Deciding to give Bruce LaBruce a retrospective is, to say the least, a bold decision in times when MoMA seems to go through its worst crisis to date after Klaus Biesenbach’s blatant Björk fiasco. Curated by Thomas Beard and The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film (sic) Rajendra Roy, Bruce La Bruce’s retrospective takes him too far too soon without first problematising the way Queer aesthetics seem to only be ab le to deal with stereotypes and their stereotypical counter-examples.
According to the MoMA: ‘For over a quarter-century the auteur/provocateur known as Bruce LaBruce has been disrupting, dissecting, and disrobing in the name of cinema. Blasted into the demimonde of underground punk moviemaking with his feature debut, No Skin Off My Ass, LaBruce quickly established that, while he was certainly game for exploring the messy, sticky zones of fringe film, he was actually the unholy product of arthouse auteurism. From Robert Altman to Federico Fellini and Werner Herzog, LaBruce mines the sacred texts of the canon and inserts his own revolutionary gay-sex-positive narratives. Layered with scathing wit and a fundamental rejection of capitalist control over the mind and body, his films take to task the mainstream porn industry as well as Hollywood. In this spirit, he has collaborated with actors—like Slava Mogutin, Tony Ward, and Francois Sagat—who swing between art and commerce, fashion and filth, the avant-garde and the boulevard’.
His former LA gallerists, Javier Perez, showed me his first films’ stills (specifically prepared for conspicuous consumption as expensive art) a few years ago and I found them both erotic and thoughtful. Unsurprisingly, the film maker majored in Film and minored in Dance at York University in Toronto and ended up getting a Master’s degree in Film Theory and Social and Political Thought, mentored by the late great gay film critic Robin Wood.
Although, his films establish art dialogues that refer to cinematographic ‘auterism’, the viewer struggles to see any formal or substantial innovation apart from a linear link between ‘outsiderness’ and ‘lack of finish-ness’. I am saying this because even though they do problematise the eroticism that lies underneath social acceptance, they fail to show us the humanity inside the outrageous. From this point of view, his films flirt, as if only of language we were talking about, with a Halloweenesque B-Type sort of movie or with the aesthetics of porn. The problem with porn or B-type horror movies is that they are visual languages of concealment and disguise instead of revelation.
It is ironic that LaBruce’s retrospective will happen at the same time than Fabio Mauri’s at the Venice Biennale since both of them explore the eroticism that can be found in that conflation of political control and self destruction that takes us to unbelievable extremes. Both in La Bruce and Mauri, there is a fascination with both fascism and capitalism. However, while Mauri was prosecuted for his beliefs, La Bruce proclaims his anticapitalist dogma from the white cube of the uber-commercial art gallery.
The other problem with LaBruce’s films is the suspension of disbelief due to the fact that he transforms the casting process into a source of conceptual artistic value. For example, collaborating with porn actor Francois Sagat or Madonna’s former soft porn boyfriend Tony Ward are in themselves statements that inject too much meaning into the already overwhelmed viewer and this conspires against character building and story telling.
I would say that the problem here is that he tries to occupy too many positions and two, in particular, that are incompatible. He moves between queerism and arthouse auterism but in the process he forgets that the former is about indexicality (‘we are queer, we are here, get used to it’, ‘fuck yeah, fuck yeah-kind of porn’, etc) and the latter about character identification. ‘Gerontophilia’ is the closest we get to such a thing, however, he presents his cases as a given. There is no character explanation. He does not discuss gerontophilia as such with the viewer but only imposes it as a given fact in the same way that one ‘is queer, is here and get used to it’. That queer naturalism is incompatible with naturalism per se. In other words, although such a thing might work for political activism, it rarely does for storytelling.
I like his work but I would have expected from the MoMA a more sophisticated curatorship were visual representation were not presented as a visual catalogue of perversions that ‘us gay people enjoy’, but also as a discussion of the limits of queernes in times when behaving gay is simply outdated. J A T