Angelean fans of noted queer “underground” filmmaker Bruce LaBruce have reason to rejoice this week, with the long-awaited Los Angeles release of his latest work, “The Misandrists.”
A characteristically transgressive piece for the Queercore founder and former pioneer of “New Queer Cinema,” it’s the tale of a cadre of feminist revolutionaries, housed in a school for girls run by “Big Mother” (Susanne Sachsse) – a terrorist who encourages her young charges to be “lovers as well as comrades” as she prepares them to overthrow the patriarchy and create a society without men. When two of the girls find a male radical wounded in the forest, they secretly bring him home and hide him in the basement to nurse him back to health; their deception leads to mistrust within the group, ultimately bringing down a reckoning under which loyalties must be proven and sacrifices must be made.
Returning to themes explored in “The Raspberry Reich,” a 2004 film which he considers a “companion piece” to this one, LaBruce has created a wicked satire, couched within the format of an exploitative B-movie, which skewers the extremism of radical movements while also challenging binary concepts of gender and sexuality. The result is often absurd, sometimes hilarious, and occasionally disturbing; the use of pornographic imagery is here somewhat tame (at least in comparison to the director’s earlier work), and more amusing than shocking – but the insertion of real-life scenes of something which – to avoid spoilers – I will only describe as a “surgical procedure” is a moment of visceral cinematic audaciousness that will surely leave some viewers reeling.
It’s meant to do that, of course. LaBruce and other cinema artists of his ilk are out to challenge their audiences, to push the boundaries of “acceptable” filmmaking and shake viewers out of their comfort zones. Graphic medical footage notwithstanding, “The Misandrists” does less of that with direct depiction, perhaps, than some of LaBruce’s other efforts – but his choice of subject matter crosses some boundaries that are, within the context of our current cultural climate, a little too far for some.
At a Q&A talkback after the opening night screening of his film at the Nuart Theatre, LaBruce discussed some of the blowback he has received over the film.
“I never expected it to see the light of day in the U.S.A., frankly, because no film festival would play it. It was turned down by Frameline, in San Francsico – I’ve heard behind the scenes it was because they wouldn’t show a lesbian film that was made by a gay man – and they wouldn’t show it at Outfest, which has normally supported me. They wouldn’t show it in Toronto, which is where I’m from, at the Inside Out Festival. So I thought, ‘I’ve gone too far, I’ve hit a nerve.’”
LaBruce has a long history of going against political correctness within the LGBTQ movement, and he doesn’t see a reason to stop now.
“There’s always been a division, for me, between mainstream ‘gay’ and ‘queer.’ When I was part of the Queercore movement, back in the 80s, we were all about intersectionality and inclusion – race, class, solidarity between fags, dykes, and transgender people. It’s encouraging that [awareness of inclusivity] is happening again now, but the mainstream “gay movement” – the way it’s represented in popular culture – is still very much a white middle-class movement.”
The criticism has not just revolved around the idea of a cis-gendered male assuming ownership of a lesbian narrative. There have also been concerns about the message LaBruce’s film might be sending about the feminist movement.
“I showed it in Poland, and a woman got up in the Q&A. Her question was, ‘Do you honestly believe that a film that shows every conceivable cliché about lesbians could be considered a feminist film?’ And I said, ‘Yes!’”
He went on to explain, “It’s a critique of feminism – of certain stripes of second-wave feminism. I always was very opposed to anti-sex, anti-porn feminism from the eighties. There are pitfalls in any kind of extreme radical movement, where the oppressed starts to become the oppressor – or the original goals of the revolution start to be compromised to the point where you are actually betraying the ideals that you originally had. This applies to the radical left as much as to the radical right, and this is what a lot of my work is about.”
Another accusation stems from the fact that one of the movie’s subplots explores the role of gender identity within feminist ideology. There has been some perception of “The Misandrists” as being transphobic – which surprises LaBruce, who cast newcomer trans actress Kita Updike in a pivotal central role as a girl who keeps her trans status secret from her fellow revolutionaries. “She’s the heart of the movie.”
He also said that he tried to keep the energy on the set very female-centric. “It’s a mostly female cast, and I tried to hire as many female crew members as I could. Everyone bonded like crazy, the women especially. Viva and Kembra [Ruiz and Pfahler, respectively, both LaBruce cast alumni and legendary figures within “underground” queer culture] were mentoring these young girls – many of them were 18 or 20, and they were kind of seeking guidance from these women – and there was this whole parallel narrative going on during the production that I wasn’t privy to, a whole lot of bonding going on that my straight cinematographer and I didn’t even know was happening until later.”
Even so, within the ongoing atmosphere of #MeToo, a film poking fun at women who are rising up against subjugation and oppression seems like a risky endeavor. LaBruce, who has never shied away from swimming against the stream, feels the message is important enough to take that risk – even if it rubs some people the wrong way.
“We have to be careful, on the left, of what I call neo-Stalinism, of policing language and desire – of not listening to conservative voices and just trying to shut them down.”
Despite LaBruce’s well-considered explanations, some viewers might still question the timing of “The Misandrists,” given the resurgence of anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ sentiments within the current political environment. At least one audience member, as the crowd left the theatre following the screening, was heard to express concern that criticism of feminist concerns, even in satirical form, might be “dangerous” at a time when conservative extremists already feel emboldened.
Sadly, it’s a valid point.
Fans who want to decide for themselves which side of these controversies they align themselves with will have that opportunity for the rest of this week, as “The Misandrists” continues its run at the Landmark Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Boulevard. Showtimes and tickets are available here.