What happens when heartthrob James Franco teams up with gay filmmaker Travis Mathews to recreate the lost 40-minutes of the 80s queer classic Cruising? Well, what does not happen is a world-premiere. Despite its Sundance premiere, and having generated some buzz as the “James Franco does gay porn thingy”, Interior. Leather Bar went straight to video after its small festival circuit. Maybe Franco should have taken his clothes off for the cause, after all?
When William Friedkin shot Cruising back in the 80s, having high-profile Al Pacino play the straight undercover cop that needs to mingle into the S&M gay community, he managed to provoke the anger of both the gay community (which saw the film as homophobic) and the ratings board, who allegedly said there weren’t enough XXX’s in the alphabet to rate the movie. Franco, looking to explore and expand his own boundaries and start a debate about creative art vs censorship, invited filmmaker Travis Mathews (who recently saw his feature I Want Your Love being refused an exempt from classification for the screening at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, because of its explicit gay sex scenes) to recreate the 40 minutes that were cut from the original film. But this is no recreation exercise – in a strange docudrama where fiction and reality have no clear boundaries, we watch as Val Lauren, playing Al Pacino and looking just as uncomfortable as him with all the queerness and naked men around him, (sticks to the project because of his friend Franco, even if he himself does not know what’s the real point of it).
A film about filmmaking, celebrity and homophobia, Interior. Leather Bar is not for the faint-hearted. Filmed with semi-professional cameras, it has all the characteristics of a documentary, but when we’re almost sure of it, it suddenly throws its stagey nature to our face. We do have 10 minutes of recreated footage, which includes scenes of explicit oral sex and some vanilla S&M, as well as some cringe-worthy moments with Val. At the end he appears undecided between his professionalism as an actor and the value of the project in front of him for his career. Franco is a red-herring, though – he is seen with a camera on his hands, or playing with his smartphone on the background, but his reaction to the shoot is never dwelt upon, and apart from delivering a speech about his intent – the defense of sex as a storytelling tool – he is very much absent, leaving the floor to Lauren and Mathews.
It may be lacking some actual exploration of the themes and motifs that it touches, but Interior. Leather Bar is nonetheless a very interesting look about a subject – the real depiction of sex – that is becoming more and more preeminent in mainstream cinema, and is undoubtedly the flavour of the month after films like Nymphomaniac and Strangers By the Lake. Just don’t watch it hoping to see Franco’s shirtless, and you’ll be fine.