In 1980, William Friedkin, probably best known for directing The Exorcist, made a thriller that is set in New York’s gay and fetish scene and deals with a psychopathic killer who chooses his victims in darkrooms. Al Pacino plays a straight undercover cop who immerses himself into the gay scene in search of the murderer. Though filmed with the support of local Manhattan gay bars, certain activists smelled homophobic undertones in the script and tried to interrupt and prevent the shooting of the film. When the film was eventually released, 40 sexually explicit minutes of Cruising were cut and are still kept under wraps by the production company today. More than 30 years later, filmmakers Travis Mathews and James Franco had the idea of reconstructing the missing material according to their imagination. The result can be seen at this year’s Berlin Porn Film Festival. Interior. Leather Bar. is a bold experiment and a film that defies many definitions and might disappoint conventional expectations – despite its explicit sex scenes.
Let’s start with the question of genre. Originally called James Franco’s 40 Minutes the film is definitely not a reconstruction of all missing scenes from Cruising, although it contains elements that would seamlessly fit into the original. Since we constantly see Franco and Mathews on the set and hear the actors discuss the shoot and their expectations, you might call it a documentary, or rather a making-of of the very film we are watching. When it comes to the main protagonist Val who is supposed to be the original Al Pacino character, the lines between non-fiction and fiction are blurred. At one point we see him contemplating over the screenplay and then suddenly hear the word “Cut!” which turns this observational moment into a staged fiction. It make us wonder: is that ambiguously straight actor, Val, who just signed on to the project because of James Franco really who we think he is, or is it an actor playing a ambiguously straight actor?
Interior. Leather Bar. starts with a discussion between Travis Mathews and James Franco in a hotel room in Hollywood where Franco talks about the book “The Trouble with Normal” by his former professor Michael Warner (please keep in mind that James Franco is not only a Hollywood actor, indie-director, painter, poet, host, and gay rights activist, but also a scholar). And that brings us to a point that would be best described as “The Trouble with Franco”: why do queers need a questionably straight or asexual celebrity as a spokesperson against the normalising and oppressive social forces that govern our sexuality? The answer is: they don’t. And the film is clever enough to include discussions of some gay performers about exactly that controversy in the film. While one guy hopes to “make out with Franco” another one anticipates the critique that many gay critics had after the film was first released this year at the Sundance Film Festival and later at the Berlinale.
So far, we have a film that is neither a clear documentary nor pure fiction film, neither a reconstruction of 40 lost minutes nor a pure making-of, and on top of that we have a film which includes its own discourse into its narrative. Moreover, Interior. Leather Bar. is not a gay film, but in many ways a sort of twisted investigation into the mechanisms of straight actors and straight Hollywood. We see gay director Travis Mathews, known for his In Their Room films and his feature debut I Want Your Love, carefully direct a hot gay couple’s sex scene while the straight-playing actor, Franco, and some other crew members watch the scene with mix of fascination and bewilderment. All of a sudden we have the most interesting setting that might also be the key to Franco’s weird association with gay-themed art and film. The gay sex objects, that in many areas of life are still a niche group that are legally and socially discriminated against, are not only the centre of everyone’s attention, but also the focal point of a form of non-normative sexuality that the straight world might envy because it doesn’t understand their mechanisms, codes and subcultural references.
And this is where a circle to the original Cruising closes: fascinated by the seemingly wild and untamed, forbidden, and dirty darkrooms of the gay New York cruising scene, Friedkin used the queer spaces of the minorities as an allegory of the enigmatically forbidden and sometimes deathly. Gays at the time saw the public image of homosexuals dragged through the mud and yet the film company wouldn’t release the images that expressed the freedom of un-normal underground sex. Interior. Leather Bar. reflects this scenario in its own narrative and incorporates enough twists and alienating formal ideas that the idea of a destabilisation comes to an almost perfect end. When the screen tests of the gay protagonists cruising the camera end the film, the audience becomes the direct object of that sexual gay appeal and finds itself in the awkward position of having to react to something that it felt safe to watch from a distance.
Interior. Leather Bar., USA 2013, 60 min.
director: Travis Mathews (with James Franco), cinematography: Keith Wilson, protagonists: Val Lauren, James Franco, Travis Mathews, Brenden Gregory, Brad Roberge, Collin Chavez, languages: English, distribution: Pro Fun Media
Interior. Leather Bar.: Friday, Oct 25, 3pm; Sunday Oct 27th, 3 pm at Porn Film Festival at Moviemento
Cruising, USA 1980, 102 min.: Thursday Oct 24, 10 pm; Sunday Oct 27th, 1 pm at Porn Film Festival at Moviemento