Sometimes it’s difficult to work out what’s going through the head of James Franco. There’s some evidence in Interior. Leather Bar that Franco isn’t sure himself, but that he’d sure like to find out.
First some background. In 1980 Al Pacino starred in Cruising, with The Exorcist’s William Friedkin directing. The movie sees Al as a cop who is tasked with going undercover into the New York S&M scene, where a gay serial killer is lurking. At first he hates it, but soon a strange fascination grows.
Even before it was made, the movie was met with protests from gay groups, worried about how it would stereotype and demonise their community. It’s also rumoured that Friedkin shot 40 minutes of S&M footage that had to be cut from the movie so it didn’t get an X rating.
The basis of Interior. Leather Bar, which is partway between documentary, art piece and fictional movie, is that Franco and I Want Your Love filmmaker Travis Mathews are collaborating on a piece to recreate those lost 40 minutes. However rather than just showing us that, the film is about the making of it and the attitudes of those involved.
Actor Val Lauren, who Franco cast in the lead role in his biopic of Rebel Without A Cause actor Sal Mineo, is brought in to play the Pacino role. He’s unsure about what’s going on or what Franco is trying to say with the piece – he’s just trusting that James has a point and it’s worth exploring. His boundaries are certainly tested as the straight, married actor is asked not just to participate in a gay nightclub scene, but to watch unsimulated gay sex.
As well as Lauren, the film looks at others who’ve decided to participate, some of whom are straight, some gay, some there simply because of Franco, others see it as a career opportunity, while a few just think the whole idea is hot.
The film is an odd beast, as while it does incorporate some of the 40 minutes of footage they’re supposedly recreating, it largely comes across as a behind-the-scenes documentary. However it’s not a straightforward one, as the filmmakers constantly hint that things aren’t as they appear and that everything is far more scripted and planned out than they initially seem. It’s a little frustrating, as it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not.
It also slightly undermines things. Much of the ‘point’ of the movie seems to be about straight people challenging their limits and their comfort about the boundaries of sex – and even whether it’s worth putting gay sex on screen at all. Franco talks about how he’s frustrated by what he perceives as the conditioning he’s faced to be squeamish about gay sex, and he wants to challenge that. Lauren isn’t so sure. However, if the whole thing is more set up than it’s presented, it’s difficult not to wonder whether you’re watching something that doesn’t really reflect the issues they’re talking about, just their ideas about them. It’s a pretentious edge that’s interesting but rather problematic.
The result is that you almost have to treat it like a self-reflexive play. It’s certainly interesting and brings up plenty of ideas, but if we can take it at face value that Franco was hoping this film would uncover its own meaning as they made it and allow him to understand more about sexuality and on-screen sex, it’s perhaps not as successful as he’d hoped. There’s no real illumination beyond raising the issues, partly because the half fact/half fiction set-up means it’s difficult to trust it. Is this really what people think, or just what they’ve been told to think because Franco and co-director Travis Mathews think it’s more interesting?
I also couldn’t help but think they slightly missed the point with Cruising. Interior Leather Bar treats it like it was the sex that was the only problem with the film, and why both the censors cut it and gay groups protested it (fearful it would put people off because they don’t like that thing). However the problem was more the linking of gay sexuality, sado-masochism and a serial killer, and it is certainly is an issue. Even now when watching the film, its merging of queer sexuality and violence is rather unsettling, as Pacino’s character goes on a journey that almost suggests him being recruited to being gay and that this inevitably means being enticed by a type of S&M that’s one step away from getting off on murder.
It’s more the ipso facto nature of both Cruising and the short story it’s based on that gay people had a problem with, but Interior Leather Bar rather over-simplifies things. Indeed, that’s probably the main issue with the whole thing – it’s a movie that thinks it’s thinking deeper than it actually is. Indeed, it isn’t even sure how to deal with the fact that sex on screen and gay sex on screen both have issues, and not all of them overlap. However Interior Leather Bar never really unravels that. While Mathews is a fascinating filmmaker, here he seems slightly infected with Franco’s slightly sophomoric thought process. It might have been better if Travis could have led James a little more, to take the film to deeper and more interesting places.
It’s not a complete failure, as it certainly holds your interest and gets you thinking. It’s just that the thinking of the film itself doesn’t go very far.
Overall Verdict: An interesting experiment and Franco should be applauded for taking the risk, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling this is a film and subject that could have been far deeper and to more profound places than it does. As it stands, Interior Leather Bar has a slight film student self-satisfaction (not least the post-modern self-referential aspects) that doesn’t seem to realise it doesn’t really have all that much to say. It relies instead on the audience doing their own work.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac