Otto; or Up With Dead People
Sometimes a movie has absolutely no conceivable audience, and you feel like applauding it just for its existence, regardless of quality. Bruce LaBruce’s Otto; or Up With Dead People is a cheap mess, mixing his penchant for camp and gay porn, with zombies and avant-garde film references, not to mention film-within-a-film nonsense. Otto is clumsy and endless, with misbegotten steals from other films, and no actual sex until the end, except for a brief reference to Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (“To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life… in the gall bladder!”), and clumsy jokes, all of it directed at the pace of a Jess Franco film. LaBruce piles on himself, with seemingly no way out. But the stream of ideas and metaphors relating zombie life to gay life (especially in terms of the fear and disease aspect) makes up for a lot of holes. That’s not to say that LaBruce implements these notions well, they are just as hammy and on-the-nose as everything else (the gay zombies are only interested in “organs”). If anything, he’s an avant-garde literalist.
Watching Otto is a very odd experience, because all of the above elements could easily be taken as humor, and for long stretches, I did. It would make sense, especially with the material that deals with Medea Yarn, the lesbian filmmaker (who is dating a woman who not only speaks in silent film subtitles, but is literally in black and white) and her self-described “Political Gay Zombie Porn” film, starring the movie’s namesake, an 18 year old who is either a real zombie, or thinks he is (with his “commitment” to the role, she dubs Otto “the gay Che Guevara of the undead”). LaBruce has an interesting way of showing us Otto’s perspective of the world; fuzzy, indistinguishable colors, mixed with radio static and screeching noises (very reminiscent of Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven which opens with its main character, a paranoid schizophrenic, and eventually us, hearing radio static). And then there are some amusing, if obvious jokes, such as when Medea discusses the long delays and struggles of her film “owing to the fact that no one would give me the funding.” That would give you the hint that Labruce is quite self-aware, and this is all genre parody. But why would he spend so much time with political lecturing as if he were making a didactic Godardian message film? At first you think it must be a joke, but the scenes go on so long that eventually it is no longer subtext, just text. If Labruce sees himself as Medea, which is possible considering touches such as the gay bashing that simultaneously cross-references The Seventh Seal and The Warriors, he probably should have picked a side. Is Medea a blowhard, or is she full of wisdom?
Despite all of these conflicting issues, Otto’s goal of re-discovering his past and finding his last love, is both badly acted and kind of sweet. In fact, Otto; or Up With Dead People while occasionally fascinating, is perpetually inconsistent and there’s so much going on in the movie, that it may end up being kind of a blurry mess for the viewer. As Otto says, when asked if he can remember anything from his past (or the previous 95 minutes for us), “not really, it’s murky.”