time. Probably not. It doesn’t appeal to me that much.

VF – Tell us the name of a big film star, preferably but not necessarily British, someone who you would love to get naked and fuck in front of the camera. But who would probably never agree to it.

BLB – I already made Gerontophilia (2013). I’m not going to make Part 2.

VF – Anyone else you’d like to…

BLB – You’re saying for me to have sex with them or to have them have sex without me?

VF – No, is there someone who you would love to have in your films that would never agree to it.

BLB – Ben Whishaw.

VF – Would you have Justin Trudeau?

BLB – Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister?

VF – Yes.

BLB – In a porn, yeah.

VF – What part would he play?

BLB – Fidel Castro, his father. [laughs] People say he is the illegitimate son of Fidel Castro.


The image of the top is of Bruce LaBruce at the coalface (photographing) at Antwerp. The remaining are pictures from Doesn’t Exist’s tribute to Bruce LaBruce, snapped by the Canadian director himself.

By Victor Fraga - 03-05-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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