James Franco and Travis Mathews explore the issue of sexuality on film with their latest experimental project, Interior. Leather Bar. What we have here is a film that may have seemed interesting on paper, but the execution is incredibly flawed. James Franco has done some memorable projects lately, immersing himself in many artistic endeavors. However, Interior. Leather Bar. proves to be a colossal misstep.
When William Friedkin’s Cruising was released in 1980, it sparked a controversy that has marked the film to this very day. It’s unrelentingly gritty portrayal of the homosexual underworld of leather bars – used as a backdrop for a serial killer plot – arrived at a time when the gay rights movement was underway. Many felt that the film was a major step in the wrong direction, and no matter how Friedkin tries to explain this away, the gay community was right. The film, while campy and ridiculous, is also incredibly repellant and offensive. Homosexuals are presented as perverted deviants, and a pervasive sense of disgust hangs over the entire film. After Cruising appeared in theatres, several instances of homophobic crimes were reported. If you see Cruising, you will quickly understand how this film could do major damage by falling into the wrong hands. The picture that it paints of the gay lifestyle is anything but progressive.
Cruising was also plagued with issues in regards to the MPAA. According to certain sources, forty minutes of explicit homosexual activity were cut from the film before it was unleashed onto the public.
Years later, James Franco and Travis ￼Mathews have attempted to recreate that missing footage in all of its unsimulated glory. At least that’s what they say they are going to do, but at the end of the day, Interior. Leather Bar. lacks the courage of its convictions. Really, the whole film is just an excuse for James Franco to rant and rave about American attitudes towards sex in cinema. While he makes some interesting points, his logic is severely flawed. Instead of tons of fake violence plaguing the screens, Franco insists that we replace all of that CGI carnage with real sex. Not the kind of simulated sex that you are used to seeing on screen. Real people really getting it on. This seems to be an appropriate alternative to all of that Michael Bay excess. Franco argues that this should be the mainstream standard. Liberals, guess what? You’re not liberal enough unless you are comfortable with actual penetration on the big screen. This is Franco’s whole argument – and it reeks of pretension. Sure, some European filmmakers do in fact use unsimulated sex scenes in their films. Granted, we’ve probably seen more of it than we think we have. The difference is simply this: they’re not rubbing our faces in it for the sake of feeling superior – and when it is respectfully done in this way, that’s totally fine by me. I’m the guy who loved Nymphomaniac, after all. I am anything but squeamish. However, when you set out to make your audience feel like a bunch of prudes because they’re not used to it or don’t care to see this type of material regularly, you risk looking like an asshole and you lose that audience. Franco and Mathews seem to think that there is much depth to be added to the story onscreen through the use of unsimulated sex. Note to Franco and Mathews: they call it “acting” for a reason. If we’re going to apply that twisted logic to sexual activity, we may as well say the same about violent content. Perhaps real acts of cannibalism were needed to give The Silence of the Lambs that extra oomph? According to Franco’s current mindset, he probably wouldn’t find this ridiculous at all.
During the film, an actor friend of Franco’s, Val Lauren, is commissioned to play the part of Pacino in the recreated forty minutes of Cruising. During the entire sixty minute film, Lauren struggles with the whole point of this exercise. His personal convictions are casually shrugged off and scoffed at by Franco at every turn. A scene in which Franco and Lauren watch as a gay couple engage in oral sex in front of several cameras is incredibly awkward, not so much because of what is going on, but because these two visibly uncomfortable men have allowed themselves to be exploited for Franco’s personal quest for God knows what. I find this just as offensive – if not more-so – than Cruising. And speaking of those lost forty minutes, what little we do see is relatively tame. Franco talks a big game throughout the entire film, but uncharacteristically backs out at the last minute.
Interior. Leather Bar. is a hybrid of fiction and documentary that does offer some interesting commentary, most of which comes from the gay and straight actors who have volunteered to be a part of this project. They discuss their comfort levels with certain activities, and try to figure out what exactly they are supposed to be doing and why. No one seems to know what in the world is going on. But, even so, there is James Franco leering in the background, sporting a childish grin as he surely believes that he is enlightening us all.
I’m calling bullshit on the whole thing.