Using the starting point of the MoMA retrospective of the works of Bruce LaBruce, this article confronts the shifting perceptions of LaBruce as a transgressive provocateur of cinema. I argue that his most recent work, Gerontophilia is not marked by a turning away from radical principles as some allege but rather an evolution in his business of strategic transgression. This article refutes arguments that suggest LaBruce is a fading dissident but rather that LaBruce is interested in reaching out to a new demographic that signifies LaBruce’s radical resilience. In keeping with his traditional status as sexual provocateur this paper argues that Gerontophilia confronts the naturalised connection between sexual acts and sexual identity while embracing precisely its failure to reproduce these norms of both identity and relationality. Rather than being understood as “selling out” or even “mellowing,” LaBruce’s Gerontophilia might be better understood as the diversification of a director with a keen sense of what constitutes radical critique.

In April and May of 2015 New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) hosted a retrospective of film works by Canadian art-pornographer Bruce LaBruce. The retrospective celebrated 25 years of radical, experimental punk filmmaking and opened with a screening of LaBruce’s most recent feature film Gerontophilia (2013). Media commentators at the time attributed his enduring career to his early and defiant glorification in the 1990s of “gayness in the face of a looming AIDS crisis”1 and his ongoing commitment to “anti-establishment (and) anti-assimilationist” politics2. They proclaimed him to be “iconic”3, “transgression personified”4, and in one instance, the “crowned king of the marginals”5. Such appraisals are apt given the decision by MoMA – a global leader in the arbitration of cultural value – to hold the retrospective in the first place. Perhaps in acknowledgment of this fait accompli, some of the journalists reporting on the show choose to focus on the implications such canonisation might have on the future of his “transgressive” brand of cinema; as the author of an article for Slate magazine wondered, what does it mean “When a Radical Gets a Retrospective?”6

Bruce LaBruce


The uncertainty at the heart of this question – one about the compatibility of radical critique and institutional or mainstream recognition – had already been articulated by critics in response to the release of Gerontophilia in 2013, only on these occasions the query wasn’t speculative it was evaluative; damning rather than inquisitive. In contrast to the majority of his earlier films Gerontophilia has a glossy, high production aesthetic, and the budget, estimated at two million Canadian dollars, was LaBruce’s biggest at the time.7 Gerontophilia was also the first of LaBruce’s films to feature sexual activity demure enough to avoid the adult classification. Some critics interpreted the film and LaBruce’s stylistic shift as a “commercial cop-out”8 motivated by a desire to “‘cross over’ and be adopted by mainstream” and “largely straight audiences”.9 The perception of LaBruce as a waning radical iconoclast – an idea that emerged with the release of Gerontophilia – is compounded by critical appraisals of the MoMA retrospective that read it as a form of institutional canonisation tantamount to cooptation. While the impression of LaBruce as a mellowing radical courting a mainstream crossover (articulated most vehemently in the criticism of Gerontophilia) is understandable, it both overlooks and misrepresents the evolutionary nature of LaBruce’s radical strategy.

Critical dissension on the value and significance of LaBruce’s work is not new. Ambivalence regarding the director’s innovative amalgamation of art and pornography has tended to result in a kind of critical indifference to his work. Indeed, as American scholar Eugenie Brinkema suggests, this indifference might be understood as a “hysterical symptom” resulting “directly from the nature of his formal expression”.10 Though Gerontophilia certainly marks a turning point for LaBruce – as he readily admits11 – it is not a moment marked by a turning away from radical principles but rather by a canny evolution in the business of strategic transgression. LaBruce’s inscrutability and tendency for self-contradiction is central to his evasion of commercial cooptation and therefore, his longevity as a punk provocateur. This article is less interested in the MoMA event itself than it is in the public perception – generated by the Gerontophilia and MoMA ‘moments’ – of LaBruce as a fading dissident. Instead I propose we consider the MoMA retrospective as a reminder of LaBruce’s radical resilience, and an opportunity to take stock of the filmmaker’s oeuvre and reflect on the significance of his historical and ongoing contribution to queer cinema – past, present and future.

Becoming Bruce LaBruce

The mid-to-late 80s was a significant period in the coming-to-consciousness of York University graduate student Bryan Bruce aka, Bruce LaBruce. LaBruce often points to his discovery of homophobia within the punk scene during this period as a primary source of his political and artistic inspiration.12 As LaBruce saw it, the radical promise of punk as a sexually permissive, anti-normative and anti-capitalist critique had given way to a Hardcore punk scene characterised by misogyny and heteronormativity. The loss of punk as radical critique was mirrored for him by the equally tragic failure of the gay and lesbian political movements to deliver on the promise of sexual liberation. The steady devolution of the gay movement into sexual segregation, the privileging of “fag culture over dyke,” and the “fear of the expression of femininity” had led to “the phenomenon of the “straight-acting gay male,” an archetype that exposed the hypocrisy of late-80s gay culture and its supposed commitments to “gender fluidity”.13 For LaBruce, the “veiled misogyny” of the gay movement was as inconsistent with its antecedents – the radical gender and sexual politics of gay liberation – as the late-80s punk scene was with its radical roots.14

LaBruce’s role in the formation of “Homocore” or “Queercore,” a subcultural niche derived from the commingling of radical gay politics with hardcore punk, is well documented.15 LaBruce and collaborator G.B. Jones’ seminal queer punk ‘zine J.D.s was at the centre of Queercore subculture in Toronto in the early to mid-90s. Designed to foreground the complicity of the hardcore punk scene and the gay movement with heterosexist and market-driven norms, the chief goal of the zine was to create a new counterculture. “I longed for something better,” says LaBruce, “(t)hat’s how we came up with the idea of homocore: the bastard child of two once exciting, volatile underground movements, gay and punk (now failed and spent), the little bugger who knew how to boost the best from both worlds”.16 Harking back to the firebrand politics of the Liberation era, specifically the unapologetic flouting of promiscuity and gender fluidity, Queercore set itself apart from the late-80s gay and lesbian political majority through its incendiary rhetoric and vehement anti-assimilationism.17 One of the most distinctive features of Queercore was its rejection of supplication as a political tactic. Queer punks were not aiming to carve out a space within the existing political sphere nor align themselves with established minority identity positions. Above all they sought to challenge norms and – as many cultural critics would write of them afterwards – expose those norms as oppressive social constructions.18 This particular aspect of Queercore critique, but specifically its manifestation in LaBruce’s work, may be understood as queer punk negation. The neologism queer punk negation describes a strategy in which the negationary, or anti-normative aspects of both “queer” and “punk” are emphasised.19 With its emphasis on DIY culture and amateurism, the punk sensibility is understood to be alert to the threat of capitalist commodification and cooptation. Similarly, queer critique has proven sensitive to the ossifying effects of identity as well as the normalising effects of the sex/gender system. In queer punk negation, “queer” and “punk” enter into a dialectical exchange in which each term is attentive to the normalising and assimilative tendencies of the other.

Central to the strategy of queer punk negation is the rejection of identity “structured by ressentiment”.20 According to feminist scholar Wendy Brown’s influential critique of minority identity politics, modern politicised identity formed as a righteous reaction to injury – that is, identity “structured by ressentiment” – becomes inadvertently complicit “in its own subjection” and, as a consequence, “reverse(s) without subverting this blaming structure”.21 At the root of the radial queer and punk sensibility that animates LaBruce’s work is the negation of ressentiment; the queer punks that filled the pages of his and Jones’s zine didn’t just “fail” to reproduce the norms of polite society, crucially, they embraced their “failure” to do so.22 Though “Queercore” as a subcultural niche has largely disappeared from the countercultural landscape, the radical strategy or sensibility at the root of it – the “bastard child” as LaBruce refers to it – remains alive and well in his filmmaking. It is in isolating this strategy that we identify the cohering principle of LaBruce’s cinema. Queer punk negation offers an interpretive framework for the director’s work; it may be understood as a way to describe of the textuality of his films as well as a way to interpret and take account of the broader goals of his political cinema. In a classic auteurist sense, queer punk negation demarcates LaBruce’s worldview.

Bruce LaBruce


Another aspect of LaBruce’s style that is central to his queer punk critique and strategy of negation, is his use of humor. While the political intentions attributed to LaBruce in appraisals such as the present article can tend toward the very serious, as any viewer of LaBruce will know, the films themselves are anything but. Frequently contradictory in their political propositions the films are shot through with a tongue-in-cheek, campy and ironic brand of humor that is consistent with a North American queer tradition and exemplified by the work of directors such as John Waters, Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger. This style or sensibility may be understood as a form of “politicized camp” deployed with the purpose of attacking “mainstream culture,” normative “values,” “appearances” and “behaviour”.23 In LaBruce’s films this corrosive brand of humor is used to undermine oppressive sexual norms, with a particular focus on the presence of gay sexual norms.

The essence of all radical critique is its ephemerality. Today’s revolutionary proposition quickly becomes tomorrow’s fashionable cause (an idea encapsulated by LaBruce’s 2004 satire of “radical chic” The Raspberry Reich). As a consequence of this movement between radical and mainstream, revolutionary tactics must evolve in order to avoid cooptation. LaBruce’s oeuvre reflects his awareness of this dialectic and the ways in which dissidence is routinely commodified. Revolution for LaBruce is a process hardwired for failure and the inevitable absorption of radical principles into the broader zeitgeist signals less as a moment of defeat for the director than it does as a moment for renewed strategy and action. It is this ever-shifting approach to revolution that can make LaBruce and his work seem at times contrary, willfully irreverent and without significance. From his grainy, experimental debut in the heyday of the New Queer Cinema through to his zombie porn in the early 2000s and culminating in the cross-generational romance Gerontophilia, LaBruce’s use of queer punk negation has remained consistent. The way in which queer punk negation is articulated however varies from film to film and tells us much about the changing culture and politics of gay and queer activism and the adjustments LaBruce has made in order to remain the crowned “king of the marginals”.24

Keeping the Punks Queer and the Queers Punk

LaBruce’s first two features No Skin Off My Ass (1991) and Super 8 ½ (1994) are the most clearly coded “Queercore”. Both are very literal translations of the strategy of queer punk negation and their idiosyncratic spin on the politics of representation, specifically their rejection of the “positive image” agenda, also make them key contributions to the New Queer Cinema of the ‘90s.25 A clear indebtedness and aspiration to art cinema coupled with a frank sexual explicitness typically found in soft and hardcore cinema, are key leitmotifs established in these early works. Both films advance strident critiques of dominant forms of politicised identity and the notion of “authentic” selves.

No Skin Off My Ass is the story of the romance between a young punk/skinhead and an effeminate skinhead-obsessed hairdresser (played by LaBruce). The plot is lifted from Robert Altman’s That Cold Day In The Park (1969) a tragic narrative about an older woman who is conned and exploited by a young man who withholds from her sexually. In LaBruce’s film the hairdresser takes a skinhead into his home with similar desirous motives however the tragedy of Altman’s film is refigured as romance in LaBruce’s. The story unfolds via a series of vignettes and is distinct for its grainy black and white cinematography and unsynchronised sound. We learn that the Hairdresser has become obsessed with Skinhead style. Montages develop the connection between subculture, style and social critique. Fantasy sequences associate SM activities between the lovers with fascist and Nazi iconography. Images of British Skinheads and footage of shaving, kissing, fondling and oral sex, are set to voiceovers of the subcultural theory made famous by Dick Hebdige: “(r)eal Skins are much less coherent than the stereotype,” recites the Hairdresser, “subcultures, after all, don’t offer solutions to material problems, they play back the problems symbolically, in style”.26

For Matias Viegener, the eroticisation of fascist iconography in LaBruce’s work and in Queercore subculture more broadly, challenged the “1980s gay gentrification of sexual identity.”27 Queercore aimed to undermine the “radical-left dogma of democratized sameness demanded by liberated homosexuality,” and one of the key ways it did this was by appealing to the ideologically dangerous eroticisation of power difference dramatised by SM activity.28 LaBruce’s debut feature was an attempt to symbolically resolve the mainstreaming of gay culture the late-80s; the “unlikely” romance and the explicit depiction of its consummation queering both “gay” and “skinhead” identities.29 No Skin Off My Ass depicted an alternative queer culture, one that was not supplicative, not structured by ressentiment and not coy about gay sex. Though it is beyond the scope of the present essay, the social context of HIV/AIDS is of key relevance to the consideration of LaBruce’s perception of queer representation, in particular its relation to sexual conservatism and disavowal of “deviant” sexual practices within gay culture.30

LaBruce’s follow up film developed his critique of identity by exploring the possibilities of textual unintelligibility and challenging the notion of directorial intentionality. A semi-autobiographical film, Super 8 ½ tells the story of Bruce (LaBruce), a once famous underground art/porn filmmaker and porn star who has fallen out of critical favour and upon hard times. Bruce’s friend Googie is making a film about his career titled Bruce. Touted as a “comeback” project, it soon becomes apparent that the film is less a celebration of Bruce than an exploitation of his vulnerability for Googie’s critical acclaim. Super 8 ½ established definitively LaBruce’s preference for the labyrinthine “mise en abîme,” or “film within film,” device as a challenge to reliable narration and, as a consequence, to coherent identity and authorial intention.31 If “no single statement or image” can be attributed to one of the “embedded texts” or speakers then it follows that there can be no notion of “originary self”.32 The refusal of authorship is emphasised by Bruce’s voiceover: “I steal all my lines,” he demurs, “everything came from other movies. The critics would say ‘Oh, it’s homage, or bricolage, or decoupage. A tribute, an update, a remake.’ Actually, I stole it. Why? Because I’m busy”. Of course the denial of authorial intention is an ironic device, as with its cinematic precursor, Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), it is precisely the perceived absence of authorship in Super 8 ½ that becomes the textual mark of authorship. The absence of textual authority (in theory if not in practice) works to metaphorise the rejection of minority identity politics that was central to Queercore critique.

In his own words Super 8 ½ was how LaBruce “responded to making No Skin Off My Ass”. 33 Though the latter had become an “unexpected cult film” LaBruce was to discover that the presence of pornography in his films prohibited their serious critical consideration34. The experience of being hailed as a key innovator in the New Queer Cinema alongside the stigmatisation that accompanies self-exploitation merely confirmed the transgressive potential of porn for LaBruce. Though the director’s use of porn has always been concerned with “being totally unapologetic, direct and aggressive about homosexuality” from this period we also see the emergence of a more reflexive use of the genre for its potential to evade cooptation.35 For LaBruce, a self-described “reluctant pornographer,” porn represents the last bastion of the radical, an aesthetic fundamentally unassimilable to the mainstream and consequently uncooptable.36

The uses of obscenity

From the mid-to-late ‘90s a shift in LaBruce’s expression of queer punk negation can be observed, from its literal imagination via a conflation of gay and punk identity to its expression via a strategic embrace of “obscenity” as a mode of queer punk negation. This use of the term “obscenity” draws on the work of porn scholar Linda Williams and is more a conceptual than it is a literal reference to “obscenity” in the classificatory sense.37 For Williams the normalisation of explicit imagery that accompanied the global commercialisation of pornography made the designation of “obscenity” vastly more complicated than it putatively ever was.38 With the proliferation of pornography on to what she called “the scene of representation,” explicitness alone was no longer a sufficient marker of obscenity; in an era of porn saturation sexual frankness was replaced by the “deviant sexuality of the other” as the key marker of the “obscene”.39 Though LaBruce’s films depict an array of sexual acts that may variously be described as explicit, non-explicit, hardcore and softcore, they are all designed to be strategically ‘obscene,’ and consequently, uncooptable by the mainstream. LaBruce’s oeuvre foregrounds the complexity of the current scene of sexual representation because of the way in which his work might be understood as “obscene” irrespective of whether or not the behaviour and acts depicted are categorically hardcore or explicit. As a mode of queer punk negation in LaBruce’s cinema, obscenity staves off cooptation while enabling an exploration of acts and pleasures excluded from the realm of dominant or mainstream gay identity. In this way LaBruce’s work links its critique of mainstream gay political organising and identity structured by ressentiment, to an alternative aesthetic that offers a vision of transgressive pleasures decoupled from dominant relational modes.

Bruce LaBruce

Hustler White

Hustler White (1996) – LaBruce’s first colour feature – tells the story of a snobbish underground filmmaker named Jurgen Anger (played with a high camp affectation by LaBruce), who travels to L.A. to carry out an ethnographic study of the hustlers working along Santa Monica Boulevard. Sexually explicit vignettes depict “live” porn shoots and various transactions between hustlers and their johns in locations around West Hollywood. The practice of ethnography, evoked so self-consciously in the film, foregrounds the way in which the observational sciences have historically been implicated in the production of minority sexual categories through processes of definition and description.40 The critique of the productive and constraining capacity of 19th century sexology – Foucault’s scientia sexualis – has been central to the invention of critical sexuality studies and the development of a radical theory of sex. The narrative conceit of Hustler White allows LaBruce to level a similar challenge to the modern construction of homosexual identity while simultaneously proving beyond a doubt – via a surfeit of explicit sexual scenarios including amputee sex and intergenerational SM – that “homosexuality”, even broadly construed, is not capable of encompassing the variety of non-genital centric pleasures that fall beyond the purview of heterosexual relationality.

The emergence of a “gay mainstream” throughout the ‘90s (also referred to as the rise of the new homonormativity) is attributed in part to a complex interaction between the developing of economic and political neoliberalism and a conservative backlash connected to HIV/AIDS.41 The increasing visibility and striking uniformity of gay identity in the ‘90s was seen by many queer progressives to be an uncritical celebration that fully realised the disciplinary effects of ‘reverse discourse’.42 Operating as a necessary first step and counter-discourse to the pathologising legacy of the scientia sexualis, reverse discourse – the process in which minority identities “speak back” to power structures using the rhetoric of civil rights – also has the undesirable effect of initiating a series of disciplinary effects in the biopolitical management of life. For queer thinkers and creative activists such as LaBruce, a re-exploration of the transgressive potential of homosexuality, specifically the emphasis on “bodies and pleasures” over “sex desire” emerged as a way to challenge modern disciplinary effects and the mainstreaming of gay life.43 Rather than understanding homosexuality as the description of an innate or “already existing form of desire,” and by extension as a form of politicised identity structured by ressentiment, this approach views it as a “strategically situated marginal position” from which alternative “pleasures” may bring about a “transformative queer practice of the self.”44 Practices that detach “sexual pleasure from sexuality,” particularly non-genital and non-gender specific acts such as those imagined in Hustler White for example, are considered “antirelational” insofar as they negate dominant relational modes in order to imagine new forms of relationality, “knowledge…(and)…love.”45

Bruce LaBruce

Skin Flick

Expanding his critical focus beyond the relational impoverishment of assimilative gay identity, LaBruce’s fourth feature Skin Flick (2000) marks a return to the issue of “veiled misogyny” in the queer community. Skin Flick depicts a day in the life of a group of working class fascist skinheads who burgle, gang rape and generally terrorise an upwardly mobile and homonormative interracial gay couple living in London. Produced by a German porn production company and featuring porn actors in a number of roles, Skin Flick was LaBruce’s first “official” porn film.46 Consistent with LaBruce’s earlier work, Skin Flick is highly self-conscious in its reworking of porn conventions and the film satirises what he saw as the “fascistic…uniformity” of “corporate” gay pornography.47 As LaBruce commented at the time, the “homosexual fetishisation of…fascist imagery” in Skin Flick “is merely taking modern gay porn to its logical conclusion”.48 Skin Flick’s harshest critique however is aimed at the valorisation of hegemonic masculinity within gay culture. Popular opinion on the political efficacy of gay machismo has long been a topic of contention. Historically associated with new forms of assertiveness emerging out of gay liberation, gay masculinity emerged as a challenge to “the (castrated) feminizing discourse of inversion theory.”[49 Healy, 1996, p. 107.] As figures of gay machismo proliferated in the commercial porn industry throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, ideological battles about their cultural significance persisted. Many argued that the figure of gay machismo was an “erotic violation of…heterosexist masculine identity” and therefore a form of “semiotic guerilla warfare” against dominant culture. 49 Others have been less enthusiastic, suggesting instead that the supposedly parodic redeployment of machismo merely obscures a deeper idealisation of hegemonic masculinity itself.50 Skin Flick doesn’t convincingly come down on either side of this debate; while the trope of fascism foregrounds the idealisation of male power and the effeminophobia that may underpin certain iterations of gay masculinity and identity, the homo-eroticisation of “heterosexist masculine identity” in the film could equally be understood as a subversive for it associations “between masculinity and sexual receptivity”.51

The Reparative Return

The Raspberry Reich (2004) casts a nostalgic backward gaze to the revolutionary sentiment of post-68 utopianism in order to foreground the political apathy of the present. Filmed on location in Berlin, The Raspberry Reich is the story of a fumbled kidnapping plot carried out by an all-male band of leftist freedom fighters led by charismatic female ideologue Gudrun (played by Susanne Sachße).52 If Skin Flick operated as a warning that we can never be assured of the way in which having sex politicises, then The Raspberry Reich is an exercise in the deliberate act of politicising sex. Gudrun inspires her troops by delivering long sermons rooted in the Marxist-Freudian rhetoric of liberationists Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, thinkers who believed not only that the sexual was inseparable from the political, but that revolution would only come about through the total liberation of the sexual instincts from the civilising and repressive forces of the modern capitalist state.53 Gudrun commands the men to have sex with each other in order to free themselves of their heterosexual repression and bourgeois fixation on monogamy – an appropriation that has the added benefit of queering the notoriously heterocentric bias of the Freudian left. Subsequent scenes of their revolutionary sex are accompanied by scrolling text reiterating Gudrun’s proselytising: “Heterosexuality is the opiate of the masses” and “Make (revolutionary) love not (imperialistic) war”. The idea of commodified dissent is a key motif in The Raspberry Reich. Iconic images of Che Guevara saturate the text reminding the viewer of the way in which mainstream cooptation works to depoliticise once subversive signifiers. Though the film is superficially a satire of naive liberationism (represented by the comic incompetence of the “urban guerrillas”) and commodified dissent or “terrorist chic” (as signified by the ubiquity of Guevara’s image), the most conspicuous critique posed by the film is toward the de-politicised present in which gay and lesbian political activism has shifted from once radical coalitional critiques of systemic injustice to more conservative calls for open military service and gay marriage. It is in this second, and largely neglected, reading of the film that we see the operation of queer punk negation via the tactic of backward looking or “reparative return”.54

Bruce LaBruce

The Raspberry Reich

The turn to both positive and negative affective archives in critical sexuality studies has been central to queer challenges to mainstream gay and lesbian activism throughout the 2000s.55 Attention to the intimate past can help to foreground the way memory is refashionedby conservative and homophobic discourses; an effect Christopher Castiglia described as “counternostalgia”. 56 Counternostalgia has tended to recast the “‘the sexual revolution’ as deadly and infantile” thus foreclosing on these memories as sites of strength and inspiration. 57 Though the concepts returned to in The Raspberry Reich, in particular Marcuse and Reich’s ideas about innate bi- or polymorphous sexuality, have been refuted in post-structuralist sexuality theory as essentialist, the notion of the modern sexual subject as alienated still has a seductive sway in critical theory. 58 Equally energising for the present moment is the film’s reflection on the long since lost coalitionism of the late ‘60s and ‘70s in which the feminist, black civil rights and gay liberation movements understood their oppression to be systemic and intertwined. Such utopian longings as imagined in The Raspberry Reich, whether for innate bi-sexuality or coalitional activism, seem both naive and anachronistic however it is precisely their rendering as such that clue us in to the film’s critique. Sara Ahmed has suggested that we can learn a great deal from the way political alternatives are represented and especially if they are rendered foolishly since they teach us nothing “about the nature of those alternatives but about just how threatening it can be to imagine alternatives to a system that survives by grounding itself in inevitability”.59 The buffoonery of the Reich members tells us very little about the nature of their political beliefs but rather how far from radical the conservative and homonormative tendencies of contemporary mainstream gay and lesbian politics have shifted. Counternostalgia such as that foregrounded by The Raspberry Reich is a problem “because it limits present options for nonnormative identification, intimacy…pleasure” and relationality.60 The backward or ‘reparative’ turn in LaBruce’s work that emerges in this film can thus also be understood as a mode of queer punk negation that aims to integrate the legacies of the past and remind us of how certain political conditions can foster new forms of relationality.61

Bruce LaBruce

Otto; or, Up With Dead People

While thematically LaBruce’s films are all variations on the theme of queer punk negation and radical sex critique, his foray into the world of zombie-porn in the 2000s represents a stylistic shift from the frequently didactic, manifesto-like approach of his earlier films, to the metaphorical and allegorical style that typifies the zombie genre. Although neither memory nor the past are explicitly present as subjects in either Otto; or, Up With Dead People (2008; Otto hereafter) or L.A. Zombie (2010), both films are consistent with the strategy developed in The Raspberry Reich in which the intimate queer archive is evoked as a reparative for the present. The memory of sexual revolution is metaphorised in both films via the trope of the zombie. This connection is rooted in the strong association the monster has with the notion of the “return” in film theory, as well as the zombie’s unique capacity to corporealize the theory of polymorphous perversity, and hence, aspects of Liberation-era thought. Otto is the story of a young man deep in an existential malady. Convinced he is a zombie, Otto wanders aimlessly around the city periodically experiencing flashbacks of his life before zombification in which he appears to have been happy and in love. Fortuitously Otto meets radical filmmaker Medea Yarn (Katharina Klewinghaus) and is cast in her revolutionary gay zombie porn film Up With Dead People. Yarn’s film, though ostensibly about a homosexual zombie revolution, is also about the enduring metaphor of the zombie and the way in which stupefaction is the only sane response to the repressive conditions of modern industrialised society. Otto is almost a limit case of the postmodern film. Multiple films within films disorientate the viewer obliterating any sense of a primary text while theoretical exegesis provided throughout by Yarn makes the film highly self-conscious. Interestingly, Otto seems more concerned with thinking through what the radical potential of gay zombie porn might be than it is with being a gay zombie porn. L.A. Zombie by contrast, appears to be precisely the (theoretically unencumbered) gay zombie porn imagined by Otto. L.A. Zombie features very little dialogue. The film follows the eponymous figure as he wanders around L.A. encountering the bodies of dead men and “fucking them back to life”.

The zombie films capitalise on the rich allegorical capacity of the genre to build on themes of sexual repression and alienation in modern capitalist society. The zombie metaphor offers firstly, the “classic” critique, that of contemporary gay life and identity as “boring, already zombied and getting deader”.62 This is an elaboration of the metaphor made famous in the films of George A. Romero and film criticism of 70s and 80s horror in which the monster was reconceptualised as a return of all that is repressed in a patriarchal, heteronormative and familial society.63 Such criticism was Marcusian in its reconfiguration of pathology as not only normal, but also the only sane response to living in a sick society.64 LaBruce then extends upon this metaphor to underline the ways in which emotionless or deadened affect might be conducive to radical new forms of sex public and relationality. As he commented, “if you’ve ever had anonymous sex in a park or even in a bathhouse, basically it is like having sex with a zombie, and not necessarily in a bad way…having sex with them frees you from the personal and emotional restraints of normal sexual behaviour”.65 American scholar Shaka McGlotten echoes this sentiment when he suggests that the “collective zombification” of “contemporary queer sociality” as represented in LaBruce’s zombie films, possesses a creativity and “openness” from which “enlivening modes of agency” can be at the very “least” imagined if not cultivated.66 In symbolising the “return of the repressed” LaBruce’s zombies evoke the idealised polymorphous body of sexual liberation. The zombies are indiscriminate and promiscuous while their predilection for wound sex de-emphasises exclusive genital sex, offering instead a radical democratisation of orifices. LaBruce’s zombies thus metaphorise the “liberated” sexual encounter that was the goal of Gudrun and her followers in The Raspberry Reich. The symbolic work done by the zombies challenges counter nostalgic narratives of intimate memory and the films are reparative in their harnessing homosexual specificity and their imagining and cultivation of intimacy beyond dominant relational forms.

Intergenerational Encounters and New Relational Modes

Despite its lack of hardcore sex it is possible to argue that Gerontophilia is consistent both thematically and formally with LaBruce’s earlier work as well as the over-arching creative and political vision he has been fine-tuning for over two decades. LaBruce’s comments that the film presented an opportunity to squeeze something “subversive,” even “radical,” into “a more mainstream form,” reveals a motivation to make his particular form of queer politics available to a broader (and, yes, potentially mainstream) audience.67 LaBruce’s interest in making his ideas “more accessible” however, does not translate in any straightforward way with an aspiration to a broader project of mainstream acceptance.68 This is a subtle but crucial distinction. LaBruce’s use of unsimulated sex throughout his career is unquestionably connected to his political radicalism and his ongoing cultural marginality. However, in an age in which explicitness is commonplace, the parameters of what constitutes obscenity are in a constant state of flux. It may very well be precisely the inescapable ubiquity of X-rated images that can account for LaBruce’s decision to depict a taboo relationship over (his formally preferred) taboo act.

Bruce LaBruce


Gerontophilia (2013), tells the story of Lake (Pier-Gabriel Lajoie) an eighteen-year-old boy who discovers he has a sexual preference for the elderly, that he is in fact a gerontophile. Lake, who has a girlfriend Desiree (Katie Boland), discovers the extent of his predilection when he takes a job at a retirement home. Lake forms a bond with one man in particular, the charismatic and campy Mr. Melvyn Peabody (Walter Borden). Lake breaks Melvyn out of the care facility and takes him on a road trip where their romance blossoms.

LaBruce’s insistence that Lake be understood as a gerontophile and not as “otherwise gay-identified” is central to teasing out the consistency of Gerontophilia with his larger oeuvre.69 For LaBruce, “Lake’s fetish takes precedence over even gender” and comes about because the boy “gets a job in an all-male assisted living facility”. Lake’s attraction to Melvyn – one incited by age rather than gender – undermines our beloved cultural assumption that the determinative feature of sexual identity is gender of object choice. In other words: the dramatisation of Lake’s sexual desire as fluid functions as a subtle critique of the more determinative, and dominant, model of sexual identity that is defined exclusively in terms of gender preference. The lone scene of sex in Gerontophilia opens in an extreme close-up of Lake and Melvyn kissing, while subsequent shots, in which Lake caresses Melvyn’s body, emphasise the sagginess of the old man’s skin beside the taunt and youthful skin of his paramour. These scenes are largely consistent with both the hard and soft-core imagery we are accustomed to from LaBruce’s films given that the sexual activity was shot, as all pornography must be, according to the principle of “maximum visibility”. Maximum visibility refers to the cinematographic convention in pornography in which clinical-style lighting, angles and shots are favored over other forms of “artistry” (that may even “be more arousing”) for their capacity to show everything.70 The fact that these interludes may be construed as heartfelt or perhaps even sweet does not undermine the potency of their impact. Quite the contrary – depicting inter-generational intimacy as something that is played neither for laughs nor sentimentality, but is rendered with sincerity and integrity, is precisely the film’s taboo busting, envelope pushing agenda.71 Although the film does not pathologise inter-generational desire, the clear implication is that the rest of the world does, and, although this relation is not rendered “obscene” within the film itself, it is precisely its (generally perceived) “obscenity” that LaBruce is mining for its radical affect. What is taboo or “obscene” in Gerontophilia is not the explicit or hardcore depiction of inter-generational genital contact, but the inter-generational encounter itself.

It is in this sense then that Gerontophilia may be seen as a strategic evolution in the oeuvre of a filmmaker who has made the protean category of obscenity central to his ability to remain at the nadir of culture. The depiction of pleasure in Gerontophilia troubles the naturalised connection between sexual acts and sexual identity while embracing precisely its failure to reproduce these norms of both identity and relationality. Such a critique must be seen as consistent with LaBruce’s strategy of queer punk negation for its capacity to open up “nonnormative identification, intimacy (and) pleasure”.72 While it is clear that LaBruce is interested in reaching out to a new demographic, I would suggest that his larger radical project is not in any way diminished by this recent offering. Rather than being understood as “selling out” or even “mellowing,” Gerontophilia might be better understood as the diversification of a director with a keen sense of what constitutes radical critique.

This article has been peer reviewed.




  1. John Tuite, “Artist Bruce LaBruce Thinks Gays Should Stop Selling Their Souls to the Corporate Devil,” VICE (April 11, 2105), http://www.vice.com/read/bruce-labruce-doesnt-drink-the-kool-aid-266
  2. Michael-Oliver Harding, “Can Bruce LaBruce Remain Subversive Now That His Queer Films Are Taken Seriously?” Slate (May 4, 2015), http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2015/05/04/can_bruce_labruce_remain_subversive_now_that_his_queer_films_are_taken_seriously.html
  3. James Michael Nichols, “Queer Filmmaker Bruce LaBruce Brings His Controversial Work To The MoMA,” The Huffington Post (April 26, 2015), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/26/bruce-labruce-moma_n_7138054.html
  4. Eric Torres, “NSFW: Bruce LaBruce’s ‘Moonriver’ by Slava Mogutin,” GAYLETTER (25 September 2015), http://gayletter.com/bruce-la-bruces-moonriver-by-slava-mogutin/
  5. Harding.
  6. Harding; cf. Russell Smith, “Bruce LaBruce and the Power of the Underground,” The Globe and Mail (13 March 2015), http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/film/bruce-labruce-and-the-power-of-the-underground/article23452391/
  7. Budget figure is taken from the Gerontophilia entry on imbd.com, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1815717/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
  8. Alex Ramon, “TIFF 2013: Gerontophilia (dir. Bruce LaBruce) / Young and Beautiful (dir. François Ozon),” Pop Matters (12 September 2013), http://www.popmatters.com/post/175266-tiff-2013-gerontophilia-dir.-bruce-labruce-young-and-beautiful-dir.-/
  9. Adam McDowell, “Queer Try for the Straight Eye: Gay Cinema Goes for a Bigger Box-Office, Beginning with TIFF,” National Post (13 September 2013), http://news.nationalpost.com/arts/movies/queer-try-for-the-straight-eye-gay-cinema-goes-for-a-bigger-box-office-beginning-with-tiff
  10. In the first comprehensive article published on LaBruce, Brinkema argues that the separation between art and pornography is sustained by what she calls the fantasy of “noncontagion”. Brinkema suggests that the cinema of LaBruce challenges this fantasy by conflating the categories of art and porn to an extent that it is virtually impossible to identify a moment of “cohesive” or “pure” pornography that is not refracted through its supposed “other”, art cinema. Eugenie Brinkema, “A Title Does Not Ask, but Demands That You Make a Choice: On the Otherwise Films of Bruce LaBruce,” Criticism 48, no. 1 (Winter 2006): p. 104; 97
  11. McDowell.
  12. Nadja Sayej, “Gay Porn Provocateur Bruce LaBruce Gets a MOMA Show.” Macleans (16 April 2015), http://www.macleans.ca/culture/arts/gay-porn-provocateur-bruce-labruce-gets-a-moma-show/; Amy Spencer, DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture (Marion Boyars Publishers: London, 2008): p. 44.
  13. LaBruce and Amy Spencer in Spencer 2008, p. 240
  14. Spencer 2008, p. 239
  15. Michael du Plessis and Kathleen Chapman. “Queercore: The Distinct Identities of Subculture.” College Literature 24, no. 1 (February 1997): pp.45–58; Dennis Cooper, “Homocore Rules: Gay Zine Makers Bust a Move,” Village Voice (4 September 1990): p. 92; Mark Fenster, “Queer Punk Fanzines: Identity, Community, and The Articulation of Homosexuality and Hardcore.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 17.1 (Winter 1993): 73–94, p. 83.
  16. Bruce LaBruce, “The Wild, Wild World of Fanzines: Notes from a Reluctant Pornographer.” A Queer Romance: Lesbians, Gay Men, and Popular Culture, eds. Paul Burston and Colin Richardson, (London, New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 194
  17. Cf. Charley Shively, “Indiscriminate Promiscuity as an Act of Revolution,” Gay Roots: Twenty Years of Gay Sunshine, edited by Winston Leyland, (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1991), pp. 257–63; Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed, If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
  18. du Plessis and Chapman 1997; Murray Healy, Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and Queer Appropriation (London and New York: Cassell, 1996); Matias Viegener, “Kinky Escapades, Bedroom Techniques, Unbridled Passion, and Secret Sex Codes.” Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality David Bergman, ed. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993a), pp. 234–56; Matias Viegener, “‘The Only Haircut That Makes Sense Anymore’: Queer Subculture and Gay Resistance.” Queer Looks: Perspective on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar, and John Greyson, eds. (New York, London: Routledge, 1993b), pp. 116–33.
  19. In a recent essay entitled “No Skin Off My Ass: Bruce LaBruce and the Curious Case of Queer Punk Love,” Curran Nault (2013) proposes a similar neologism and analytic framework as a means to interpret the political and subcultural strategy of LaBruce’s first feature film. He writes that “at the same time that No Skin unfurls an unexpected narrative in which queer, punk and love coalesce, it paradoxically pits each of these elements against one another in an effort to challenge the hegemonic construction of each…No Skin (1) unleashes an anticonformist queerness in order to destabilize standard representations of romance; (and) (2) incorporates cutting-edge punk as a tool to effectively rejuvenate the queer”. Though Nault’s phrase “queer punk love” is original, the critical and dialectic function of the terms queer and punk within Queercore have been previously noted by scholars interested in the period and the subculture (cf. Healy 1996, pp. 172-3, 185; Viegener 1993a, 1993b); Curran Nault, “No Skin Off My Ass: Bruce LaBruce and the Curious Case of Queer Punk Love.” Queer Love in Film and Television: Critical Essays, Pamela Demory and Christopher Pullen, eds. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 170.
  20. Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 68
  21. Brown, 1995, pp. 68; 70
  22. Cf. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), p. 146
  23. Emanuel Levy, Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodovar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 290
  24. Harding.
  25. Cf. Ellis Hanson, Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999).
  26. Dick Hebdige, Subculture, the Meaning of Style, (New York: Routledge, 1979).
  27. Viegener, 1993b, p. 128
  28. Healy, 1996, pp. 173-174
  29. Cf. Nault 2013
  30. Cf. Bryan Bruce, “Modern Diseases: Gay Self-Representation in the Age of AIDS.” CineACTION! 15 (Winter, 1988-1989), pp. 29–38.
  31. Brinkema, p. 112.
  32. Brinkema, p. 115.
  33. Bruce LaBruce, Interview with Courtney Fathom Sell, “Punched in the Nose: An Interview with Filmmaker Bruce LaBruce,” (February 27, 2008), http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080227/SC2470202/80226025.
  34. Sell, 2008.
  35. Sayej, 2015
  36. Bruce LaBruce and Matthew Hays, “Queer Porn-Star Zombies Attack!: An Interview with Bruce LaBruce (Web Exclusive),” Cineaste XXXVI, no. 2 (2011). http://www.cineaste.com/articles/queer-pornstar-zombies-attack-an-interview-with-bruce-labruce-web-exclusive.
  37. Linda Williams, Screening Sex (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 12.
  38. Williams, 2008, p. 12
  39. Linda Williams, Porn Studies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 3; Linda Williams, “Second Thoughts on Hard Core: American Obscenity Law and the Scapegoating of Deviance.” More Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power, eds. Roma Gibson and Pamela Church Gibson, (United Kingdom: BFI Publishers, 1993), pp. 47-48; 49.
  40. Cf. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Vol I (1978). Translated by Robert Hurley, (London: Penguin, 1998).
  41. Cf Christopher Castiglia, “Sex Panics, Sex Publics, Sex Memories,” Boundary 2 27, no. 2 (2000): 149–75; Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed, If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003); Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, (New York: Free Press, 1999).
  42. Mark Simpson, ed. Anti-Gay. (London: Freedom Editions, 1996), p. xvi; cf. Foucault, 1978.
  43. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Vol I, Translated by Robert Hurley, (London: Penguin, 1998/1978), p. 157.
  44. David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995): pp. 79; 68; 78.
  45. Halperin, 1995. pp 87-88; Michel Foucault, Michel Foucault: Ethics Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, translated by Robert Hurley et al. (New York: The New Press, 1997): p. 160; cf. Leo Bersani, Homos, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995); Leo Bersani, “Sociability and Cruising.” UMBR(a) 1 (2002): pp. 9–23.
  46. José Arroyo, “Skin Flick: A Review.” Sight and Sound 9, no. 11 (November 1999), p. 56; Bruce LaBruce, “He-Wolves of the SS: A Production Diary of Skin Flick.” Filmmaker 7, no. 4 (1999): pp. 32–36; 83–86
  47. LaBruce, 1999, p. 84
  48. LaBruce, 1999, p. 84.
  49. John R. Burger, One-Handed Histories: The Eroto-Politics of Gay Male Video Pornography, (New York and London: Haworth Press, 1995): p. 41; Jeffrey Weeks and Richard Dyer in Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” October 43 (December 1, 1987): p. 207.
  50. Bersani 1987, p. 208
  51. Halperin 1995, p. 90
  52. Bruce LaBruce, Interview with Richard Huffman (October 11, 2011), http://www.baader-meinhof.com/interview-with-director-bruce-labruce/
  53. Paul A. Robinson, The Freudian Left: Wilhelm Reich, Geza Roheim, Herbert Marcuse, (New York, Evanston, and London: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1969).
  54. Nishant Shahani, Queer Retrosexualities: The Politics of Reparative Return, (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2012).
  55. Christopher Castiglia, “Sex Panics, Sex Publics, Sex Memories.” Boundary 2 27, no. 2 (2000): 149–75; Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed. If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Jose Esteban Munoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, (New York and London: NYU Press, 2009).
  56. Castiglia, 2000, p. 160.
  57. Castiglia, 2000, p. 157-8.
  58. Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010).
  59. Ahmed, 2010, p. 165.
  60. Castiglia, 2000, p. 160.
  61. Love, 2007, p. 7.
  62. Shaka McGlotten, “Dead and Live Life: Zombies, Queers, and Online Sociality,” Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture, eds. Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz, (North Carolina: Mcfarland, 2011), p. 186.
  63. Robin Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” Movies and Methods Volume II: An Anthology, ed. Bill Nichols, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), p. 197; 205; Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan– and Beyond, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
  64. Herbert Marcuse, Negations; Essays in Critical Theory, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 249-251.
  65. Bruce LaBruce, Interview with Mike Plante, “CHOMP!” Filmmaker: The Magazine of Independent Film (Fall 2008).
  66. McGlotten, 2011, p. 183.
  67. Peter Knegt, “Que(e)ries: Bruce LaBruce On His Gay ‘Harold and Maude’ (Or Reverse ‘Lolita’), ‘Gerontophilia.’” Indiewire, (12 September 2013), http://www.indiewire.com/article/que-e-ries-bruce-labruce
  68. McDowell, 2013
  69. Knegt, 2013
  70. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 49.
  71. Knegt, 2013.
  72. Castiglia 2000, p. 160.

About The Author

Jasmine McGowan is an early career researcher. She lectures and teaches in gender and sexuality studies and works as a research assistant at Monash University and the University of Melbourne. Her monograph on Bruce LaBruce is forthcoming.

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