I flew to Berlin to interview gay legend and self-proclaimed Prince of Homosexuals Bruce LaBruce over dinner. So here we are in a truly German gay restaurant in former East Berlin. There’s only German food on the menu: loads of meat, Kartoffeln, game and other kraut-y dishes. An über-friendly waiter with a lovely pony-tail serves us. Bruce seems to be kind of tired since has just toured the world’s film festivals with his political porn movie The Raspberry Reich. He’s ready for an alcoholic beverage. And so am I.
Jop: How old are you?
Bruce: (Laughs) That’s your first question?
I’m afraid it is.
Are you trying to be like Christiane Amanpour?
She’s that woman from CNN with those tough questions. I’m forty-four.
When I started getting interviewed when I was doing the fanzine JDs in the Eighties and my films in the Nineties, I would lie a lot. I’d lie about my age, where I was from…just basic details that I would change all the time. Then it all ended up on the Internet, so all that information…
So if I google you, you could be twenty-six?
Not that young. But it might say that I was born in 1964 or 1966. I was thinking today that I should be dead, really, by all standards, because I am exactly the AIDS generation. From age eighteen to twenty-two, which for me was between 1978 and 1982, I should have been getting into hardcore, promiscuous sex. That was right when AIDS really hit, before anyone knew about it and started having safe sex. I didn’t lose my virginity until I was twenty-three.
Oh my god! Because you’re from an isolated small town?
Partly, I guess. And partly because of my personality, I suppose. I was really shy. It took me a long while to figure out how to get laid, even. But that saved my life because I would have been screwing around promiscuously without being safe during those years. A lot of people I knew from that era that were fucking around a lot were the first ones to go.
So the first time you had sex, you had safe sex?
No, because there was this other thing that happened to me. One of the very first times I had sex, I got gonorrhea. And it totally freaked me out. So I started using a condom, because of that mostly. I had to get tested for it and they had to shove a catheter up my penis and it was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life, and I was like, “I never want to experience that again.”
Why would you lie about your age?
At that time, at the end of the Eighties, I was hanging out with G.B. Jones, who I started JDs with, and she’s five years older than me. No, actually seven years older. And we were really bored with the gay scene. We thought it was really bourgeois and dead, so we turned to punk, which was stylistically and politically more interesting. But when we got involved in punk, we realized that it was homophobic and that the radicalism didn’t extend to sexual openness. That’s when we started making overt, sexual fanzines and movies — to shock them out of their sexual conservatism. I mostly hung out with girls, dykes. And it was just a thing about being sensitive about your age and hiding your age. It was just something we were into. It was about not revealing everything about yourself, keeping a certain mystery…about creating a certain image that had nothing to do with age or even what you were really like.
’Cause Bruce LaBruce isn’t your real name.
No, of course not. I think we should order.
I still have to look at the menu.
Are you interested in today’s special, the goose?
Kind of. I don’t think I’ve ever had goose.
(To the waiter) If it’s still available…
Waiter: I still have some. Gänseburst mit Thüringer Klössen und Apfelrotkohl?
I think I’m going to have the Wildschweinbraten mit Rosenkohl in Butterkruste dazu Petersilienkartoffeln.
Waiter: Gut choice!
Actually, I like German food. A lot of people turn their noses up at German food.
You know what? I hardly know German cuisine. But it’s so specific; it’s all meat. Cheers!
Cheers! Good to meet you.
So, who is Bruce LaBruce? A persona?
Or is it you? Did Bruce LaBruce become you?
No, it was very much a persona, especially in the beginning. And it was partly a Warholian thing. He started the whole thing of having an art persona, making up these bizarre names. I always loved Diva. She was my favorite Warhol star. She would even write reviews of her own movies in underground cinema publications under a pen name and give herself brilliant reviews. It was that whole thing of inventing yourself, I was totally into that. It’s a buffer from people getting to know too much about you and about your personal life. And it’s a lost art, really. Because there’s a tendency for people now to reveal everything about themselves. What I learned from G.B. Jones was the art of underexposure. Of course I wanted to go to every party and be seen. But G.B. told me that would be so boring. If I stayed home, they would all be talking about me because I didn’t go. That’s why I hate New York now. I just can’t stand it. I think it’s the most overrated city in the world. It’s about everybody being really obvious about everything.
Is that the reason you still live in Toronto?
Well, I adored New York in the early Nineties. I started going to New York regularly in the mid-Eighties. Right up until the late Nineties I would go there four or five times a year. I would spend two or three months a year there. Just, you know, sleeping on friends’ couches, hanging out. I just loved it. There was nothing more exciting — landing in LaGuardia and taking a cab into New York; that feeling of excitement was like none other. And I would spend two weeks going out every night getting plastered, high, whatever. Doing it to death and then leaving. I had an amazing time. That was pre-Giuliani and pre-9/11. Giuliani actually ruined the city before 9/11 happened.
Why didn’t you ever move to New York?
I don’t know, you know…Toronto has a lot to offer. It’s easier. You don’t have to work so hard. I’m essentially a very lazy person so I like to lie in, relax. I’m not a driven person who always has to work. Which is not necessarily a good thing. But it’s the way I am, so… And in New York, even back then in the old days, you had to hustle a lot to live, to exist. So I’ve always preferred to be laid back. It’s only been since I turned forty that I started getting up before noon.
Now I get up at 9:30. But I can’t get up any earlier than that. It’s the best I can do.
If you get up at noon, that means you go to bed really late?
Even on like Monday nights, when there’s nothing else to do but to watch TV?
I love television! On a Canadian TV station all through the Eighties and Nineties, they used to show re-runs of Family late at night — one of my all time favorite TV shows with Kristy McNichol. I adore her. That’s what I would do at nighttime, watch television ’til three or four a.m.
As a pornographer, do you watch a lot of porn?
You know what? I don’t watch porn.
I don’t. If I watch porn at all it’s amateur internet porn. Beyond that, I don’t watch it. I don’t buy it or follow it at all. I don’t use it in my sex life. I don’t have porn…in fact it’s a problem. When I was shooting porn for Honcho magazine in my apartment, they asked me to put on porn. But the only porn movie I had was my own movie, Skin Gang. Or I had one straight black porn movie which I borrowed from a neighbor and never gave back. So they were like, “Is this all you have, neo-Nazis fucking each other or black guys fucking white girls?” How’s your Wildschwein?
It’s good. It’s not as wild as I thought it would be. Not so gamey. How’s the goose?
Same. I think it’s the way they prepare it; I’m not really into gamey food either.
Game can be disgusting, like pheasant. That bird can be like an insult to your mouth.
I know. My father was a hunter. I grew up on a farm. My father was a farmer, but also a hunter and a trapper. It was a small farm, very modest, very old school. He trapped using very old traps, almost antique equipment.
You grew up in another century.
Sort of. Both my parents only had public-school educations, eighth-grade educations. But somehow they managed to be much more sophisticated than you would expect. They were in their twenties in the Sixties. I don’t know about in Europe, but in North America in the late Sixties, everyone was more sophisticated. There was a certain liberalism that even penetrated into the middle class. A certain enlightenment.
And how would that enlightenment manifest itself in your family?
Well, they would have parties when I was a kid where — who knows what was going on sexually…maybe not that much. I mean, they weren’t swingers. I saw David Cronenberg talking about this recently on TV. He said a lot of people don’t remember or recognize that there was a sexual revolution in the late Sixties and early Seventies. And that even if people weren’t indulging in it, there was a certain liberal attitude about sex that permeated into the more traditional segments of society. My parents also went to Hollywood movies all the time.
And where was this?
Just 150 miles north of Toronto. My father’s parents lived on the adjacent farm. My grandmother was quite eccentric. She had been a wild girl in Toronto in the Twenties. She was a flapper, part of that crazy Twenties’ generation, like in The Great Gatsby. She was a party girl.
She was a slut.
Basically. She never really integrated into farm life. By the end of her life, she and my grandfather hated each other. She would feed the chickens and do the chores, but she would always be heavily made-up and her hair was dyed, even though she was doing farm work.
And she lived next door the entire time you were growing up on the farm?
Yes. I was very close to her.
Do you have German ancestors?
I have German blood through my mother. I’m a quarter German by blood-line.
What’s your fascination for Germany and skinheads about?
Do I have a fascination for Germany?
I’m asking you.
Well, I grew up in the punk scene. And for one thing, North American skinhead and punk scenes were completely different from what was going on in Europe and Great Britain. Punks and skinheads developed listening to the same music and being in the same scene, so it wasn’t unusual to go to punk shows in North America where there were a lot of extreme left, anarchist punks as well as right-wing skinheads. There was a weird truce between the extreme right and extreme left because they were united by the same music and style. That went on for quite a while, from the mid-Eighties to early Nineties. But the punks became fed up with the skinheads because they became increasingly racist. There was actually a kind of phenomenon where the neo-Nazi skinheads were basically driven out of every city, out of the scene. There was no tolerance for them anymore because they were becoming so racist.
So they couldn’t be part of a larger subculture anymore?
That’s right. In Toronto in the late Eighties, you’d see them walking down the street. They had their own squats. But very abruptly they disappeared and they weren’t such a visible force anymore. But then again, the whole punk scene diminished as the Nineties progressed. I had a boyfriend around 1987 who was a hustler, a male prostitute. He was involved in the punk scene, but he didn’t identify as gay. He had a girlfriend. I dated him for maybe six months, and then we broke up and I didn’t see him for a while. A year later I ran into him and he’d become a neo-Nazi skinhead. He didn’t have a place to stay, so he moved in with me for a month. At first I thought it was a joke and that he was playing a role. But then I realized that he had adopted the politics and he was racist. I’d make fun of him and ridicule him until one time he beat the shit out of me. So I kicked him out of the house and didn’t see him again after that. That was the genesis of that.
The genesis of a fetish?
Well, when he beat me up it kind of turned me on. I didn’t enjoy it, but the idea of it, I guess. That kind of aggression…
With the look.
With the look. He had a dragon tattoo on the side of his neck. And he was always good looking, really sexy.
And the skinhead in your first movie, No Skin off My Ass? Where did you find him?
He was my boyfriend. He was only nineteen and I was thirty. He was a fan basically. He tracked me down because of JDs.
He’s extremely cute.
He was at the time.
And where is he now?
Toronto. He turned into a boring fag. He works for the Toronto Film Festival.
And he’s not that good looking anymore?
He’s still okay. For the movie I got him to shave his head and pretend he was a skinhead, which he wasn’t at all. We made the movie very naively, not thinking it was going to be shown outside of the places I was already showing my movies: punk clubs and alternative art spaces. But it got picked up by the film-festival circuit and became a porn-art cult movie. So I started traveling around the world with it. It got complicated because I had a big rift with G.B. Jones, who was also in No Skin off My Ass, ’cause I was getting all this attention…
Because it was your movie.
Well, I directed it. It was really just an extension of JDs. It has the same sensibility and aesthetic. So then it became this whole big mess where I was accused of selling out and taking all the credits. Right after that I made Super 8-1/2, which was basically a movie about that whole pickle, the experience of becoming known as a pornographer and how that threw me into this bizarre position, about creating this fictional character and living up to that image and representing that image publicly.
Because your real name is…
Not Bruce LaBruce.
Does anyone ever use your real name?
So you became one with the character you created for yourself?
Eventually, but it took me a long time to merge them together. Not until the late Nineties.
But that’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Merging with the persona you’ve created for yourself…
Yes that’s true. It’s so much like how Hollywood operates — it’s the same. Most Hollywood stars become completely insane or schizophrenic because they have this image they are known for and then there’s a reality behind that. They are basically repressed.
Back to the skinheads. After No Skin off My Ass you made another movie about skinheads…
I kind of revisited them at the end of the Nineties with Skin Gang. Actually, by that time, the gay aesthetic in London and Berlin had become completely skinhead. Who knows, maybe I had a little bit to do with that. Maybe I contributed a little. The skinhead outfit became this uniform for gays. It’s still huge here in Berlin.
Berlin is a fetish city and a sex city. There are more sex parties than regular parties on the gay calendar.
Yeah, I’m not into that, public sex. But Berlin is my favorite European city. People have a lot of freedom; they are into the quality of life. Their apartments are huge and cheap compared to anywhere else. And they have a thirty-five hour work-week. They’re more into leisure, into living their lives rather than slaving.
It has a strange energy, Berlin. It’s kind of dark as well.
Right. That’s why I think I relate to Germans, because in Canada we are constantly being annihilated by America because it’s the superpower of the world and culturally it’s so strong. Canada is constantly living in the shadow of America. We are like voyeurs across the border, but we have the best vantage point to observe them. Germany used to be this superpower and the Germans have had their egos beaten down as well. They were totally humbled and shamed. But the real German spirit is very arrogant and strong and proud. It’s a beaten-down ego, and I think I kind of identify with that.
Right. I also like the German language. I like the sound of it.
And what do you think about Germans speaking English?
Well they seem to be really bad at it.
It’s a rather strong accent.
Somebody was just telling me that Germans can pick up Japanese much easier than English because the languages share more sounds, whereas English is very hard for them.
Waiter: Hallo! Anything else?
(Looking at the menu) They have some original liquors from Thüringen here.
A local grappa called Tresterband, Grappa des Osten.
Oh, grappa. I want to try that.
Okay, two Tresterband Grappa please.
Waiter: Danke schön.
I love grappa. And what does this say? (Points at the menu)
‘Tradition braucht Zeit.’ It means something like ‘Tradition takes time.’ Or actually needs time. But our meal was there right away, so…
I guess they’re just covering their asses.
It’s like a German version of a disclaimer. Are you a liquor person?
I’m a total liquor person. Am I an alcoholic?
I’m a drinker. In the tradition of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Are you a drugs person as well?
Yeah, but I don’t have an addictive personality. I can smoke and never get addicted. I can have three cigarettes right now without having another one for a week. I went through my most severe alcoholic phase in my thirties. I was a heavy drinker from the time I was thirty-three until I was thirty-nine. I would be out drinking five times a week. Or going on binges where I’d drink every night for three or four nights, take a few days off and start again.
Does that mean you’d have a hangover most of the week?
No. I was at the point where you don’t really get hangovers because it’s like a permanent condition. It’s different for everyone. If you drink for a couple of nights in a row you don’t get hangovers like you do if it’s a one time thing, because it’s still in your system. It was heavy for a couple of years and when I hit forty it tapered off. Now I do drugs recreationally for sex, that’s about it. But not that often. Like once a week. Once every two weeks.
Which drugs would you do then?
The combination I’ve done the most is E, pot, and coke. You would drop the E, smoke the joint, do a line. Not so much coke. It’s mostly E and pot. And then it was only in the last year and a half that I discovered Viagra, which everybody is doing right now… It counteracts the E which tends to be an erectile inhibitor. It compensates for…
You really think that everybody is doing Viagra right now?
Totally. In North America they do. It’s kind of like a revolution.
A sexual revolution.
Well, it’s revolutionized sex. For sure. You’re high and still sexually capable!
I saw your latest movie, The Raspberry Reich, and the whole time I was wondering what happened to the porn footage since all the sex scenes are edited like short flashes.
Well, that’s why I’m here in Berlin. To make a hardcore version with all the scenes that were shot as sex scenes. I’m working with an editor for a couple of days, starting tomorrow.
Is it going to be a real porn movie? I mean, are you going to cut back the story of the film version?
A little bit. It will be marketed as hardcore. The last two movies I directed are made for porn companies under the condition that, in addition to the softcore movie, I’d make a hardcore version.
Which version do you prefer making?
Well, as a filmmaker, I’m more interested in concentrating on the characters and the narrative, on lots of other things besides the sex. But in the end I think you have to watch both the hardcore version and the softcore version to get the full effect of the project. For The Raspberry Reich I’ve put more explicit stuff in the softcore version so I think it works more in itself. Often the response to my movies is quite hostile. People who are really into porn hate it because they don’t want their porn tampered with by some pretentious intellectual or whatever. Porn is supposed to be very earthy and non-intellectual. And then, of course, film snobs dismiss it as porn. Even though I was in the punk scene, which is very anti-intellectual, I’m a total academic as well. I’ve got my Master’s degree in film theory. At a certain point I was calling myself a “recovering academic” because I was trying to purge myself of theory.
What is typical Bruce LaBruce porn then?
It’s heavily narrative, to start with… But to be honest, I’m not really into the sex part of porn. It’s the idea of making porn and playing with the conventions of porn. It’s like a genre exercise for me. Porn is a conventional genre, like musicals or westerns. So I’m working within a convention.
But also outside of it.
My work is as much about writing and talking about homosexuality as it is about the politics of gay culture. So, for me, making porn is a statement about a certain kind of gay radicalism. In some ways it seems like porn is one of the last fields to make radical statements in the gay world, or about homosexuality to the straight world. I think that’s one reason I do it. And of course, I use the opportunity to talk about my ideas of homosexuality when promoting my films. So the reasons are polemic. But I do feel like I’m caught between the art and porn worlds. And I sometimes get no respect from either, ’cause I’m somewhere in the middle.
And what about the gay world?
Oh dear, the gay world! I’m very critical of gay culture and of a lot of stuff that goes on. I consider myself an outsider in that world as well.
Why did you shoot The Raspberry Reich in Berlin?
Well, the whole movie is based on the German terrorist group R.A.F., the Baader-Meinhof group, from the Seventies. So I figured I should go to the source and make it authentic. I had to go to the actual place where they existed. A friend of mine heard that I was making this movie and he arranged a dinner with Felix Ensslin, who’s the son of Gudrun Ensslin, who was one of the leaders of the Baader-Meinhof group. So suddenly I was having dinner with the son of one of the Baader-Meinhof leaders explaining to him that I was making a porn movie about his mother.
What did he say?
He was totally into it, actually. I explained him the actual theories and ideas I was referring to — sexual repression, sexual liberation, and how there has to be a sexual revolution before there can be any sort of social or political revolution. He said that it was very true for groups like the R.A.F.
But did they actually fuck?
Of course. They wanted to break free of bourgeois attitudes towards sex, and they were like having sex in the back of the van on their way to blowing up buildings. There was a sexual revolution and people were acting on it instead of theorizing about it. Shooting it here in Berlin made it seem much more real. I would encounter people who could talk about it historically as something that really happened and effected people that they knew.
And how was The Raspberry Reich received at the Berliner Film Festival? Did it cause a stir?
No, surprisingly not. It was taken very seriously in the press even though it is a comedy and a porno movie — maybe because I took it very seriously as well. I did my research and got all the details right. I think the film is political, which some people don’t see because they can’t accept that a porno movie can be political.
Is that the basic idea of The Raspberry Reich — a political porn film?
I think so.
And that’s so ironic at the same time, isn’t it?
I prefer to be paradoxical rather than ironic. A paradox is two things that seem to contradict each other but which remain true.
So you would never refer to your own work as being ironic rather than contradictory?
Sure. People often mistake my films for being ironic when they aren’t. People can’t believe that I would take the position that I take and actually mean it, so they assume that I’m being ironic. And quite often I’m not, I suppose.
Waiter: Meine Herren, we’re closing.
We should get going.
Okay, very last question: What defines you as a Canadian?
That I never cross the American border with anything erotic or pornographic.
They’ve really made you chicken.
It might seem like I’m overreacting, but I’ve had enough experience. It’s so nerve-wracking. The Canadian passport is really the worst in a way. I wouldn’t even go with a copy of Playboy. There are all these horror stories about having a cavity search. Grace Jones was cavity searched…
What do they do?
They search your vagina.
They didn’t get into Grace Jones’ ass?
Probably her ass too. They check every hole.
Have you ever had a cavity search?
So you don’t travel with your own work?
Thüringer-Stuben is the name of the restaurant where we had dinner. It’s located in Prenzlauer Berg in the former eastern part of town, at Stargarder Strasse 28. The hardcore version of Bruce’s movie The Raspberry Reich will be out at the end of March 2005 under the title, The Revolution Is My Boyfriend.