Anyone seeking proof that all it takes for a radical to become part of the establishment is a little bit of endurance need only look to “Skin Flicks,” TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective of the films of Toronto zine impresario, radical, occasional pornographer, and queercore filmmaker Bruce LaBruce.
A farm boy who left his rural digs for a more urban life in Toronto in the mid-‘80s, LaBruce first turned heads on the scene with his publication (along with partner and Fifth Column frontwoman G.B. Jones) of the seminal queer punk zine J.D.s, which distinguished itself from punk culture through its queer vision, and from mainstream LGBT culture through its aggressive DIY aesthetic and radical politics. From that fertile underground world came the first of LaBruce’s experimental Super 8 shorts, including Boy, Girl—ground zero for later thematic obsessions such as neo-skinheads and surveillance.
While his work in J.D.s earned him a reputation in Toronto punk circles, LaBruce established himself as a fringe voice within the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s with his debut feature No Skin Off My Ass—a loose riff on Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park—which starred LaBruce himself as a hairdresser with a penchant for skinheads. Jones co-stars as the skinhead’s sister, a punk filmmaker making a video record of the women in the vanguard army behind the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.
No Skin Off My Ass is a good blueprint for the average LaBruce film: a heady, puckish, and admittedly sometimes tedious mix of radical politics, cheeky satire (of leftist dogma, buzzwords, centrist complacency), and hardcore sex. In Skin Flick (1999), which gives the retrospective its title, that equation came up against the demands of genre. Commissioned by a German production company to make a proper porn film without his usual intellectual hijinks, LaBruce instead delivered a snotty sendup of German kitsch, neo-fascist rhetoric, gay porn, and bourgeois gay living amidst his usual mix of Godardian intertitles and superimposed text. The infamous The Raspberry Reich (2004), meanwhile, remixed the old LaBruce formula to different ends, mobilizing its outré sex tableaux and revolutionary pamphleteering—standout slogans that flash onscreen include “The revolution is my boyfriend” and “Join the homosexual intifada”—into a nasty critique of everyone from faux-revolutionaries to real ones like Che Guevara.
LaBruce’s budgets have seemingly increased in recent years, but you wouldn’t call him a sellout. Though its self-consciously lyrical opening, filled with loving nighttime photography of surf and sand, suggests a queer riff on Michael Mann’s Miami Vice aesthetic, before long the nearly silent L.A. Zombie (2011) settles into the usual experimental vignettes of campy gang violence and garishly over-lit sex, this time featuring the aimless wanderings of an alien zombie (blankly inhabited by French model and sometimes porn star François Sagat) as our narrative throughline. And even if his newest, Gerontophilia (which isn’t screening as part of the retrospective, but is getting a limited release at the Lightbox in July), is by most accounts a kinder, gentler affair—a queer Harold and Maud—we suspect it’s still got some fight in it.