The controversy surrounding the 1980 film “Cruising” is by now very well known. Slapped with an X rating when first submitted to the MPAA due to graphic homosexual content, writer/director William Friedkin reportedly had to delete around forty minutes worth of footage in order to secure an R. According to him, that footage was entirely comprised of unsimulated sexual acts in the gay club sequences. “Interior. Leather Bar.,” a sixty-minute joint venture between directors James Franco and Travis Mathews, uses the idea of that missing forty minutes as a springboard for a cross between a reenactment and a “docufiction,” a relatively new name for an already-known genre. Essentially, the filmmakers, along with the rest of the cast and crew, play semi-fictionalized versions of themselves as they go through the very real process of casting and shooting a remake of that notorious missing footage.
The film, there can be no doubt, is intended to once again ignite debate over the use of graphic sexuality in mainstream moviemaking and whether or not such usage makes a movie pornographic. Neither Franco nor Mathews are shy about showing the audience full-frontal male nudity, and a handful of shots reveal obviously unsimulated acts of masturbation, fellatio, and frottage. For Mathews in particular, sex is familiar territory; his previous film, “I Want Your Love,” not screened theatrically except at several 2012 LGBT festivals, was even more explicit, showing very real acts of anal sex, analingus, and ejaculation. It was notoriously denied exemption from classification at the 2013 Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival, a decision that Franco joined Mathews in protesting. This in all likelihood accounts, at least in part, for why the two joined forces for “Interior. Leather Bar.”
My personal definition of pornography is any film in which scenes of intercourse are intended to overshadow every other aspect of the story (for those that actually bother to tell a story, and even then, they’re obvious parodies of mainstream movies or genres) and exist solely for the purpose of the viewer’s sexual gratification. Going with this, it’s my opinion that “Interior. Leather Bar.” is not pornographic. It is, in fact, an intriguing construct, simultaneously a backstage drama and an enigmatic character study. Its peek into the world of moviemaking is perhaps not as revealing as it should be, but then again, the filmmakers – or, more accurately, the dramatized versions of the filmmakers – are working to produce only forty minutes worth of footage as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Indeed, we can clearly see that their movie is shot in a tiny studio building somewhere within the apartment-strewn folds of North Hollywood. If you’re an Angelino or have ever lived in Los Angeles, you know what I’m talking about.
An anonymous young woman holding a handheld camera captures the behind-the-scenes material, which comprises the bulk of the movie. The usual stuff is documented – the filmmakers discussing their vision of the project to themselves and their actors, selected subjects auditioning for roles by looking directly into the camera, the application of makeup, blocking, and motivation. Cast as undercover cop Steve Burns, played by Al Pacino in “Cruising,” is Val Lauren, who (in both the movie and in real life) has known Franco for fifteen years and has worked with him several times, most recently in his Sal Mineo biopic “Sal.” We follow Lauren as he struggles to process what Franco and Mathews are doing and with whether or not he should be participating. Part of him supports their belief in artistic freedom. Another part of him doesn’t think graphic intercourse is anything but pornography. Still another part of him isn’t thrilled with the idea of unsimulated gay sex, even if it’s just between actors.
At least, he says he isn’t thrilled. I think part of what Franco and Mathews were aiming for was to make the fictionalized version of Lauren just as much of an enigma as the Steve Burns character from “Cruising.” In that film, it was implied (albeit not very convincingly, and against what was revealed in the final act) that Burns was in fact the homophobic killer he was sent undercover to catch. In “Interior. Leather Bar.,” it’s implied that Lauren is closeted – or, to be as fair as possible, somewhat bi-curious. A married man, he will argue against the value of the material to Franco yet speak in defense of Franco’s position during a phone conversation to an unseen friend, who refers to the movie within the movie as the “Franco faggot project.” The most intriguing scene has Lauren conversing with an actor sitting in a makeup chair. Lauren asks him several suggestive questions, including if he’s gay (he isn’t), if he has ever played a gay character, and how he feels about being in physical contact with other men.
Probably the most fascinating scene delves into the realm of metafiction, which might have been a better direction to take the entire film. As Lauren sits against a wall in a parking lot, he reads aloud from the script in his lap: “Val sits against a wall in a parking lot. The script is in his lap. He reads to himself. Interior, leather bar....” To be sure, two brief sequences do show a final edited version of that very interior scene, and the predominately gay actors are appropriately attired. The music throbs. A dim blue light cuts through a fog of cigarette smoke as the men dance and kiss, among other things. Thirty-four years have passed since the release of “Cruising,” which is to say that “Interior. Leather Bar.” is far less likely to provoke the same level of controversy. Nevertheless, it will keep the discussion over the validity of graphic sex as a storytelling device open.