Bruce LaBruce’s Raspberry Reich Storms Outfest
by Tony Phillips
“I’m totally down with the idea that private property is theft,” director Bruce LaBruce announces, “I would be ethically comfortable with any kind of crime against property.” The irony of the fact that he’s making this statement poolside at Miami’s swank National Hotel isn’t lost on either of us, but we’re here to talk about his latest film, Raspberry Reich. LaBruce’s many tattoos are peeking out from under a short sleeve flannel shirt. His hair is red these days and after some time in the South Beach sun, he’s a bit more sunburned than he was at the opening night party. He’s enjoying some well-deserved downtime after unveiling his latest film for a gay audience after premiering at Sundance and then stirring up the Berlin Film Festival. His midnight screening played at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on two sold-out screens, but the notorious Sundance walkouts didn’t repeat themselves here. “Sundance is much more conservative,” La Bruce explains, “they’re a hyper-industry crowd. You could tell some walkouts were based strictly on the fact there was unsimulated gay sex. A dozen people would walk out actually during the sex scenes.” In Miami, anyone who left returned quickly with popcorn. “It’s quite a pill for certain audiences to swallow,” is LaBruce’s estimation, “but I wanted it to be accessible enough so that people would take it seriously.”
The film takes its name from the group of affluent German lefties who supported the Red Army Faction as they executed dozens of high profile Germans. Susanne Sachsse plays Gudrun, radically chic in outsized shades leading her merry band of gay terrorists in the kidnapping of the hunky son of a German industrialist whom they pass around in an effort to throw off bourgeois capitalist constructs and mount a homosexual revolution. That’s right, gay terrorists. Still, property is one thing, but even LaBruce admits, “When you get into murder, it’s morally unsupportable. It’s a pretty gentle movie if you think about it, but it operates as a critique of the left. People with these left wing sympathies who cross the line and become terrorists essentially cancel out any moral authority they had because they cross a line. They become murderers. Then it’s all about moral ambiguity and becomes very murky.” Murky is something he needn’t sweat. The film is all candy colors and swirling slogans like “Join the homosexual intifada” and “Madonna is counter revolutionary." It looks more like Harper’s Bazaar than a skin flick.
Still, the film is like a balm coming on the heels of an afternoon Miami screening of a documentary detailing the world’s largest rainbow flag being unfurled across Key West by thousands of volunteers all sporting a white tee emblazoned with “Absolut Rainbow” as if the flag were just another marketing tool for a liquor company and not the symbol of a revolution. “The rainbow flag has lost all vestige of radicalism or militancy,” LaBruce agrees. “Any symbol is bound to become eventually exhausted or exploited, but maybe it’s time for something new. The gay community that produced that flag and the gay community that exists today are world’s apart. The feminist, black and gay movements all came out of 60’s radicalism. Anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, student protests, and an emerging sexual freedom simultaneously happened in Europe and the US, but those movements were militant, stylish and forward thinking in trying to imagine different social situations and sexual configurations. They were totally nonconformist and radical. 30 years later the oppressed has become the oppressor. The black movement started out as the Black Panthers. They were Marxist-based and militant, open to feminism, they weren’t particularly homophobic and now the black mainstream Hip Hop movement is the opposite of all those things. It’s totally capitalist, sexist and homophobic.”
“I tried to salvage the idea of a gay movement with this movie,” LaBruce continues, “Gay culture has become so bourgeois, conservative and assimilationist that one can easily abandon it altogether. But what I did was actually convert some straight characters into homosexuality, but the homosexual community I portray at the end of the movie is a fantasy. It’s a gay bar where they have a terrorist night and they’re booing a drag queen dressed as Patty Hearst singing the American National Anthem. You’d be hard pressed to find a gay bar like that anywhere.” Though you might come closest in Berlin, which is where LaBruce decided to shoot Raspberry Reich, upping the ante by simultaneously filming an art house and hardcore version of the film. Aside from the aforementioned Patty Hearst drag queen Sherry Vine, the rest of the cast were German porn actors who were given incredibly complicated lines of complex revolutionary rhetoric in English. “To expect an actor to say a line like, ‘don’t you understand the fundamental dynamics of terrorist abduction?’” LaBruce shakes his head and laughs. “And not only a porn actor, but a German porn actor who’s English isn’t very good. It was insane.”
So why do it? At first LaBruce claims he wanted the film “to look like a dubbed old European movie that you would see on television.” He can be artsy like that, but what’s essentially a technical limitation has worked beautifully for him in the past so that the dubbing feels auteur. “Raspberry Reich was totally post dubbed,” LaBruce adds, “they were saying their lines in English. I knew during rehearsals that I would have to post dub everything so during filming it was just a question of getting them to actually say the lines. Forget about the delivery, just get their lips to move.” But LaBruce got more than just his actors' lips moving. The penetrative heterosexual sex scene that opens the film and the many gay sex scenes and assorted blowjobs that follow may have also had something to do with his casting choices. But LaBruce is unapologetic. John Cameron Mitchell’s Short Bus film illustrates the pitfalls of doing a sexually explicit film the other way. “It sounds like he’s having trouble with the process because he’s running into the age old dilemma of trying to get real actors to do sexually explicit roles,” LaBruce comments, “but they’re getting cold feet because it’s still a huge stigma for actors. The point of my movies is that I’m using porn actors or non-actors who don’t have aspirations to be real actors. They’re willing to perform sexually. They don’t really have anything at stake.”
He might want to tell that to his Raspberry Reich lead Susanne Sachsse who was a stage actress in Berlin. LaBruce explains, “When people got wind she was in a porn movie it was this huge scandal, even on the Berlin theater scene, which is completely outlandish. There were rumors she was just doing it for the money, which is a joke because there was no money. She lost her agent because of it so it’s still a stigma whenever you do it.” Still, LaBruce maintains he’s not making calling card films as a means to work with established actors one day. “Doesn’t really interest me” is how he greets the idea. “Established actors are already like porn actors because they’re emotionally promiscuous. To me, watching two established stars slobber all over one another is even more pornographic than two porn stars having mechanical sex. It gives me that same feeling as watching creepy porn.”
If this sounds callous, it’s not like choosing to work in a sexually explicit format hasn’t also had repercussions on his own career. He points to a recent solo show of his photography at the West Chelsea gallery John Connelly Presents as proof. “I’m working within the porn idiom, which is very specific and has its own set of conventions. I obviously try to subvert it and politicize it and alter it aesthetically as much as I can without completely abandoning the porn aesthetic.” At the Connelly show, that translated to images of men in pig masks engaged in oral sex while splattered with blood or a pregnant Asia Argento enjoying a cigarette or artist AA Bronson giving Pieta. Regardless of what you make of these images, it’s the only photo exhibition last year of which I can still recall every single image, even before LaBruce catalogs the rest. “I was being deliberately provocative,” he admits, “I have pictures of guys that look like terrorists. One of the photos is of my boyfriend, who’s a Muslim, praying. It’s called ‘Dreamy Terrorist.’ He’s the guy at the beginning of Raspberry Reich. And then I juxtaposed these images with guys with hardons or gas masks. There was a photo of Kembra Phaler with her black burqua showing her pussy and a nun showing her pussy. I was deliberately playing with ideas of religious and pornographic iconography and mixing them up. I was pushing buttons in that way, but I heard on the grapevine that the art scene dismissed the show as too pornographic. The opening was amazing, but the show hardly got written about.”
Surely, LaBruce could care less about an art world he describes as “a real mafia like anything else.” Well, not exactly. “In order to sustain a presence in that scene," he explains, "you need to be acknowledged. There’s a gay art mafia within the art mafia,” he continues. Somehow his cred with them is lacking, but his entrée is typical LaBruce. “I am primarily known as a filmmaker, but I was in between movies and needed to make some money so I started shooting for gay jerk off magazines like Honcho and Playguy. The first photo show I had was in Milan. They approached me because of my Honcho stuff, but I’m certainly not a trained photographer. I started hiring assistants to help me with these Honcho-type shoots and I would just observe my assistants and learn from them. By coincidence, I started hanging out with Terry Richardson and Ryan McGinley. Ryan was a student at Parsons and we all started running around with these chic point and shoot cameras.”
Still, the art world held a lesson more valuable than a portfolio of “Honcho-type shoots” and party pictures. “Photography has taught me increasingly that it’s all about context,” LaBruce explains, “I can take a photograph of a naked guy with a hardon and publish it in Honcho and it’s porn. I have taken, literally, the same photograph, put a nice frame around it and hung it in an art gallery and it’s art.” But don’t expect any Mapplethorpe Cincinnati grandstanding from LaBruce. He is very clear about the line between art and pornography that divides his oeuvre. “Mapplethorpe’s work was always coded very heavily as art. There’s a black and white, high art aesthetic. You look at it and you didn’t really see pornography. My work sometimes is very blatantly pornographic. That causes certain people in the art world to dismiss it. To ignore someone is really the worst thing you can do and some people have been very good about doing that to me. The art scene is just like America, it’s swung way to the right.”
So if LaBruce’s work is concerned with pushing buttons, America has certainly been a favorite. The last time I saw one of his films at a festival, it was a short at NewFest in those tender months just after 9/11. LaBruce’s film was part of a mixed bill organized around the idea “raw” which was also the title of the program. To the blare of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walking,” LaBruce’s three-minute films opens on a masturbating hustler disguising his identity with a kinky leather hood. As the song winds down, so does the hustler, ejaculating onto an American flag the camera pulls back to reveal him crouching over. As a final flourish, he reaches down and uses the flag to wipe the semen from his uncut penis. I’ve never sat through a quieter three-minutes and silence blanketed the rest of the program. Leaving the auditorium, someone broke it loudly by exclaiming “and he’s not even American!” LaBruce would be the first to agree. He grew up on a farm in Ontario and today calls Toronto home.
But perhaps it’s this built-in outsider status that is LaBruce’s raison d’etre. In Filmmaker Magazine, JT Leroy told LaBruce, “You can go to that place of the outsider, and capture the eroticism of it. I guess that a lot of your movies straddle that world of the political, the sexual. They tie it all in. It’s kind of some daring worlds you explore there.” Having just polished off a major slice of German history shooting Raspberry Reich in Berlin, LaBruce will next return to Los Angeles where he last chronicled the hustling trade in a film that’s sure to be remembered as his Citizen Kane called Hustler White. He says, “I want to do one more porn movie rounding out a trilogy. It is called LA Gangbangers and it’s about Latino gang members in Los Angeles.” The project after that is larger in scope and is attached to Toronto-based producer Jennifer Jonas. It will finally put him back in front of the camera. “It’s based on Baron Wilhelm Von Gloeden, the German photographer who lived in Sicily at the end of the 19th century and took photos of the local boys naked. He became this world-renowned photographer for these photos that some people thought were very questionable in terns of whether they were pornographic or not. The film is an investigation of him, his work and his life. I play this character who goes there to make a film about him, but I run into resistance because the people I’m trying to talk to about Von Gloeden, their grandfathers were posing naked for him, so they don’t really want to talk about it.”
Stateside LaBruce offers, “We’re in a really bad historical moment. It’s about the ascendance of American imperialism and the Republicans consolidating power. I don’t think it can sustain itself,” he predicts and sees an eventual pendulum swing to the left. “Those rifts are starting to form again and I think there’ll be a new radicalism, but I don’t know when.” So Raspberry Reich could be a cautionary tale, albeit a fashionable one. “When I was a punk in the 80s,” LaBruce recalls, “we really were interested in all of these terrorist groups because the left wing dogma underpinning all of them actually made a lot of sense, but we were also drawn to them because they were these very glamorous figures. There was a militant style that all the radical groups adopted borrowing from Central and South American guerilla prototypes that made them very trendy among people who had leftist leanings, but were none the less rich and glamorous Hollywood types.“ He’s a little more optimistic about his own country. “Canada’s conservative party is probably to the left of the democratic party,” LaBruce boasts, “we have a very strong tradition of socialism. We’re very influenced by sensitivity and quality of life. Our immigration policies are so much more liberal. It makes a difference in your day to day life as opposed to America, which seems to be reverting back to a Wild West every man for himself quality.” Of course, LaBruce just wouldn’t be himself if there weren’t something that was bugging him about his hometown. “The thing that really scares me is Donald Trump is coming to Toronto and building luxury skyscrapers,” he frets, “there’s going to be an attempt to do that to Canada, but we’ll try to keep the barbarians at the gate.”