Film Review: Interior. Leather Bar.A truly one-of-a-kind project from James Franco & Co. seriously, intelligently and movingly addresses sexuality in film in the most singular and specialized of contexts.
Lost footage from beloved films are a major source of obsession and fantasizing among true movie buffs. I've heard there is someone out there who actually claims to own those many crucial scenes which were tragically cut from George Cukor's masterpiece, A Star is Born, after its initial long roadshow presentation, and I myself would kill to see the original, superior director's cut of Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift, or find the precious excised moments from Orson Welles' brilliant The Magnificent Ambersons. With Interior. Leather Bar., James Franco and writer/co-director Travis Mathews have really gone the limit, actually trying to reimagine and film the footage which was cut from William Friedkin's notorious 1980 thriller Cruising, which was about a cop (Al Pacino) going undercover in Manhattan's gay nightlife scene to find the serial killer of a number of homosexuals. To gain an R rating, some 40 minutes of graphic S&M sex were supposedly cut from the film, and so the filmmakers set about finding the actors to recreate them for this singular docudrama.
It's a crazy, envelope-pushing mission Franco and Mathews are on, and after a screening at a gay film festival in New York this summer, I was disappointed by the majority reaction of those present, many of whom were puerilely disappointed that Franco did not himself doff trou and get busy on the set in a sexual manner. When asked why he's doing this, Franco says in the film that he's sick of having society tell him what's right and wrong, especially when it comes to sex, and that most representations of sex onscreen are false and should be more honestly portrayed on film. It's an admirable goal, and Franco, who is pretty much publicly identified as heterosexual, should be applauded, not denigrated, for his efforts. With this, his porn-industry doc Kink and vociferous support of Mathews' controversial I Want Your Love, he is really trying to pull American cinema, not to mention mores, out of a puritanical stranglehold regarding any kind of sex and the nudity double-standard reticence about displaying the penis, which has existed since the Victorian age and subsequent Hays Code stifling.
Franco casts a friend, Val Lauren, as Pacino. Lauren, who is something of a Franco muse having also appeared in the title role of his Sal, is memorably sensitive and vulnerable, wanting to not only do the right thing by his buddy but also advance his career as much as possible, all the while riddled with doubt. As he tries to wrap his head around having male-to-male sex acts and genitalia pushed into his face, he must also deal with the doubting words of his wife—who is awaiting him for a special celebratory dinner after the day's shoot—and what appears to be an agent, wondering what the hell he's doing. Indeed, as much as anything else, the film is a marvelously accurate and moving portrait of any actor's life, with all of its promise and pitfalls. Interviews with the various actors auditioning for the film, which range from deeply hesitant to completely comfortable, contribute to this portrait, and it's telling that, to a man, their top priority is the chance to work with Franco, whatever the project.
The sex scenes are indeed graphic but, for all of their sadomasochistic content, surprisingly not exploitative and, even more surprisingly, rather sweet. The love shared by a leather couple is palpable, and goes a long way to breaking down any reservations Lauren might have initially felt about the movie. The 60-minute film ends on a startlingly poignant grace note, involving that dinner for Val and his mate. I only wish that the filmmakers' vision had included some mention of the uproar the original movie's production caused in the New York gay community back in 1980, inciting intense protests, if only in the interest of historical verisimilitude.