Co-directed by James Franco and Travis Mathews, Interior. Leather Bar. includes a few explicit scenes of gay sex, but it’s really the intellectual wankery on display that defines the movie. This is the term paper that Franco never got around to writing at UCLA, Columbia, NYU or anyplace else he’s been enrolled.
Franco and Mathews were inspired by the movie-biz legend that director William Friedkin had to cut 40 minutes from his 1980 film Cruising to avoid the studio taboo of an X rating. (Given Friedkin’s reputation for self-mythologizing embellishment, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he really had to submit 50 re-edits of the film to the ratings board, and if United Artists really did subsequently destroy the axed footage.)
Cruising starred Al Pacino as Steve Burns, a New York City homicide detective who goes undercover to track down a serial killer prowling the city’s underground “leather bar” scene, i.e., gay clubs with an S&M slant. (For more backstory on Cruising, click here.)
What Interior. Leather Bar. demonstrates, wittingly or not, is that those “lost” 40 minutes — which supposedly consisted of S&M-tinged sex scenes in the disco-dungeon clubs — take on much more significance when left to the feverish imaginations of anyone who might enjoy speculating about them. If you think of gay sex clubs as just another aspect of life in the big city, the reality of anything that might have gone on in those 40 minutes is less likely to strike you as the basis for a movie.
Franco and Mathews’ Interior. Leather Bar. purports to be a documentary about their attempt to recreate the missing 40 minutes of Cruising on a set in L.A. over two days in summer 2012. That this is a self-conscious, “meta” project is clear in the opening scene, wherein Franco references a work of “queer theory” he’s been reading. He and Mathews, a documentary filmmaker, muse about how the increasing mainstream acceptance of gay marriage means that there’s nothing underground or oppositional about gay culture anymore. Hence their fascination with the lost footage of Cruising as a kind of totem of transgression.
Later in the film, Franco is apparently filmed on the fly, talking about how he resents having grown up with a heteronormative worldview, thanks to a mass media that was reluctant to even acknowledge the existence of gays. He explains that one of his motives in making Interior. Leather Bar. is to strike a blow against that tyranny of het-normative representation in the media.
A viewer might wonder if there isn’t a contradiction here — are Franco and Mathews recreating the “lost” footage from Cruising to summon up a vanished underground, precisely to celebrate its shock value, or to help foster mainstream acceptance of gay sexuality? (All types of gay sexuality, presumably.)
Franco’s involvement in Interior. Leather Bar. has undoubtedly raised its profile. Franco-philes should know that this very busy Renaissance man doesn’t participate in any steamy man-on-man action here; he’s strictly a co-director and theoretician-in-chief, whereas it’s Mathews who is shown directing the actors who take part in the restaged leather-bar scenes. (Mathews led a group of unknown actors to credible performances in I Want Your Love, his one previous fiction feature.)
The actors in the Tom of Finland-style outfits here appear to be matter-of-fact professionals, and for them there’s nothing theoretical about their sexuality; two of the men are even a couple in real life. The exceptions to the gay cast members are first, a novice actor enlisted to play a drag queen, who — perhaps protesting too much — makes a point of saying that he came from his girlfriend’s bedroom when he got the call to audition.
But the real straight man here, in more ways than one, is Val Lauren, an actor buddy of Franco’s who is recruited to play “Steve,” the undercover cop who becomes increasingly flustered and confused as buff dudes in leather vests engage in an amyl nitrate–fueled bacchanal all around him.
As Interior. Leather Bar. unfolds, Franco and Mathews recede as the always-in-the-right-place cameras follow Lauren on and off the set, where he has to field phone calls from his uncertain wife and an associate who urges him to steer clear of “Franco’s faggot project.” Back on set, Lauren’s nice-guy demeanor gets more tentative as the other actors start having unsimulated sex. And when Franco gets called away from the set by an assistant, never to return, Lauren starts to look increasingly lost.
In the last mock-excerpt from the recreated Cruising that we see, Lauren starts to throw himself into the role of the undercover cop, bumping pecs with another sweaty guy on the dance floor. A coda that purports to be more fly-on-the-wall documentary footage finds Lauren getting into his car after the shoot and brooding there; it’s now 10 at night, two hours after he’d promised his wife he’d be home for dinner. Good lord.
By this point most viewers will, or should, have cottoned on that the “documentary” footage of Interior. Leather Bar. is more postmod gamesmanship. All the supposedly verité stuff we’ve seen was, if not explicitly scripted (though Mathews is credited with writing the screenplay), then at least carefully staged. The conversations may have been semi-improvised, but within set parameters. So take the line about “Franco’s faggot project” with the proverbial grain of salt — Interior. Leather Bar. was not a source of mass hetero anxiety in Hollywood after all.
It was all in the service of a meta exercise; the movie is a commentary on something, but what? Granted, Franco has drolly sent up his celeb status by having the cameras “capture” various players yammering about how the Franco name made Interior. Leather Bar. a project they just couldn’t turn down, despite its potential career- or marriage-wrecking properties.
It’s telling that only 15 minutes or so of Interior. Leather Bar. are devoted to recreating the OMG “lost” footage from Cruising; I assume Franco and Mathews realized there was no need to show any more. 1980 was a long time ago, and Jesse Helms has been dead for a while now, too. What X-rated kinkiness could have taken place in the missing footage that isn’t easily accessed with just a few mouse clicks today?
With the supposed shock value of whatever Friedkin filmed 35 years ago a non-issue today, Interior. Leather Bar. ultimately leaves us with pseudo-verité footage of Travis Mathews coaching actors as they prepare to have sex on camera (which at least one of the performers has done before), while James Franco bandies a few queer-theory catchphrases around, and actor Val Lauren plays an actor named “Val Lauren” who finds his hitherto-stolid hetero identity shaken during the Cruising-redux shoot. This strikes me as a less than shocking development in 2014.
It’s interesting to reflect that circa 1980, the premise of a straight New York cop questioning his sexual identity after being exposed to the city’s leather bars was thought to be so dramatic and disturbing that it could serve as the undercurrent of both a novel and then a movie adaptation.
But the point of Interior. Leather Bar. escapes me. I think we can dispense with the intellectual theorizing and meta-textual riffs — the reality of gay and lesbian couples winning the right to marry, and getting married all across the country, every day, is overthrowing that old heteronormative hegemony just fine.