Bruce LaBruce is a badass. When I saw the premiere of his splatter-punk porno epic L.A. Zombie at TIFF in 2010, he introduced the film by mentioning the zero star review it had just received by the Torontoist. He enthusiastically exclaimed that for a gay porn trash director, zero stars is four stars.
It’s true – a lot of people revile the work of Toronto’s queercore master, particularly here in his home country, which is why he hasn’t made a film here in two decades. Frankly, this is ridiculous. He’s just as unique and important an export as a Cronenberg or an Egoyan. In a world where audiences still like to draw lines between art, trash, and porn, LaBruce smashes through all of them, demonstrating that they’re all the same thing. Thankfully, he has always found support from TIFF throughout the years and now the TIFF Bell Lightbox is running Skin Flicks: The Films of Bruce LaBruce, a comprehensive retrospective of his career. It’s time to stop blushing and embrace one of our most radical creative talents.
After starting to make a name for himself as a writer for Exclaim! and eye weekly in the 1980s, LaBruce really burst on to the local scene with his first feature No Skin Off My Ass, a shot-on-Super 8 riff on Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park. LaBruce also stars, playing a lonely hairdresser who picks up a quiet, young skinhead in a park and offers him a place to stay. After watching him take a bath at his apartment, the hairdresser locks him in the bedroom, but the skinhead leaves through the window and goes to hang out with his sister and her friends who are making a political film called “Sisters of the SLA.”
Plot isn’t really a primary concern in LaBruce’s films, and the story just sort of meanders here, eventually having the hairdresser and skinhead fall in love and climaxing (pun intended) in a graphic sex scene. But there’s a shaggy, endearing quality to this homegrown pseudo-rom-com, which also presents a neat time capsule of Toronto in the early ‘90s through a grainy, black-and-white, non-sync sound lens. LaBruce immediately went full on into busting taboos, which gained the film notoriety outside of Canada and was even mentioned by none other than Kurt Cobain as his favourite film at the time.
LaBruce has always been well versed in film history – he was a writer for Cineaction, the academic film magazine which counted famed critic Robin Wood among its editorial staff – and his films sometimes take the form of intellectual porno parodies. Take 1996’s Hustler White, where he shifted his focus to the streets of Los Angeles. It begins with a restaging of the opening of Sunset Boulevard, with gay hustler Monti Ward (played by model and one-time Madonna fling Tony Ward) laying face down in a pool, presumably dead. LaBruce, acting again as a writer named Jürgen Anger, then recounts how we got to this point, relating his story of falling in love with Ward as he researches the male prostitution scene for a book. Hustler White is a fun and savvy homage to classic Hollywood films, but it also has a raw, DIY edge reminiscent of the work Gregg Araki was doing around the same time. It also upped the shock value hugely, with S&M and extreme fetish activity taking prominent roles, even though he’s really only portraying the milieu honestly.
From here, LaBruce was commissioned by a German company to make straight-up gay porn films, which gave him financing and the freedom to tell whatever stories he wanted, as long as he created hardcore versions with extended sex scenes. Skin Flick continued his fascination with skinheads, following a group of Neo-Nazis as they make out and fuck each other before breaking into an apartment and terrorizing an upper class gay couple.
It’s his most self-consciously porny movie, with amateurish acting, stilted dialogue, and stereotypical situations like the scene where a plumber comes over to fix a leak and ends up sticking around for more. It takes a dark turn into A Clockwork Orange territory in the third act though, flipping the switch on the easygoing tone beforehand.
The Raspberry Reich is probably LaBruce’s funniest film, a mock of Godard’s political activist films where a communist terrorist group in Germany kidnaps the son of a wealthy banker in order to turn him towards their cause. As this veiled Patty Hearst story plays out, anti-capitalist diatribes flash as text across the screen and the female leader of the group yells out things like, “Heterosexuality is the opiate of the masses!” It’s a snarky putdown of extreme left activism, rapidly edited and set to a cool soundtrack.
In recent years, LaBruce has taken inspiration from the horror genre, crafting back-to-back zombie pictures. Otto; or, Up with Dead People is the sweeter of the two, following a young zombie who wanders the streets trying to figure out who he is and who he loved, eventually hooking up with a filmmaker who decides to make a documentary about him. It’s like an adult version of Warm Bodies with more guts (metaphorically, and literally).
It was the aforementioned L.A. Zombie that caused a big stir, however, getting banned in Australia and provoking outrage from critics and audiences alike. French porn star François Sagat plays an alien zombie who keeps shuffling by freshly dead bodies, which he then proceeds to bring back to life by fucking their wounds.
I can see how people might not be into that, especially as the film culminates in a bloody undead orgy in the final act. Yet I think it might be LaBruce’s most accomplished film to date and certainly the most visually beautiful, with crisp digital imagery of a sun-drenched Los Angeles. It’s also his most hypnotic work, casting a spell over you from the moment the titular zombie walks out of the ocean on to the beach. And while the gore is expertly done, it’s so over-the-top that you have to laugh.
But LaBruce doesn’t care if you don’t like it. He’s not going anywhere. Whether you love him or hate him, there’s clearly no one else like him.