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.

Mark Simpson Interviewed by Manchester Evening News

Email interview with Mark Simpson by Sarah Walters of Manchester Evening News (unedited version) pegged to his appearance as the bad fairy at this year’s Queer Up North Festival

SW: Sexuality has been part and parcel of your life and writings – how has reaction changed to the topic of sexuality since you started writing? Is there a culture of openness now, or still prudishness?

MS: Things have certainly changed. I doubt that the MEN of 20 years ago, would have interviewed me. If anything, it would have organised a campaign against my visit. Frankly, I wouldn’t have blamed them.

To some extent, homosexuality was dirty and sniggersome back then because sex was. Homosex is, symbolically speaking, sex for sex’s sake – not for Mothercare’s or the Pope’s. This of course is why the pop music kids listened to in the 80s was full of queerness: Soft Cell, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and that band called The Smiths.

Nowadays, everything has gone pop – especially Manchester – and sex is everywhere. Except perhaps in sex itself. I sometimes wonder whether, in a world full of broadband porn – and that’s just the TV schedules – whether there’s any point in actually having sex any more. Unless you’re doing it in front of a webcam or in the Big Brother House.

Queerness ain’t so queer any more. Maybe that’s why some of today’s favourite TV queers such as Graham Norton, tend to be reassuringly penis-less creatures from the 1970s.

But then, penised homosexuality can be very scary. And I should know.

Young people seem increasingly more open-minded about discovering and challenging their sexuality. Is being bi-/metro-sexual the new black?

It certainly looks like the future is ‘bi-curious’ and ‘open-minded’. Or at least that’s what it says on its online profile.

I mean, what is ‘straight’ nowadays? Sex outside marriage and Biblically-sanctified orifices has become almost compulsory.

For QUN, you’re taking part in the big Debate on May 10, which is always a huge draw – last year was a sell out. What are the hot topics in queer politics you’re expecting to field?

I’m afraid I’ve no idea what the hot topics in queer politics are. Hopefully I’ll be asked to comment on the new Gladiators’ abs and David Beckham’s Armani-wrapped lunch-box.

I understand that you’ll be taking a devil’s advocate line on the point/necessity of festivals like Queer Up North and speaking out ‘against’ them on May 24. Anti-gay debate (in particular against gay stereotypes) is something you’ve written about previously – what’s your beef with QUN?

Well, I don’t really have that much of a beef with QUN, especially since they’re putting me up in a boutique hotel for the weekend. And full marks to them for addressing this subject at all.

My argument is that with the queering of the mainstream, there really isn’t such a thing as ‘queer culture’ any more. Once upon a time, young queers would have to run away from Darlington to the queer metropoli of Manchester or London if they wanted some ‘queer culture’ – or just to be able to come out without losing their front teeth. This is clearly no longer necessarily the case. Many can come out at home without being made homeless, watch soaps with gay storylines – like Shameless – and log-on to look for love or sex. Or go to ‘gay night’ at the local nitespot. Queer culture was largely a product of queer communities. Queer assimilation and crossover means that those communities are increasingly obsolete.

Has Manchester as a city played a particular role in promoting (or, perhaps distorting) gay culture and liberalising opinions about sexuality?

I don’t think there’s a city anywhere that’s done more to queer the world than Manchester. Home of Coronation Street, Take That, Queer As Folk, Man U’s metrosexual ‘Spice Boys’, Shameless and The Smiths. Thanks to Manchester, it’s not just queer up north anymore.

Manchester itself seems to have been transformed from the desolate post-industrial landscape I knew in 1983 when I lived here briefly, to a city fit for hairdressers. And today’s footballers.

The North Rises Again: Interview With Mark E Smith

The Fall’s legendary front-man has some deep-fried career advice for the Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs

(Arena Hommes Plus, Summer 2006)

“’Avin’ been around the world I reckon we’re very lucky,” says Mark E Smith, pop genius and (usually) lovable curmudgeon in a moment of uncharacteristic optimism. “They don’t realise what they’ve got, English people.” And what have we got? “Well,” he stalls, eyeing me and sensing a trap, “you don’t know until it’s gone do you, Mark!”

Mark E Smith, is 49 years old this year. It’s part of the mythology of the man who put ‘front’ in ‘frontman’, the lead-ranter for the longest-serving pre-post-punk band The Fall, that he looks much older than his years. Maybe it’s because those heady days when pop and art and literature and, well, everything worth caring about seemed to intersect, and everything seemed possible, especially after a line of dodgy speed and a can of Special Brew, now seem much further away than they actually are.

Due to an odd trick of the 21st Century light, the late Seventies, when The Fall was founded after Mark E Smith and most of the English working class was laid off at Salford Docks, is now much, much further away than, say, the early Sixties.

Or maybe it’s just because he’s generally reckoned to have consumed enough sulphate and Special Brew to give ICI indigestion. “A tooth fell out this morning, at 2am,” he tells me with a grin, “I thought that’s fookin’ typical! Just before I’m due to meet the press!”. He orders a pint of lager and a whiskey and lights up, eyes narrowing in the smoke.

It’s clear that Mr Smith has had, ahem, a few late nights, and isn’t going to make the cover of Mens Health any time soon but to me he looks younger than his years. No, honestly. Maybe it’s a trick of the iconic light on this Sunday afternoon in this postmodern Manchester hotel, or maybe it’s because he doesn’t care about his looks in the way you’re required by EU edict these days, but the man behind 25 studio albums and 24 live albums looks as scampish and defiant as ever. A slightly shop-worn Kes with a merciless Mancunian motor-mouth.

How does he feel being an icon? “It don’t bother me” he says with a shrug. “Though, being a Smith I prefer not to be noticed and to just get on with it.”

Smith’s style is anything but anonymous. Lyrically, he’s a cross between William Burroughs, Philip Larkin and Ena Sharples. Above all else, he is distinctively, eccentrically English. In the true sense of the word. That’s to say northern.

“London’s sealing itself off with its prices and its attitudes,” he moans. “London is fookin’ surreal. It’s like: ‘You can’t come in here!’ And what is London, that collection of villages, for? Fook all. Compare it to cities like Newcastle, Leeds and Manchester, great cities which changed the world. I don’t wanna get too northern here…”

Please do….

“After 11 o’clock you still can’t get a pint!” He grins. “But we can’t say this Mark coz this is going in a London-based magazine!

Albert Camus, who penned the novel Smith named his band after, described a rebel as: ‘A man who says “no”’. Smith has turned ‘no’ literally into an art-form – always placing himself apart from the latest trend, the latest bleating herd-instinct; it’s made him a lot poorer and a lot less celebrated. But it has also made him a hero. One of the last.

He isn’t impressed by the current renaissance of Northern English pop, even those bands which owe rather a lot to The Fall. “I think that the Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys should open a chain of chip shops in North Yorkshire”, he says, only half joking. “I think the East Germans had it right, actually. Every group used to have to have a permit. Until they came up with anything culturally relevant, like a classical composition. I think they should bring them in here. I should start a musical Stasi. If you can’t play in fookin time, then fook off back to the factory.”

What have the English got? Mark E Smith, that’s what.

Let’s hope this is one thing they appreciate before it’s gone.