The pop-art provocation Interior. Leather Bar., co-directed by James Franco and Travis Mathews, is a film within a film about the making of still another film. William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 thriller Cruising attracted criticism at the time of its release for its grim portrayal of the gay BDSM scene of the late 1970s, but has earned more respect in recent years for preserving a lost chapter of history. Interior. Leather Bar. also occupies a metatextual hall of mirrors where every image, no matter how distorted, looks an awful lot like James Franco.
Franco detractors will find ample ammunition for their hatred here, from Franco offhandedly referencing one of his Yale professors to numerous scenes of lead actor Val Lauren saying he doesn’t understand the project, but is plunging ahead out of respect for Franco’s artistry. There’s also a scene of gay extras cooing about how excited the gay community will be by the possibility of explicit gay sex scenes involving James Franco. Franco self-consciously emerges as the hero of his own film, a fearless creative revolutionary striking a major blow for the beauty and purity of explicit gay sex in all its forms—this despite being a huge heterosexual movie star who just starred in an enormous, family-friendly Disney film (Oz The Great And Powerful) that is referenced more than once.
In keeping with the retrospective embrace of Cruising, Franco and Mathews want to transform what was once considered a dark period in gay history and assimilation into something empowering, even beautiful. What Friedkin depicted as a gloomy dungeon of debauchery and self-degradation, Franco and Mathews want to portray as a garden of sensual delights. But Franco and Mathews’ ambitions go beyond that, imagining and embracing an even bolder, more incendiary vision of the BDSM scene than Friedkin was able to smuggle onscreen back in the prehistoric days of 1980.
Interior. Leather Bar. recounts Franco and Mathews’ attempts to film their imagining of the 40 minutes that were cut from Cruising for being overly explicit. As Franco states early in the film, he isn’t particularly interested in accurately re-creating the reality of those lost scenes, which constitute only a small percentage of Leather Bar’s hourlong running time. Rather, he’s interested in what the filming of those sequences says about the fluidity of human sexuality and how it relates to the existential condition of the actor, an enduring source of fascination for Franco. The film is obsessed with charting the places where acting ends and reality begins, and all the other places where they overlap.
In the Al Pacino role of the undercover cop who travels deep inside the BDSM scene in search of a murderer, Franco and Mathews have cast Val Lauren (who earlier this year played Sal Mineo for Franco in the biopic Sal), a heterosexual actor who announces up front that he doesn’t comprehend or like the project. Interior. Leather Bar. foregrounds Lauren’s discomfort. It plays up his concern that by appearing in a film with naked penises explicitly being sucked and caressed, he’s transgressing a personal and professional boundary.
What ultimately separates pornography from art? Is it simply a technical matter of penetration, or are there larger aesthetic and philosophical issues at play? Does un-simulated hardcore sex have a place outside pornography? How far has society evolved since Cruising, and does playing gay still have the stigma it once did? Interior. Leather Bar. addresses all of those questions and raises many more in its searching, inward-looking exploration of the complicated intersection of sexuality and performance, but it ultimately ends with a bit of a shrug. Lauren isn’t the only one who can’t figure out exactly what the film is trying to do or say, or whether there’s value in its eagerness to experiment and take chances without a grand thesis in mind.
Interior. Leather Bar.’s intriguing curiosity provides ample food for thought, in part because it’s the rare film that devotes much of its running time to its own principals discussing what, if anything, the film ultimately means. A supremely masturbatory endeavor that prominently features naked men actually masturbating, Interior. Leather Bar. is obsessed with itself and with its co-creator, but its fascination is understandable and even justified. Despite the title, the film’s real setting and subject is the interior of James Franco’s brain, and as always, it’s a fascinating, pretentious, messy, and often maddening place to be.