As TIFF begins Skin Flicks: The Films of Bruce LaBruce, its full retrospective on the films of Canadian auteur Bruce LaBruce, its an opportune moment to consider cinema’s easy erotic pleasures and the way this director shows us sex where we’ve never seen it before. LaBruce’s had made a career out of making films that attack viewers, especially gay male viewers, for their brainless devouring of pornographic images, and LaBruce seems to have had quite a good deal of fun assaulting the camera and his audiences. Rather then holding his fun against him, it’s worthwhile to note the joy to be found in the not always easy but ultimately very gratifying representation of unconventional sex.
LaBruce comes to the practice of giving the finger to established ways of thinking honestly. From 1985 to 1991 in Toronto, LaBruce co-published with G.B. Jones the queer punk zine J.D.’s (which may have started off as a referent to juvenile delinquents but which later became a nod to James Dean and J.D. Salinger). Filled with drawings and photos, the “J.D.s Top Ten Homocore Hits”, and stories by Bruce LaBruce where, for example, gay punks fucked in the bathrooms of dirty bars, the zine is probably the greatest contributor to the formation of a scene that was eventually was called “queercore”, a term for a subculture meant to piss of punks while rejecting the confines of the increasingly mainstream and conservative gay and lesbian movement. LaBruce and Jones moved into filmmaking in the early 1990s, and, motivated by some combination of lust and the desire to provoke, it’s not surprising LaBruce took his erotic outsiders from the page to the screen. For those who make it through the retrospective’s punk, skinhead, and zombie films, they are likely to find that LaBruce is the pervert behind the curtain, getting you into the theatre on the promise of one thing, getting your rocks off on scenes of another kind.
“Hustler White,” the most well known of LaBruce’s early films and one of the films he is introducing as part of the retrospective, stars the very fucking sexy Tony Ward, but the film does not give you soft focus and Ward from every flattering angle. Instead, the ex-boyfriend to Madonna, star of her book SEX, super-male-model of the world, trolls the streets of Los Angeles as he is pursued by a smitten film director (played by LaBruce) who wants to cast Ward in his new movie. LaBruce has been known for some time as the “reluctant pornographer”, but it’s not Ward with his legs in the air that earned him this moniker; “Hustler White” features scenes of extreme bondage gone wrong and the only instance of gay amputee sex I can recall seeing in the cinema.
More recently, for his 2010 film “L.A. Zombie,” LaBruce chose the Fresh porn star Francois Sagat as his star but negated all the simple erotic pleasures that come with such a casting decision. In “L.A. Zombie,” Sagat is adorned with fangs and a skin palette that might have been concocted by David Cronenberg, and his zombie mutation is complete by LaBruce with a charred and blackened zombie penis. The overall effect is nauseating, but LaBruce isn’t completely cruel. If you don’t walk out of the theatre, as many did in 2010 when the film was notably banned by the Melbourne International Film Festival, you are to be rewarded with a final orgy of gay porn’s most recognizable… faces.
LaBruce’s films are advanced in their cinematic strategies, but don’t let him hear you say that. From the start of his career the director was quick to mock the experimental techniques which made his films so effective. In a scene from “Super 8 1/2,” LaBruce is dressed and coifed like Andy Warhol, indulging film journalists in descriptions of his use of Brechtian techniques of distanciation. LaBruce knows that if you let them, critics will walk away talking about your films strategies and not its substance and one no one will come to see the movie, so from the start the director has sought to show filmgoers heart amongst his many other prized organs.
In 2013‘s “Gerontophilia,” a film widely screened at international film festivals and the first nonpornographic feature length by LaBruce in almost a decade, the director continues his work of showing us sex where we know it exists even if we refuse to discuss or represent it. As the title suggests, the film is about the love of the elderly. Lake, a young French Canadian (played by Pier-Gabriel Lajoie) falls for a nursing home-bound geriatric (played by Walter Borden), and, as the two become closer, a Harold and Maude-style adventure ensues.
Though cocks are noticeably absent, for nonpornographic LaBruce there are still plenty of bare torsos in the film. In one scene our two protagonists, separated by an age difference of sixty or seventy years, sit, gossiping at the nursing home, stripped down to their briefs. In another, Lake sits half-naked on his bed beneath a beautiful, black and white, larger than life photo of an elderly Mohandas Gandhi with a third of his torso bare.
The photo of the Indian revolutionary is the most subtle and subversive aspect of the film. Though Gandhi’s presence initially represents something like radical thinking or one man’s desire for change against dominant forces, as Lake’s attraction to the elderly men at the nursing home is developed, Gandhi, with his collar bones prominent and the photograph expertly lit, begins to take on a meaning no popular audience has ever attributed the historical figure. In the blink of an eye, Gandhi, too, is cast in LaBruce’s erotic light, and it’s quite simple to see an aged Gandhi as conventionally handsome or even erotic in his great stature. It’s a long way from skin heads talking about sex in concentration camps, but it’s proof LaBruce is still masterfully taking audiences where they thought they’d never go.
The retrospective runs until July 3rd.