I See Dead People: Bruce LaBruce’s Otto

Mark Simpson chats gaily to Bruce LaBruce about the death instinct (The Advocate, Nov 2008)

‘He’s 18. He’s cute. He’s dead.’

What’s not to like about a film with a tagline like that, whose credits include ‘Lascivious Ballet Dancer #9′, ‘Orgy Zombie #5′ and ‘Yummy Boy eating Ice Cream Cone’?

The credit for ‘Director’, of course, could only be ‘Bruce LaBruce’. Otto; Or, Up With Dead People, a gay zombie movie with a beating if not actually bleeding heart, is the cult Canadian filmmaker’s latest outrageous offering. After assaulting us with Red Army Faction sex terrorism in The Raspberry Reich (2004), and queer neo-Nazi skinheads in Skinflick (2000), LaBruce outdoes himself in Otto, gnawing at our entrails with the affecting story of a sensitive young zombie looking not so much for flesh as for soul in our deathly, post-porn, Crime Sheen, Nip Fuck culture. Instead our undead pretty protagonist finds himself trapped in a film within a film, starring in an agit-prop doc directed by an impressively bossy German lesbian film director determined to put the world to rights – or at least give it a good spanking.

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Mark Simpson: I think congratulations are in order Mr LaBruce. This may be your best work yet. It’s certainly your most romantic. Funny that it should be a film about flesh-eating, gore-humping zombies that brings that out in you…

Bruce LaBruce: Well, I think if you examine my oeuvre Mr Simpson you will find that I’ve always had a strong romantic streak. But because I often deal with slightly outré subject matter-neo-Nazi skinheads, pornography, amputees, would-be terrorists-people sometimes have a hard time seeing it. But actually, characters who are disenfranchised, ugly, or marginal often have a strong sense of the romantic: it’s all they have. Otto is so sensitive to the cruelty of the modern, corporate-controlled world that he has literally deadened himself to it. There’s something very tragic and romantic about that. Medea Yarn, the stylish lesbian filmmaker who makes a documentary about him, romanticises death as a way of coping with the injustices of life.

MS: True, you’ve always been an incurable-adorable romantic, but OTTO really wears its half-eaten heart on its sleeve. By the way, the footage of mechanised death and carpet bombing projected behind Medea as she lectures us about death being the new pornography was totally hot. Where do I find some more of that?

BLB: Just turn on your TV. I looked through a lot of stock footage and it really did strike me how the media packages war and disaster footage as entertainment. And if I see one more poster of Angelina Jolie, our supposed Earth Mother, with her emaciated body and huge breasts, holding some over-sized, phallic automatic weapon, I think I’ll turn into a zombie and start feeding on road-kill!

MS: Bon appétit! I worry slightly though that your devastating satirical critique of deathly gay porn may be crediting it with too much eroticism. A while ago, praying in front of the computer one-handedly as all men do these days, I found myself thinking: this is like watching someone have their appendix out, but less fun.

BLB: Porn has become very anatomical and, shall we say, forensic! You could probably market Savanna Samson’s colonoscopy video as porn these days. On ‘tasteful’ prime-time things are more necrophile: the dead body has become the site of voyeuristic fascination: people are obsessed with TV shows that display all the minutiae of murder, medical procedures, pathology examinations, autopsies – with a creepy, sly sexual component. At least my heroine, Medea Yarn, is upfront about her romantic and erotic attraction to death.

MS: She’s upfront all right. Speaking of voyeuristic fascination, I found the zombie sex scenes in the abandoned fairground most poignant. Part time-lapse nature photography, part social documentary, they reminded me of my misspent youth on Hampstead Heath.

BLB: Or our other fearless champion of public sex, George Michael! Like I always say, if you’ve ever cruised a park at night, or a public toilet or bathhouse, it really is like Night of the Living Dead! There’s something exciting about that somnambulistic state you go into when cruising for sex: the anonymous and interchangeable body parts. But there’s something a little sad and melancholy about it too-the loneliness and desperation.

MS: Yes, and that’s the best part. Can I just say, in case anyone unaccountably suspects me of only being interested in boys’ bits, that Katharina Klewinghaus, who plays the fabulously strident Medea and Susanne Sachsse, who plays her silent film-star girlfriend Hella Bent, give unmissable performances .

BLB: Thanks! I think Medea and Hella are one of the great cinematic lesbian couples, if I do say so myself.

MS: They are. But then, I think you’re one of the great lesbian directors.

BLB: Ha! I like to think of myself as an honorary lesbian! I’m really against the segregation of gays and lesbians so I try to be inclusive. But I do love the Lesbos. I even directed a short film last year, called Give Piece of Ass a Chance about a group of lesbian terrorists who kidnap a munitions heiress and ‘turn’ her. There is an extended cunnilingus scene in it that had gay boys either cheering along with the lesbians or running for the exits!

MS: I think you may have turned me too. I fell hopelessly in love with Hella. Presenting her as a full-time silent film starlet, mute and ghostly in split-screen black and white, emoting to camera and communicating only via flash cards – while Medea rants on in full colour – was pure genius. Is she a comment on ‘silent’ lesbian partners?

BLB: Ha! I never thought of that! The silent lesbian partner! I like it! She’s like Alice B. Toklas to Medea’s Gertrude Stein! Maya Deren was a major inspiration-she was a great avant-garde American director whose films were all silent. It also made sense to me that Medea, totally devoted to cinema, would see even her own girlfriend as a film genre!

MS: She’s my girlfriend now. I want to see a whole movie starring Hella. I insist you start filming immediately.

BLB: That’s funny, because my husband, to whom the movie is dedicated, also thinks Hella steals the movie. I have a big soft-spot for Otto as well, though. As an alienated, hypersensitive gay youth who shuts himself off from a violent and homophobic world, he represents how I felt as a teenager. I cast eighteen-year-old Jey Crisfar as Otto because I could tell from his MySpace page that he had that damaged, almost neutral quality of modern youth.

MS: Sensitive gay youth? Aren’t they drowned at birth these days? How are they going to become snappy style gurus or bitchy gossip columnists if they’re sensitive? Let alone perpetually-lubed fuck-machines. Which reminds me, do you ever use a casting coffin?

BLB: The casting coffin! It’s going to be all the rage! Especially since I predict there’s going to be an explosion of zombie porn in the near future. No, I never pursue the talent, because it’s just too messy and it leads to lots of drama which I’m not really into.

MS: I’m sure that will disappoint a lot of wannabe Bruce LaBruce movie stars. Why do you think that modern youth have that damaged, almost eviscerated quality? Do you see it in yourself at all?

BLB: I think we live in very dark and cynical times. Corporate entities control our lives and a militarized police force clamps down on any protest or dissent, while advanced capitalism, with all its technological diversions, endlessly distracts children from what’s really going on in the world. I think we all suffer from it but today’s youth really have never known any other, more autonomous reality.

MS: I know this sounds a little harsh, but I think they’re sociopathic – all of them. But then, if you’ve grown up in a world of email, texting, infinite online identities, and endless, limitless porn, it would be kind of crazy to actually be one coherent conscientious person. It would certainly cut down your dating options. By the way, I love the punchline the slutty German skinhead delivers to Otto after zombie sex, his entrails hanging out, blood and gore smeared on his bedroom walls: ‘Zat vas amazing! Can I see you again sometime?’

BLB: Anyone who has been involved in the extremes of sex in the gay world recognises that there are few limits. That is one thing that really still separates the men from the boys, and the gay world from the straight world. Like any extremes of experience, you have to learn how to balance that pursuit with your general well-being, to balance the pleasure principle with the reality principle. It’s a simple rule for kids to remember!

MS: Is it something you’ve managed to achieve in your own life, Bruce?

BLB: It’s a constant struggle! As I get older I find it harder to allow the pleasure principal to be as free-wheeling. But I don’t want to be ‘mature’ – I think you can still be a rabble-rouser when you get older. I look to the example of people like William Burroughs or Edward Albee.

MS: No wonder you’re a mess! I can talk though: I don’t seem to be able to get a handle on pleasure or reality. But hang on, you mentioned earlier that this film is dedicated to your husband. That sounds like Bruce settling down!

BLB: I don’t like to talk about it much, but my husband is Cuban and, although we are very much a couple and have been for some time, I married him mostly because otherwise he might not be able to stay in Canada. Of course, I’m ideologically opposed to gay marriage, but I don’t allow ideology to get in the way of practicalities. Besides, I like to contradict myself at least twice a day. Having said that, we were married at City Hall in front of a about thirty friends, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house! I read the lyric of Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here To Stay, and the officiating Justice of the Peace, a spritely Irishman, read, of his own volition, from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass!

MS: I knew you’d gone all mushy inside, Bruce. But I think if I’d been there even I would have cried too – loud enough to wake the dead.

6 thoughts on “I See Dead People: Bruce LaBruce’s Otto

  1. Artic_Jay, why are you making so much big deal over a porno? You know that’s what this movie is, right?

  2. Thank you, Bruce, for responding.

    “I think a lot of people are getting lost in and distracted by hardware…”

    Probably because the internet has made communication more efficacious that it ever has been before, but obtaining desired results does not necessarily mean better results. If kids (and adults) are getting lost and distracted, it’s because the instantaneity of the internet allows them to regard socializing as things that are not aided by patience and not valued by depth. This is, however, not a result of a lack of autonomy, but, of too much autonomy.

    “[T]hey’re also becoming hardwired to accept all sorts of compromises vis-a-vis corporate control of media and technology.”

    What compromises are they making? I will make the point that true corporate control is only possible through corporative dalliances with government.

    “There’s a difference between using MySpace or Facebook consciously to make contacts and promote your art, and buying into it wholesale as a social medium that hardwires the way you relate to other people and to the world in general. ”

    In what ways are you not “buying into” online social networks? By casting, marketing, and distributing your films online, you are utilizing and relying upon the internet far more extensively than the average person. Regardless of that, how uncritically a communicative medium will be adopted relies more on how normalized it is in a society than the characteristics of the medium itself. I’m sure in the past people just as uncritically used pen pal programs, book clubs, and 1-900 numbers as a means to socialize, the major difference being the internet provides more communicative choices than all of them put together.

    “[T]his golden age of personal autonomy for youth was called punk, and it’s entire raison d’etre was to operate outside corporate and (corrupt) governmental monitering and control. DIY was the name of the game.”

    A band that operates outside corporate enterprise is a band you’ve never heard of, whether punk or pop. Who distributed punk bands’ albums? Who provided venues for them to perform in? Who constructed the instruments they play? Corporations. Corporations are simply legal entities formed for the purpose of conducting business. They exist for three reasons: people are productive when working together, they’re more productive when working only with others with similar goals, and even more productive when hierarchized by talent and ability. Until a man can be an island unto himself, corporations will be an inextricable part of life.

    Also, it’s not as if the punk scene was founded on a principle of total freedom of expression and identity. I listen to a lot of 70s punk, but I would have had a difficult time gaining access to a lot of punk-based scenes based on my politics, fashion sense, ethnicity, orientation, and tastes in other music. The concept of a group requires exclusivity on some level, and punk is no different.

  3. Hey Arctic Jay: like i said in the interview, I like to contradict myself at least twice a day. Of course I’m not anti technology per se, and obviously I would be a fool – and wouldn’t be able to make films – if I didn’t try to keep up with technological advances. But it’s a question of degree. I think a lot of people are getting lost in and distracted by hardware, and they’re also becoming hardwired to accept all sorts of compromises vis-a-vis corporate control of media and technology. There’s a difference between using MySpace or Facebook consciously to make contacts and promote your art, and buying into it wholesale as a social medium that hardwires the way you relate to other people and to the world in general. Or maybe that’s just an academic distinction now! As to your last question, not to sound too corny, but this golden age of personal autonomy for youth was called punk, and it’s entire raison d’etre was to operate outside corporate and (corrupt) governmental monitering and control. DIY was the name of the game. x Blab

  4. Oh,God the Libertarian zombies are out already!It’s just a movie,jay! Lie back and enjoy the kinky ride,Baby- I know I can’t wait to see this flick!

  5. “I think we live in very dark and cynical times. Corporate entities control our lives and a militarized police force clamps down on any protest or dissent, while advanced capitalism, with all its technological diversions, endlessly distracts children from what’s really going on in the world. I think we all suffer from it but today’s youth really have never known any other, more autonomous reality.”

    Um, really? Autonomy refers to the ability to make a reasoned decision and act in a way that achieves the goal set by that decision. The wide acceptance of liberal principals secure individual autonomy from governmental attack and majority rule, but the greatest increases in autonomy are from technological advances. If I want to save a family member, whose kidneys have failed, through transplantation, that is an autonomous decision made possible only through technology. In addition, the advancement and free-use of technology is most efficiently spurred by free-market capitalism. I find it a little ironic that Bruce decries this advancement when it has increased his autonomy through cheap and accessible marketing-as well as in other filmmaking aspects, like casting-via the internet. And having the luxury of distractions is evidence of autonomy, as it allows one to ponder deeply about the intrusive scopophilia of gay porn rather than using all one’s energy trying to find one’s next meal. I’d like to know when this golden age of personal autonomy actually occurred and what opportunities youths like myself have been missing out on.

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