Zombie, with heart? Bruce LaBruce offers up a surprisingly sweet gay Goth film in "Otto, or Up with Dead People." (Photo courtesy Strand Releasing)

Bruce LaBruce's 'Otto': Zombies With Heart

Dennis Harvey January 13, 2009

Sheer show-off brattiness can be attractive as it manifests in a young filmmaker’s works—but not so much if the filmmaker fails to mature in sensibility along with his or her escalating age. This has been a particular problem with certain figures in the ’80s Amerindie breakthrough, who still amuse and sometimes enthrall, but rarely get past cineaste in-jokery and prankish shock value to convey some real depth of artistic (or simply human) perspective.

One of the most superficially envelope-pushing such talents has been Canada’s Bruce LaBruce, a late arrival in a New Queer Cinema wave that had already embraced such widely disparate talents as Araki, Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, Isaac Julian, Rose Troche (Go Fish), Tom Kalin (Swoon), Maria Maggenti (Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love), and so forth. Bruce (nee Justin Stewart) made a splash on the gay fest circuit in 1991 with No Skin Off My Ass, in which he starred as a punky gay hairdresser infatuated with an indifferent (at first) skinhead. Amidst various shorts, there followed Super 8 1/2 (1995), which mocked both his own brat image and no-budget porn production; and Hustler White (1996, co-directed with Rick Castro), another tongue-in-cheek (ahem) look at the sex industry with Madonna’s former "Justify My Love" boytoy Tony Ward as a bisexual prostitute. Two German-made features, Skin Flick a.k.a. Skin Gang (1999) and The Raspberry Reich (2004), offered yet more skinheads, assy humor and variably hardcore sex.

What these movies all have in common is a lot of way-politically-incorrect outrageousness; horny boys galore; a stubbornly crude aesthetic that might charitably be compared to early Warhol and Waters; and an indifference to narrative or pacing that can make even his brightest ideas turn dully repetitive. It’s one thing to push the envelope; it’s another when you’re pushing it into tedium. That said, LaBruce can be a good writer—for zines, overground mags, and as author of the short stories that director John Palmer and scenarist Todd Klinck turned into 2004’s underseen Sugar, a surprisingly poignant spin on some typical themes (i.e. gay hustlers).

All this is perhaps an overlong windup to the news that Bruce La Bruce’s latest, Otto; or, Up with Dead People, is a real leap forward—though with few exceptions (notably an admiring New York Times) it’s gotten his usual "Gee how shocking, zzzzz…" reviews. In description, it sounds like another amusing albeit one-joke LaBruce joint: Otto (Jey Crisfar) is a homeless German youth wandering the city streets, looking for love…the difference being he’s a zombie.

A gay zombie, of course. A nice one who tries subsisting on small animals in order to avoid that cannibal urge. People—including the lesbian avant-garde filmmaker who casts her in her own zombie-political-allegory film-within-the-film—assume his pallorous, black-eye-ringed look is just "Goth," his rank odor just poor hygiene.

As ever, there’s lots of naked manhood (though the sex is relatively tame this time) and snarky puncturing of all sacred cows, even (or especially) those in the "alternative" political and cultural scenes. But Otto is several things prior La Bruce films have seldom if ever been. It’s fairly carefully plotted, with a story that actually does lead somewhere significantly different from its beginning. It’s also quite handsome to look at in James Carman’s wide-format, B&W HD lensing. (Some flashbacks are in 16mm color, for contrast.) And most shockingly, Otto is quite sweet, reflecting its protagonist’s numbed, damaged guilelessness. The eventual explanation of what happened to this "zombie"—is he physically or just emotionally "dead?"—is ambiguous enough to let the viewer decide, but it’s also genuinely touching.

I don’t think Bruce La Bruce is going to start churning out gay punk Marley and Me’s anytime soon, but the heart that beats beneath Otto’s macabre surface pumps more earnest life into this movie than any he’s done before.

Otto; or, Up with Dead People opens at Bay Area theaters Friday.