April 23–May 2 at MoMA
Directed by Bruce LaBruce
Opens May 1 at the Village East
When John Waters went legit in the 80s, turning to melodrama and musicals, he left a sleazy hole begging to be filled. Toronto’s Bruce LaBruce was not only ballsy enough to step into the breach, freaking out squares and heads alike—he was baldly and boldly sex-positive in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic, something he touched on with the same cool reserve with which he waxed rhapsodic on Patty Hearst and Angela Davis. His films were part essay, part hardcore, filtered through his encyclopedic knowledge of old Hollywood, feminist theory and revolutionary esoterica. He discovered that the only way forward was backwards, by acknowledging the past and using it to chart a course into the unknown. In the first scene of his debut feature No Skin Off My Ass (1991), LaBruce (playing a hairdresser) watches Robert Altman’s A Cold Day In The Park and then leaves his house and walks right into a park on a cold day. It gives him the confidence to accept what he sees next as destiny, and picks up the cute skinhead who immediately crosses his path. LaBruce steps into fictional constructs, identities, modes and tones as if stepping into a movie. Cinematic reality and his laundry list of fetishes become both fashion statement and armour. His love of film and his earnestly acquired style have made him untouchable. That means he can get away with stopping a snarky riff on Sunset Blvd., a look at life in a skinhead commune, a Godard-influenced kidnapping story, or a zombie movie in its tracks to show ten minutes of burly studs having furious, unromantic sex.
That may sound like mere provocation, but his images serve a greater and nobler purpose: propagating the normality of homosexuality through repetition. The world is teeming with representations of heterosexual eroticism and LaBruce’s films heroically tip the scales in the other direction. It’s the rare artist who can repurpose a historically exploitative method into an act of humane evangelization, but LaBruce makes it look effortless. His shrewdness extends to making his on-screen persona (some version appears in nearly all of his work) mock the notion that he’d be precious or self-important about his work. He laughs loudest at the idea that he’s an artist who must be taken seriously. All the better to slip his ideas into your movie-going experience. A little like the way he slips subliminal peans to acceptance into his sex scenes… or maybe it’s the other way around. Regardless, his work asks time and again how sex between two adults could be at all wrong? It’s happening right here in the middle of this dirty little comedy, and it’s been happening for the last reel.
LaBruce’s aesthetic concerns change for his sex scenes. Hustler White (1996) looks like a David Friedman-H.G. Lewis romp (think Blood Feast or She-Freak), with its academy ratio, wet primary colours and beautiful sunbaked street scenes—that is, until the sex starts. In The Skin Gang (1999), he uses dirty 8mm film while his skinhead heroes are outside cruising and switches to murky digital when they go inside to have sex. Otto; or, Up With Dead People (2008) switches from color to black and white when the zombies start fornicating. Gerontophilia, his latest feature and his first without hardcore sex, gives way to impressionistic montage for its love scenes. The quality of the sex makes Gerontophilia his most commercial film to date, but probably still too revolutionary to find a wide mainstream audience. The movie is what happens when LaBruce heeds the criticism scrawled on a bathroom wall during a sex scene in The Skin Gang: “Plot does matter.” Lake (Pier-Gabriel Lajoie) is a slightly vacant young man who takes a job at a nursing home after college to be close to older men. The realization that he’s attracted to an older crowd comes after he administers the kiss of life to a drowning senior and gets an erection, a scene that plays as almost mythic or mystic. He falls for the man (Walter Borden) who’s been giving the establishment the most trouble and soon he’s hatching a plan to break him out of the home.
Early in his career, LaBruce understood the tactile delights of celluloid. No Skin Off My Ass, Hustler White and the lovely Super 8 1/2 all look singularly beautiful, harking back to different eras of independent cinema. It was part and parcel with his name-dropping Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Andy Warhol and Vilgot Sjöman in his screenplays. 8mm film was one more way of keeping the past alive. When LaBruce adopted digital, his aesthetics took a hit. The ugliness of digital helped him obliterate the distance between the viewer and the subject, which made his work feel alive and imperative, but less striking. With Gerontophilia, LaBruce has discovered a sensual, shimmering image quality to match his embrace of a new mode of storytelling. He’s out to proselytize, to make you fall in love with the flesh of the elderly charges his hero finds so alluring. The movie slowly takes away all the hesitancy and embarrassment Lake feels about his “fetish,” slowly getting him to realize he’s on the crest of a wave more people should be riding. One of acceptance and love, of being able to see the objective sexiness of something we choose not to think about. Which, consciously or not, has been the effect of LaBruce’s entire body of work. Sometimes that means showing an amputee using his limb as a phallus or rapturously displaying the wrinkled skin of an 82-year-old man. LaBruce has love for humans in every form, provided, of course, that they’re as accepting as he is.
Gerontophilia is LaBruce’s quietest film in over a decade. He’s chosen to fold his reference points into the fabric of the narrative rather than shout them proudly from the rooftops. The many staples of his work—including his fervent, catchy sloganeering, his essayist’s marginalia, and his placing surrogates into each of his films—have all been funneled into a single character. Lake’s girlfriend Désirée (Katie Boland) is a firebrand feminist given to rattling off the names of her female heroes to get herself excited. She’s the cuddliest version of the auteur, his adorable inner child—someone who sees beauty in rabble-rousing even if she knows she may not change the world. Like Lake, she knows her ambitions are doomed to be dwarfed by the small world she’s stuck in. LaBruce’s ideas are big, but somewhere he seems to understand that his films will never reach the crowds they need to in order to make the difference they deserve to. His films haven’t spread beyond festival screenings and made it to arthouses in far, far too long, and perhaps finally making a film with a conventional structure is LaBruce’s way of trying to break out of a small Canadian town like his heroes and start acting on the beliefs that feed and nourish them. Gentle art-horror in which men use open wounds in sexual congress is undeniably fascinating and groundbreaking, but if it only reaches the already initiated, it will never fully bloom. Gerontophilia represents new ground for a director who has perfected a deeply intimate form of his own devising. If its curb appeal and relative tameness helps newcomers delve into his back catalogue with an open mind, then it may perform an even more vital function than entertainment. Just as LaBruce’s art makes viewers reckon with desire in every form, Gerontophilia may hopefully urge more viewers to reckon with LaBruce’s more daring work.