Canadian film-maker Bruce LaBruce’s latest offering, The Raspberry Reich, is a satire of Radical Chic, the fetishisation of signifiers and postures of the radical left. The film follows a gang of wannabe terrorists patterned on the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Led by the charismatic Gudrun, a devotee of Wihelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, she indoctrinates her male followers into giving themselves over to the revolution while making them have sex with one another, including her boyfriend, as a sign of rejection of ‘heterosexuality, the opium of the masses’. This is LaBruce at his finest: loads of slapstick humour, explicit sex and a narrative style redolent of Warhol and Cassavetes. Antonio Pasolini caught up with him for an email chat as the DVD of The Raspberry Reich is released in the UK.
I thought the Raspberry Reich seems to inaugurate a new phase for you as a filmmaker. Would you agree with that?
Yes and no. I am continuing to work as I’ve always worked, but new affordable technology has given me a certain amount of creative leeway that I haven’t had before. The Raspberry Reich is the first movie I’ve shot completely on digital, and we edited it on Final Cut Pro, which gave me new access to a lot of visual effects and image processing. But in terms of thematic concerns and aesthetics, I feel like I’m just doing my thing as usual. I consider The Raspberry Reich the second installment in a trilogy of porn movies about gangs, more specifically, gangs who are not necessarily gay-identified but who nonetheless are involved in homosexual behaviour. I will be shooting the third installment, LA Gangbangers, a porn about Latino gang members in Los Angeles, early next year.
Why did you decide to tackle the Radical Chic theme? When did you develop an interest in that?
Radical Chic has always interested me, ever since I took a course in university called Protest Literature and Movements. Part of the appeal of all the early equal rights movements – feminist, gay, black – was that they understood the importance of adopting a militant image and rhetoric that was both intriguing to the media and also politically charged, alluding to the kind of Marxist-based guerilla insurgencies that were happening in Latin America in that era. But the problem with working within the capitalist system by making these radical political movements alluring and even sexy is that it plays into what Marx called commodity fetishism.
Eventually each of these movements was subsumed and co-opted by the corporate media to the point where you have someone like Madonna manufacturing reputedly radical images of guerilla insurgency to sell millions of records, and the image of Che Guevera becoming a capitalist, sexual icon in the order of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. The political substance of these radical images has been excised, resulting in a set of empty signifiers which can only be seen as an aspect of fashion or style.
I think that’s the biggest problem facing any new radical political movement today, is to figure out how to avoid the co-optive powers of the media and make a sexy insurgency without succumbing to the merely cosmetic realm of radical chic. Nonetheless, you can now order the new Raspberry Reich t-shirts at www.brucelabruce.com featuring six sexy slogans: The Revolution is My Boyfriend, Join The Homosexual Intifada, Put Your Marxism Where Your Mouth Is, Heterosexuality Is The Opiate Of The Masses, Madonna Is Counterrevolutionary, and Corporate Hip Hop Is Counterrevolutionary.
In the director’s statement that accompanies the DVD release here in the UK, you talk about the fluidity of gay identity as opposed to the more rigid parameters of mainstream, commercial gay culture. Could you elaborate on that?
As Gudrun says in The Raspberry Reich, free yourself from your heterosexual repression. I actually do believe that everyone has bisexual potential, although I personally am so repressed that I’ve never been able to exercise my own, which I find regrettable. But what disappoints me most about the current state of the gay movement, if you can still call it that, is that most gays have settled for this really rigid, obvious, and stereotypical idea of what it means to be a homosexual. It’s become a very facile, consumerist identity without any substance, purely decorative and inert, and strangely castrated.
This is true of the way that homosexuals are represented in the mainstream media, but you can even see it in gay bars and communities. I was in a gay bar in Toronto last night for the first time in years and I was shocked at how neutered the whole thing has become. Gay bars used to have at least a hint of danger or even criminality, or at least a sense of promoting non-conformist behaviour. The energy in this bar was disturbingly bourgeois and tame and oddly neutered. My theory is that many gay men have a hard time accepting their feminine side, so it becomes a kind of pathology for them, trying to play up the masculine side and strangling the feminine, or allowing the feminine to become twisted or spiteful.
When the gay community is segregated and gay men don’t have access to real, healthy female sexuality, there’s an imbalance that becomes really unwholesome. Gays have also become the ultimate consumers, the ultimate commodity fetishists. They’re the most well-behaved, model citizens you could hope for under advanced capitalism. It’s nauseating. I’m surprised the right wing parties aren’t welcoming them into the fold with gay marriage, because marriage is one of the central ways that society controls and domesticates its members.
Did you receive any criticism against the films on the grounds of the terrorist theme? How has that aspect of the film been reacted to?
Part of the fun of watching people walk out during my movie is trying to figure out if they are offended by the pornography or the politics or both (or neither, I suppose – some people claim to be bored by it.) It was most challenging to show it at the Berlinale and to German audiences, obviously because the whole RAF phenomenon is fairly recent and still a sensitive issue in Germany.
When I wrote the script for the movie, the RAF were still to me a distant, somewhat romanticized gang of glamorous terrorists, maybe even a little bit of an abstraction. During post-production in Berlin I was introduced to Felix Ensslin, the real-life son of Gudrun Ensslin, When he was a child someone threw acid in his face because of his direct connection to the RAF. This really made the whole thing much more real to me. Over dinner I talked about my movie, and told him that essentially I was making an art/porn movie about the RAF. He was very receptive to the idea, and confirmed that the RAF was very much into the notion of sexual revolution having to come before social or political revolution. (It is said that Gudrun Ensslin had some involvement in pornographic movies before she helped form the RAF.)
The RAF also came out of an intellectual/student protest movement, so they were very familiar with such radical sexual thinkers as Marcuse and Reich. I was introduced to Felix by Klaus Beisenbach, the director of Kunstwerke in Berlin, the modern art museum. Klaus had planned a large exhibit of work having to do with the RAF to be held in November of last year. However, there was a huge firestorm of protest when it was discovered that government funding agencies were supporting the exhibit. The newspapers had a field day with it, and Klaus was eventually forced to cancel the exhibit. My movie debuted in Germany in February of this year, and my producer and I were expecting the worst, but actually audiences were quite receptive to the movie and the mainstream press took it seriously and it was largely well reviewed.
I think people recognise that the movie doesn’t take the issues it raises lightly, even though it’s a somehow light-hearted work on some level. For example, it isn’t so much an example of terrorist chic as a critique of it; it isn’t so much a romanticisation of terrorism as a demystification of it, etc.
Despite the slapstick elements that you often use in your films, and which are present in the Raspberry Reich, I felt like you were addressing the audience in a very genuine, direct kind of way. How do you feel about those slogans and ideas you chose to insert in the film?
I wrote the script for Raspberry Reich soon after 9/11 during a period when the left, at least in America, had been totally cowed and silenced and rendered ineffectual. That gave me the idea of really bombarding the audience with leftist and socialist slogans and text, simply, on one level, as a way of re-introducing those ideas into the public discourse. When I researched the actual political platforms of various extreme left wing terrorist organizations of the seventies – the RAF, the SLA, the Weathermen, etc. – I was struck by how their rhetoric – based on ideas of social and political change, empowering disenfranchised minorities, supporting the working class and a more equitable distribution of wealth, their anti-corporate positions – actually made a lot of sense and was extremely sincere and well-considered. It was only when they started blowing up people in buildings that their position became morally untenable.
But my movie also operates as a critique of well-meaning liberals who either support such groups without thinking through the moral implications or who don’t recognize that their own actions and lifestyles directly contradict that which they support in theory.
Why did you decide to insert all those Blair and Bush images on the UK DVD version?
My UK distributors and I came up with that idea to replace all the cuts that the British censor board made them make in the movie. I haven’t even seen the final version of it myself yet.
What do you think of film makers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me)?
I haven’t seen Super Size Me, but I’ve seen all the Michael Moore movies. I have mixed feelings about him. I think that the extreme right wing movement in America is so powerful and clever that it takes someone like Moore, who essentially uses dirty tactics, to fight them. I suppose you could say it’s giving up the moral high ground, but I guess it’s a case of fighting fire with fire. If you start with the assumption that Moore is essentially a fiction film-maker and not a documentarist, it makes his movies more palatable. I like him best when he’s being snide and sarcastic, or reveals the hypocrisy of corporations or politicians. I think he’s at his worst when he gets maudlin and sentimental. He should just be a pit bull unleashed on the right. I didn’t like the way he ambushed Charlton Heston, who has clearly gone dotty in his old age. Aside from being in some great movies that are extremely critical of America, like Planet of the Apes, he also was active in the civil rights movement in the sixties, for example. He shouldn’t be completely dismissed for one sad chapter of his life when he became a gun-toting NRA lunatic with Alzheimer’s. And then Moore is trailing him around with a photo of a young gun victim whining "what about the children, the children?" It’s a bleeding heart liberal strategy that doesn’t work in the current vicious, dog-eat-dog American political climate.
Any new projects in the pipeline?
Yeah, I have a few on deck. One is LA Gangbangers, the third in a trilogy of porn movies about gang members that I was talking about earlier. The other is an art movie called Von Gloeden which focuses on Wilhelm Von Gloeden, the German photographer who shot naked Italian boys in Sicily at the end of the 19th Century/early 20th Century. Some people considered him a great artist; others thought he was merely a pornographer. So really the debate hasn’t changed all that much in the last hundred years or so.
The Raspberry Reich DVD is out on Peccadillo Pictures