Interior. Leather Bar.
Directed by James Franco and Travis Mathews
60 min, USA, 2013
It’s a testament to the intelligence and seriousness of co-directors James Franco and Travis Matthews that I don’t know where to begin talking about this galvanizing hour-long gay-sex-explicit experimental film. (It’s low-rated pretty much everywhere.) I could say it’s an extension of the work done in the 70s and 80s by Mark Rappaport, but rather than fictionalizing a film persona via modes of essay, documentary and deconstruction, Interior. Leather Bar. does that work on an apocryphal 40-minute piece of discarded footage culled from a seminal and controversial film called Cruising, you might have heard of it.
Here, Franco talks about William Friedkin’s film with lead actor Val Lauren, who’s playing himself playing Al Pacino who was playing a cop gone undercover in a 70s NYC gay S&M bar. I think Franco’s interpretation is wrong, and an actor in Interior. Leather Bar. thinks so, too, but I don’t think Franco would mind the disagreement. The film’s form allows for all sorts of contradictions and disputations, with its layers of representation and the intercutting of scripted documentary segments with unscripted ones with still more intercutting with the titular scene in its final form. There are shots of Lauren perusing the script that are being shot by a series of cameras in progressive distance from the subject, so which one is the real shot?
It seems like everyone has a camera in I.LB., and representation itself, how it’s constructed through ideology and repetition, through objects and acts, is just one subject this film explores in a material way. One of the film’s more radical shots is one in which a gay male couple, boyfriends in real life, have non-simulated sex on a couch while they’re getting filmed by various camera operators — a young woman with a pocket video camera, by the director and by Franco, who stands over them fully-clothed with a more professional digital video camera.
Why is it radical? It’s not because of the non-simulated sex, which we’ve already seen in Matthews’ own insufferable and hermetic I Want Your Love and in Shortbus, and not really because sex should be used as a story-telling tool, as Franco says in the film, even though it should, but because a straight male actor who does Disney and Spider-man films is using it to not just interrogate the representation of desire outside of himself and in film history, but to upset his own normative identity and expectations, to find something “beautiful and attractive” in what he’s seeing, in watching two men fuck. And he does. He also pushes the straight actors on-set to do the same, not least Val Lauren, who quite naturally has his own rather radical observations on what he’s participating in, as well as plenty of understandable confusion. The scene in which Lauren and a group of gay actors get together and talk about that is one of the more valuable ones in the film. Gay men and straight men just do not very often have real conversations in the movies
Interior. Leather Bar. is the sort of radical work that all self-identified straight artists should be doing right now, in their own ways. Not to face the demands of a particular historical moment and of all art’s responses to that is not just to forsake an opportunity but to ignore a moral imperative. That so few straight artists, writers and filmmakers are even able to represent gay men with authenticity and empathy points out how far we really have to go. I’ve been saying for a few years now that homophobia will not end until straight men see gay men as men first and can identify with same-sex desires as normal desires on a continuum of masculine sexuality. Gay men should do the same. This film is a powerful and humble step in the right direction. It’s also fun and funny, so don’t be afraid of it.