Is Interior. Leather Bar a documentary? Is it a docu-drama? Is it a mockumentary? It will probably tickle director James Franco pink to see his film cause such a bout of frustration amongst viewers, but this vague ambiguity takes away from the issues that he and co-director Travis Mathews are attempting to explore. Is the entire film scripted? One scene towards the end suggests that yes it has been, and if that’s the case then they’ve certainly succeeded in blurring the lines between fact and fiction perhaps better than anybody else before them. But in doing so and by misrepresenting the film (and the film’s supposed raison d’etre) as a recreation of 40 “lost” minutes of William Friedkin’s Cruising is just going to blunt their message behind a gaggle of needless directorial frou frou. The message of Interior. Leather Bar is an important one, but as a film it wants to have its cake and fuck it, too.
Friedkin’s 1980 homo-thriller Cruising is a fascinating movie. It really is. Set and released just one year before the virus known as HIV/AIDS was diagnosed, it represented a world that wasn’t long for the world. Condemned and met with protests from gay audiences that feared the film would portray homosexuality in a bad light, it’s actually very easy to look at Cruising today as an entirely radical film and one that wasn’t just ahead of its time, but entirely out of the time. A film like Cruising seems about as likely today as it did in 1980, but nowadays in a time when gay cinema is as unvital as ever and audiences as unlikely to go see it in a cinema, the concept of watching Al Pacino voluntarily get hog-tied and have anal sex on screen is something entirely exciting. Far from being homophobic, it takes very meticulous aim at representing its world with honesty and sincerity. I guess it’s hard for some in the gay community to accept that the acts portrayed in the film (both simulated and otherwise) exist, but so much of what I find fascinating about Cruising is that it explores this world that while still in existence today, has morphed into something else. It’s a time capsule of a time when the likes of Friedkin and Pacino could make a movie together about gay BDSM more or less in the mainstream and not treat it as a joke. It’s a messy movie, but a slickly made one and gets much mileage out of its bravura swagger.
Sadly, Interior. Leather Bar doesn’t look at Cruising in any critical light. This isn’t a documentary about Cruising per se, so I guess I shouldn’t complain about that, but in choosing to make a film about the footage Friedkin was forced to cut due to ratings issues and yet still skirt the topic of the film itself I’m not sure where Franco and Mathews’ heads were at. Scenes play out predominantly with star Val Lauren as he discusses his discomfort with the part with various people: his wife, his agent (who uses terms like “Franco faggot project”, which certainly seems like something a writer would make up), his “co-stars”, and Franco himself. Lauren has been cast as the character that Al Pacino once played, a character who was new the S&M scene as a means of undercover police work. He discusses how he’s unsure of what Franco and Mathews’ intentions are with the project and how he’s doing it more out of respect for Franco and the vision that he can’t quite wrap his head around. Perhaps these scripted moments are just Mathews own manifestation of confusion with the project.
Franco, for that matter, is articulate in his reasons for wanting to recreate the 40 lost minutes of Cruising as a way of confronting the societal norms of being raised to believe sex between heterosexuals – more specifically, one man and one woman – is “normal”. This, however, probably wasn’t the best way to go about it. At only 60 minutes long – and many of those minutes filled with Val Lauren looking off into the mass of naked bodies or simply into the distance – I’m not sure why they didn’t just go the whole way and do what the film posits them as having set out to do. There’s barely five minutes of recreated Cruising footage and it’s all rather bad to be honest. And it’s not just the lack of grungy 1980s film stock having been replaced by ugly digital, but the staged phoniness of it all. The behind the scenes sequences feature repeated shots of Franco and Lauren, both repeatedly-confessed heterosexuals, leering at the unsimulated sexuality on display including one scene of open-mouthed shock that I certainly hope was played for laughs because that’s what it elicits. It’s not like Franco is unaware of his reputation – many of the blowjob related jokes in This is the End make sure of that – but in this type of setting it’s hard to believe his reaction. Especially since Cruising actually features acts far more down and dirty than anything in this film. I mean, there aren’t too many non-pornographic movies that feature the act of “fist-fucking” arthouse or not, you know what I mean? Nothing here is going to shock any audience who goes into the film aware of what they’re getting themselves into.
If Franco and Mathews really wanted to confront society with the hypocrisy of sexuality then they actually could have simply remade Cruising in its entirety with Franco in the Al Pacino role. As it stands, barely anybody beyond a queer film festival audiences is ever going to see Interior. Leather Bar and their message will drift more or less into the ether. I don’t think anybody would particularly begrudge a remake of Friedkin’s film – there’s certainly much that could be improved by a filmmaker willing to go there. And at least maybe that way more people would see it and consume its message outside of a room of gay men who will likely feel somewhat duped by the whole affair. Or is he all talk and no action (pun intended)? As The Hollywood Reporter states, it’s for queer-theory students and Francomaniacs”, when Franco could be using his recent fondness for fabulous in far more mainstream-baiting ways.
Interior. Leather Bar is the second feature of Travis Mathews that I have watched this month after I Want Your Love. Again, only 70-minutes in length (Mathews at least doesn’t pad his stories, that’s for sure) and focused around exploring gay sex but this one with a far more conventional narrative. That narrative doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting, and much like Interior. Leather Bar that scattershot form of storytelling disables some of the more interesting themes that are dealt with in less depth that one would hope.
Now notorious, at least in Australian circles, for being banned from screening at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival due to its excessive unsimulated sex scenes, watching I Want Your Love with that in mind is entirely absurd. I guess we audiences can go on and on about how sex is a part of everyone’s lives in some capacity (we have it, we crave it, we watch it) and that cinematic representations of it can say a lot about the characters in the film as well as the viewer in a way far beyond the barbaric over-the-top violence of, say, Only God Forgives does. But they just don’t listen. Blood > Sex in today’s world. Won’t somebody think of the (sexually active) children? The sex scenes in I Want Your Love are, for the most part, explicit and yet tame. Well, I guess to a man who’s had sex with another man they’re tame, but probably not to the prudes on rating boards. Still, while the sex is real they don’t titillate all that much outside of the fairly standard rush of hormones one would – should – get from such a sight.
What the banning effectively ignores is how the film uses them to reveal truths about the characters and the audience. There aren’t many films that have so realistically portrayed the side of “gay sex” that this one does. The intimate side, the problematic side, the funny side. It’s probably no coincidence that a lot of people, homophobic or not, think of two men having sex and think of the images that Cruising relished in presenting: drug-fucked orgies of leather and sweat. Hardly, you know? The characters here fumble and laugh, climax and, well, don’t climax. Different races and body shapes are on display in the sort of way that actual pornography does not. If I Want Your Love was the type of film the Australian censors thought it was then I’d expect less imperfections and more rippling, oiled muscles.
So it’s a shame then that the film doesn’t do all that much with the promise of this more honest material. The story of a thirty-something gay man having a crisis of identity and career is certainly identifiable, but the film ultimately falls into a repetitive cycle of sex and sequences of dull conversation of little point. That it started out as a short film doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, but I do wish Travis Mathews – here working sans James Franco – had used the expanded runtime to really navigate tricky homosexual territories. While it’s certainly not this film or any other’s job to “say” anything – and it certainly never approaches the topical transparency of Andrew Haigh’s superb Weekend - the film all too often flops about with little or no point other than to eventually link to another sex scene. The main disappointment with I Want Your Love is that while its characters are want love, the screenplay is ironically too pre-occupied with sex to give it to them.