INTERVIEW: Bruce LaBruce on The Misandrists, Pornography and Feminist Brain-Swapping

bruce labruce

We interview queersploitation provacateur Bruce LaBruce about queer cinema, working on a low budget, and his latest feminist satire The Misandrists.

Arthouse queer enfant terrible Bruce LaBruce has crafted an interesting career as an underground director of gory, sexy, splatter-ific screeds on radical topics like terrorism, feminism, and gay liberation. His latest, The Misandrists (read our review here) is no exception; for this latest episode of On Tap, Theo Estes sits down with LaBruce to talk about the politics of his films, their bawdy B-movie inspirations, and the need for confrontational movies like these.  (We also pepper in a few updates about our recent podcast hiatus, and some fun news for the future of the show.)

(Thanks to our sponsor Overcast as part of the Chicago Podcast Coop!)

The Raspberry Reich came out in 2004, and both that and The Misandrists deal with a radical separatist group that mandates homosexuality. What influenced you to revisit that theme 14 years later?

You know they say that ‘auteur’ directors make the same film their entire career, and that’s kind of true for me. The origin of The Misandrists goes even further back to my first film, Super 8 ½, which was 1994, a film within a film with two lesbian terrorists running around kidnapping men with ponytails, cutting off their ponytails and raping them with guns. So that’s a theme that’s run through all my movies.

Like you said, in Raspberry Reich there’s the leader of the leftist radical would-be group who believes that there will be no revolution without not only sexual revolution, but homosexual revolution. She forces her straight male followers to have sex with each other to prove their revolutionary commitment.

For me, it’s kind of an antidote to the perceptions of homosexuality that go on in general society, where people try to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. It’s just kind of a reversal of that, forcing straight people to become homosexual as a reaction against that mentality, even in just a playful or satirical style.

There’s some truth to that being a revenge motif, for all those homosexuals who’ve had to deal with that. And I should say I’ve made two short films with the same theme – I made one called Give Piece of Ass a Chance a number of years after Raspberry Reich, maybe 2008 or ’09. It was with a group of lesbian sex trade worker activists from Toronto who have a burlesque troupe called the Scandals. They wrote a script for me based on Raspberry Reich, it’s about these lesbian terrorists who kidnap a munitions heiress and fuck-wash her into their cause.

And recently, I made a film for CockyBoys called The Purple Army Faction – it’s about a near-future society where the world is suffering from horrible overpopulation. So a group of marauding homosexual terrorists drive around and kidnap heterosexuals and fuck-wash them to homosexuality so they won’t breed anymore.

I like that! It’s a funny idea. As a queer person this is something we can laugh at as satire, but I would say that less accepting people consider that as real life.

The Misandrists is definitely an exploitation film that explores cathartic ideas of revenge, so it’s not just from that angle but of the general angle of women who’ve been exploited for millennia to have their day, to turn the tables on men and subjugate them. Kind of take over their world – pornography, running the world.

In The Misandrists, there’s a film within a film – Ulrike’s Brain – that was also released separately. In a 2015 interview with the Huffington Post, you said that that was gonna be the sequel to Raspberry Reich, in a way. Did these films develop in tandem? What’s their relationship?

Ulrike’s Brain hasn’t screened very much – I don’t know if it screened at all – but it premiered with The Misandrists as the Berlin International Film Festival in 2017. It’s a much more experimental film; it’s an hour long and owes more to experimental techniques. But they were developed at the same time. Initially, they were going to be combined into one movie, but it’s much too complicated to tell the whole story within The Misandrists’ context, so I just put a brief clip of it in the film. It’s a film that the main character, Big Mother, actually appeared in – she was briefly an actress before she became a feminist lesbian separatist activist terrorist.

But it’s a very interesting topic, because the brains of the RAF – the extreme left-wing terrorist group in Germany in the 70s – were taken after they died in prison to Heidelberg University to be examined to see if there was a biological reason they turned into terrorists, so it already has Nazi undertones. Ten years later, they went back to, I don’t know, bury the brains or whatever, but they were missing. And for many years, no one knew what happened to these brains.

Ulrike Meinhof, who was one of the main inspirations for Big Mother in The Misandrists, had a brain aneurysm when she was a teenager, so her brain was already kind of suspect. People thought that illness was what caused her to be a terrorist. But long story short, her daughters Bettina and Regina were outraged, and started searching for her brain. Meanwhile, the leader of the extreme right-wing neo-Nazi party in the 80s was Michael Kühnen, who was openly gay and died of AIDS in the early 90s. According to his will, his ashes had to be buried in sacrosanct ground, as a Catholic; but no one would bury around. So his ashes floated around from person to person.

I just cooked up this crazy B-movie scenario where there’s two mad doctors – one has Ulrike’s brain, one has Michael Kühnen’s ashes – and they’re both trying to resurrect their respective leaders through arcane methods, like the occult and brain transplantation and whatnot. It’s kind of a riff on They Saved Hitler’s Brain, this B-movie from the ‘60s.

It was done as a live performance at Kampnagel, which is a huge art institute in Hamburg, Germany, known mostly for performance art. Hannah Herzog, a friend of mine, had a 3-day conference called Die Untoten, or “The Undead.” It was all about scientists and academics presenting work about notions of the undead, and life after death, and how the brain can live outside the body, notions like that. I was hired to do a kind of parasite installation/performance going the duration of the conference. So I made this film as a live event, shot it in front of the audience at this conference. It has this quality of being improvised, and the mechanics of the film is foregrounded. It truly is more experimental in spirit.

Cool, I hope I get to see it sometime.

Hopefully Cartilage will put it on as a DVD extra for The Misandrists when it comes out.

In an interview you gave at that conference, you said that The Misandrists has a relatively low budget, but it’s beautifully shot. You said that part of it was that it’s just cheaper to make film now – how have changes in technology and the cost of making film impacted the way you do your work? Your older works feel more DIY.

A couple years ago, Werner Herzog said, “You really only need $10,000 to make a feature film.” I thought “wow, that’s quite a statement. I wish it was like that when we started out.” We didn’t have the greatest camera; it wasn’t an Alexa or anything, but it was a good camera and we did shoot on 4K. James Carman, who’s shot six of my films starting with Hustler White, we’ve worked together so often that he knows instinctively what I’m looking for, and my references and everything.

What helped partly was that it was almost all shot in one location – that huge, old, ancient German country house, which I think is from the 15th century. It’s really old, such a spectacular location, but quite big. So we exploited that; we shot in several basements, and the attic, all through the house, backyard and surrounding areas. It was more economically, you don’t have to worry about changing locations, so the crew could be more compact.

Part of it is, with 4K, in post you can punch in 50% without losing any resolution, so you can reframe a lot. That makes a big difference, especially when making a narrative film that looks like a Hollywood-style movie.

There’s a lot of those medium close-ups, and the actresses really did a lot with those expressions.

That was part of the strategy of the film for me, to use a lot of big closeups of the girls, because their faces were all so amazing. I think it’s a combination of James and I working so close together, and the technology.

We had a lot of tracking shots, which I never really used that much when making a low-budget film because it’s time-consuming and expensive to get good tracks in. There’s a software now where, in post, it smooths out shaky tracking shots. It’s really kind of miraculous, you can make a movie look more professional in post than when you shot it.

Early in the film, Big Mother says, “Pornography is an act of insurrection against the dominant order.” I’m curious, is this your artist statement? Because it seems like that’s what your films are about.

Quite often, I take someone else’s turn of phrase – someone else at some point said “’something’ is an act of insurrection against the dominant order,” and I just replaced the ‘something’ with pornography. But yeah, of course I believe that, especially in this day and age with this new regression to conservatism everywhere.

There’ve been attempts to shut down personal ads for escorts, and sex trade workers, and also to curtail pornography, and I think we’ll see more of that in the near future. For me, pornography does a couple of things: it’s a collective unconscious where we work out our problematic or politically incorrect sexual fantasies. It’s kind of a collective sexual imagination. But it also goes against a major taboo in society, this idea of free sex and open expression of sexuality. Of course taboos exist for a reason, but they need to be broken as well; there need to be people to challenge those conventions.

I think that there’s been a conservative swing in the gay world as well, so porn seems for me the last bastion of sexual radicalism. When I was a kid, in my teens and 20s, the liberation movement was happening, and everyone was a sexual militant to an extent. A lot of men lived their lives like they were porn stars. Now, it just seems like there’s this select cadre of porno people that are still expressing that kind of gay sexual militancy.

Is there anything else you’re working on, or plan to release? You’ve talked about a movie called Twincest you were working on.

Twincest has been germinating for quite awhile – it’s actually the same producer that did my film Gerontophilia, which is my biggest-budgeted film to date, so we’re going for an even larger budget. The title’s now Saint Narcisse, and it’s a modern retelling of the Narcissus myth, but set in Quebec in the early 70s, and has a twincest theme.

I’m also going to do more stuff with CockyBoys, and I just shot a couple of short films with the Erica Lust company, a feminist porn company based in Barcelona. This year, I’m writing scripts for the future – I can say, I’m toying with the idea of doing a sequel to Hustler White.

The Misandrists smashes the patriarchy starting this weekend at Facets Cinematheque.

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About Theo Estes

Theo Estes is a Chicago based film critic who makes periodic appearances on the Alcohollywood podcast. He is also one half of the creative team behind the now defunct YouTube series Twin Cinema.

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