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Tag: Bruce LaBruce

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.

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.

On The Town: with Glenn/Glennda, Two Bruces & Two Old Musicals

by Mark Simpson (First appeared in Attitude, July 1998)

‘Yoo can’t stop the moo-zik/No-body can stop the moo-zik/Take the cold from snow/Tell the trees “don’t grow?/Tell the wind “don’t Blow?/’coz  it’s ee-zee-er to doo!’

I’m singing a cappella, out of tune and fighting against a Pet Shop Boys ditty whining and clattering on the PA in this tiny, pre-Stonewall retro New York fag bar with the fabulously cheesy name ‘IC Guys’, the show-stopping, pull-out-all-the-stops-and-wear-something-glittery big finale number from Nancy Walker’s epic Village People movie ‘Can’t Stop the Music’.

I’m trying to infect my native New Yorker friend Glenn Belverio, the artist formerly known as Glennda Orgasm, with my out-of-towner enthusiasm for that 1980 box-office bomb and show why it is my cultural compass for my first visit to New York since the Eighties.

He’s not impressed. In fact, he’s looking at me with a textbook rendition of ‘askance’, with a side-order of wariness and concern, and says dismissively, ‘It’s just a bad movie Mark’. I put this down to my singing, and embark on an intellectual exposition instead.

‘Look,’ I plead, trying to ignore the skinny, queeny barman-cum-go-go-dancer (I told you this place was small) who is coquettishly counting his ribs for us, Can’t Stop the Music is a tour-de-force! The “music” that “can’t be stopped” is clearly desire – something that vibrates in everyone, choreographing them to its own plan. One that has little rhyme or reason.  The opening number alone, with it’s kooky collage of the technicoloured, steamy street-life of Manhattan – roller-skating, boom-boxing, jogging in leg-warmers or just showing off their baskets – is so exhilarating, so chaotic, so… VITAL. Even the giddy contrast between the high camp of the big production numbers and the low-rent bathos of the terrible script is movingly apposite to…..’

‘Yeah right,’ interrupts Glenn, staring openly in disbelief at our skinny stripper who is now jiggling his bones in time to Sylvester’s ‘Mighty Real’ like something escaped from a Ghost Train ride, wearing nothing now but a thin, lascivious, slightly vengeful smile (in any other bar in New York no one would even see him; here you can’t avoid him). Glenn finally manages to tear himself away: ‘Whatever.  All I can remember is that I wasn’t able to sit through that film.’

‘But, but,’ I burble, disappointed that Glenn of all people – the Glenn who once told me that ‘old movies are all I have’ – isn’t with me on this one, ‘the “YMCA’ Busby Berkeley pastiche!  With the young men falling into the pool like a line of muscular dominoes! Even more perfect when you learnt that apparently they were actually hand-picked serving US Marines loaned by the US Navy who had been led to believe that this musical would be a great recruiting sergeant….’  But Glenn isn’t paying attention.

So I try another tack. ‘Well, my other New York reference point is “On the Town’, 1949, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors determined to have a good time on 24hrs shore-leave in Manhattan – the energy, and sheer… SPUNK in that film is breathtaking: ‘Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk, is a wonderful town/the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down’

Glenn winces at my rendition and looks even more bored. ‘Just because it’s got sailors in it.’

‘But,’ I protest, ‘Gene Kelly’s bell-bottomed thighs are historic. An exquisitely curvaceous, “cheeky” counterpoint to the rigid phallicism of the Forties Manhattan skyline…’ But Glenn has decided I’m now being ironic.

But I’m not. Actually, like IC Guys, I’m being nostalgic. I feel that both those films capture something about New York that has been lost; something that made New York the centre of the world in the Forties and again in the Seventies – before the election of a Fifties film star as President in the Eighties saw the West Coast eclipse the East, private spaces eclipse public ones, safe sex eclipse the dangerous variety, and shallow visual values eclipse lyrical ones.

Until that time New York – the City of cities – was synonymous with a crazy, edgy exuberance: otherwise known as ‘song and dance’ or just ‘life’.  As ‘The Sound of the City’ the opening number in Nancy’s Village People meisterwork has it:  ‘Listen to the sound of the city/Listen to the sound of my town…’.

Even this much was clear to me as a whiny sprog visiting New York in the early seventies with my suffering parents on holiday from my home town of (Old) York, England. The smell, the heat, the dirt, the noise, the steam escaping bafflingly from the street, the perpetual motion of six million driven souls and the giddy grandeur of the sky-scrapers. New York was literally a city where you couldn’t crick your neck enough trying to take it all in.  Everywhere you looked, including heavenwards, there was human vanity.

In hindsight I can see that New York was the key to the Seventies: funk, disco, Kojak, punk, leg-warmers, ‘The Godfather’, bankruptcy, bisexuality, hip hop, the last gasp of liberalism and, of course, the band who changed the world or at least persuaded it to wear leather chaps more, The Village People, all had their origins here. New York even invented the end of the seventies – AIDS. But back then, both me and the Seventies were in short trousers and it was a confusing, terrifying experience for a small-town boy, perhaps all the more so because it bore clearly and garishly the traces of something rarely seen in suburban Yorkshire. Passion.

A quarter of a century on, I’m ready to embrace that confusion and passion – at least for a couple of days. But New York, damnit, has gone and cleaned up its act. As everyone knows, the drugs, the disease, the debt, the crime, the scandal and vice are all on the wane. The Disney Corporation has been stomping all over Manhattan, flattening Times Square, biting the heads off street hustlers and scaring away more interesting monsters.  Everyone is now very sensible in New York.  Even the junkies have pension plans and gay leaders like Larry Kramer and his earthly representative Michaelangelo Signorile call for gay men to abandon the messiness of promiscuity, public sex, and shameful shags with straight men, and go for hygienic, orderly, proud gay monogamy (i.e. celibacy).

At the gay nostalgia bar, IC Guys, Glenn and I are joined by the decadent novelist and connoisseur of bohemia Bruce Benderson, Camille Paglia’s early inspiration and the author of a book advocating downward mobility called ‘Toward a New Degeneracy’. He thinks that artists have a duty to live with the people of the streets (a duty his yen for street hustlers makes less onerous a burden than for most). Bruce wears a placid, congenial expression, but appears to have a cheeky smile perpetually playing around his eyes. I complain to him that Glenn is blind to the genius of ‘Can’t Stop the Music’.

‘Oh,’ he says, matter-of-factly, ‘there is no question but that it is a MARVELLOUS movie. Its surrealism borders on high art. It conveys the absurdity of life very well.’ Bruce has a voice which seems to be perpetually threatening, albeit ironically, to add ‘Mary’ to the end of each sentence but never actually does.

‘I love you, Bruce,’ I say, hugging him and directing gloating looks at Glenn. ‘But what,’ I ask, disentangling myself and studying him carefully, ‘about “On the Town”‘.

Bruce’s eyes cloud almost imperceptibly. ‘Well now, “On the Town’ is more… difficult. I was never much of a fan of Gene Kelly’s dancing. I’ve always preferred the French school myself. I have little time for that, that…’ Bruce tails off.

‘Clean-cut, large-thighed vigorous virility?’ I offer.


‘Ah, I’m afraid I have little time for anything else,’ I confess. ‘I wish it weren’t so. But then, that’s what a Northern English public school education does to you.’

In an attempt to rescue me from my lack of sexual imagination, Bruce whisks me and Glenn off to one of his favourite haunts, an Upper Upper West Side Latino hustler bar: ‘One of the last, sadly.’ he laments during the long, long Yellow Cab journey. ‘There used to be many more. But the clean-up of Manhattan and the pillage of Times Square has banished them.’ He sighs folornly. Inevitably, Bruce now searches for illicit, lyrical, messy sex on the Internet. He’s just written a book about cybersex, which is only being published in French. He researched it with a video camera atop his computer monitor. ‘I spent weeks sitting naked in front of that computer having a whale of a time before I realised that it wasn’t only the people I was talking to on the Net who could see me. I really should have drawn my curtains.’ (Of course, the internet has been another kind of ‘curtains’ for public sex in NY.)

As we stagger out of the cab and into the hustler bar, I mention out loud that Glenn walks like a puppet who has had two strings cut. ‘Do I really?’ he demands of the assembled group. Silence. ‘Well,’ he says, resignedly, ‘I guess it must be true. Omigod!  I walk like a puppet whose strings have been cut! Not one but TWO!’

‘Well,’ I say, putting on my best talk show voice, ‘In our own way, Glenn, we all walk like puppets who’ve had two strings cut.’

‘Oh, shut UP!’

In another hustler bar, a grubby little shack perched on some disused dockfront, there turns out to be rather more hustlers than punters. Which is especially bad news on a Friday night when a working boy is hoping to pay off the subs he’s chalked up during the week. Four of them in their skimpy shorts and press-on goatees stand in a line on the small stage facing the oval bar in the centre, go-going in their decidedly un-clean-cut Latino way. Everyone recognises Bruce and they are clearly happy to see him; hardly surprising since he is probably single-handedly responsible for keeping this place open.

One in particular, a short, bleached-blond number, exquisitely beautiful, hops off the stage and prowls towards us in that swishy-but-not-faggy cat-like – highly ‘musical’ – walk that Latino boys can do, something very alarming bouncing underneath his shorts, tenting them out. He smiles easily and convincingly as he allows us to pull his waistband out far enough to get a glimpse of his salami-sized penis, which is somewhat purplish as it is tied off at the base. ‘Oh,’ exclaims Glenn nonchalantly, ‘that’s where one of my puppet strings got to.’

We stuff some dollar bills down the boy’s waistband and he smiles even more easily and convincingly. As he rhumba-sashays off back to his perch the back of his neck passes under my nose and I smell a sudden, all-enveloping sweetness. I ask Bruce about this. ‘Yes, Latino hustlers have that nutmeggy smell even when they’ve been on the streets for days,’ he explains authoritatively. ‘Whereas white boys, well, they just have this really acrid, ammonia smell.’

‘Is it diet or temperament?’ I ask, as if we were discussing dog breeds.

‘Oh, I think diet has a lot to do with it,’ ventures Bruce, scanning the chorus line. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘maybe Catholicism has something to do with it too. The marvellous thing about Southern Catholics is that they have very poor memories. They forget. Which always makes the next morning so much easier.’

‘Ah yes,’ I concur. ‘There’s nothing more off-putting than eau de regret.  Which is why I should really get into the Latin groove instead of the anglo-celtic schtick I’ve got going. I have enough ammonia in my life to clean kitchens with.’

Glenn, who is a little worse for wear now, is pointing at one of the hustlers on stage. ‘HE’S NO LATINO!’ he shouts. ‘HE’S JUST SOME MUSCLE MARY FROM CHELSEA WITH AN INSTANT TAN!’ (Glenn is very proud of his own authentic Latino heritage.)

Another Bruce we’ve been expecting, the Canadian film-maker Mr LaBruce, someone who definitely isn’t in denial about his love for camp movies, finally shows up. ‘Are you Catholic, Bruce?’ I ask him as he joins us.

‘Certainly not. I’m of Celtic Protestant stock,’ he says proudly, but won’t allow Mr Benderson and I to sniff him. After a quick round of drinks, we bid our farewells to Bruce #1, leaving him happy as Larry in Latinoland. Bruce #2 then whisks Glenn and me away to another hustler bar, one which he promises will be ‘less “Night of the Iguana”’.

On the way there Glenn bursts out laughing and points at Bruce #2 who is trotting ahead of us: ‘Well, I may walk like a vandalised puppet, but Bruce walks like she thinks she’s Jean Shrimpton in platforms on Carnaby street wearing a big floppy hat!!’ (I make sure that I walk behind everyone else.)

The second hustler bar isn’t quite so Latino. More Northern European and black, with just a smattering of Hispanic. As I’m talking to Bruce #2, one of the black dancers walks up to him and nonchalantly flops his penis in his pocket. Equally nonchalantly Bruce tips him ten bucks.

Much, much later, over blueberry and cream cheese blintzes in some SoHo diner, Glenn tells us he has a confession to make. He looks at us anxiously. ‘Promise not to laugh.  OK?’

Bruce and promise, solemnly.

‘OK. Here’s the thing. My Dad was a big fan of the Village People. He even joined the YMCA. And bought poppers.’ Glenn grimaces at the memory. ‘I was very worried about him for a while. What made it worse was…’ He tails off.

‘Yes, Glenn?’

‘He was in charge of a factory making uniforms.’

Bruce and I break our promise. Loudly.

Yoo can’t stop the moo-zik….


UPDATE: Glenn no longer walks like a marionette that has had two strings cut (it was probably the cheap martinis he was downing that night). And is no longer in denial about liking camp movies. Remarkably, he still returns my calls.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2007

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