The title of James Franco and Travis Matthews’s Interior. Leather Bar refers to a scene heading in a script. That script may be from the 1980′s William Friedkin cult classic Cruising, as the filmmakers shallowly explain their intent to create roughly 40 minutes of footage that was cut from that film. If you’re not familiar with Cruising, don’t worry, it’s not necessary, as Franco and Matthews aren’t really interested in the movie so much as in understanding why we consider some things taboo and what being exposed to those taboo things does to our understanding and possible appreciation of them.
But a little background is warranted, as is a bit of fair warning. Cruising starred Al Pacino as an undercover cop who tracks a serial killer into a leather-filled gay subculture. Pacino’s character must blend into the S&M scene, which becomes almost too much for him to handle as he is confronted with a lifestyle that flies in the face of what he is comfortable with. The film was very controversial in its time, and purportedly the MPAA forced Friedkin to cut scenes that showed graphic depictions of hardcore gay sex. Today, Cruising is much less a controversy as it is a time-capsule of society’s views of homosexuality in a pre-AIDS, Reagan-esque era, although, to be clear, those views are less presented in the actual film and more in the media coverage surrounding the film.
Simply reshooting some of the hardcore scenes from a 1980′s thriller doesn’t have an artistic merit without some sort of thesis behind it, but then again, Franco and Matthews are smarter than that. It may be easy to dismiss the film as an exploitative exercise, but it very quickly becomes clear that the filmmakers are after a much grander idea. Interior. Leather Bar pretends to be a “behind-the-scenes” documentary about the filming of the infamous 40 minutes, but it’s actually a cleverly staged production that pits its main character, Val (Val Lauren), against himself and his comfort levels surrounding sexuality and creativity, and in the process, creates a surrogate for the audience to question our own ideas of what is art.
Much has been said about Franco and his artistic pursuits, but this film helps the actor/director/poet/artist/<insert additional hyphenate> spell out some clear ideas, and certainly left me more satisfied than his prior films. With Interior. Leather Bar, Franco proves his value as an artist by not only finding a voice, but succeeding in using the medium to illustrate a complex idea. By manipulating the narrative through a mockumentary device, the film has us questioning what we are seeing, what’s real and what’s scripted. It’s an affective way to put us into the mind of the character Val, in part because we never really know if Val’s reactions are honest or performed.
Franco and Matthews may be asking, in a round about way, what affect leaving those cut 40 minutes of Cruising in the original film would have had on the audience, but history has certainly demonstrated that the 1980′s viewing public couldn’t have handled what Franco and Matthews are presenting here, and by presenting it now, it begs the question of whether audiences can handle it even today. At one point in Interior. Leather Bar, Franco monologues about why certain things, and specifically gay sex, can’t be in films but graphic violence can. It’s a valid argument, but one that is loosing ground due to society’s changing views on sexuality and creative expression (a changing view that has been brought about, in part, by art and film). But it doesn’t change the fact that what we see here is graphic and certainly not for everyone.
The argument of pornography vs. art has been around and will likely be with us for some time, and one can certainly refute Franco’s claim that gay sex isn’t shown in films today (hell, both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were nominated for Oscars in roles that depicted gay sex in a mainstream film). But in the end, what Interior. Leather Bar may be remembered for is its depiction of actual, and not simulated, gay sex on film, and not remembered for its artistic expression and innovative presentation. Does the presentation of actual depictions of sex, whether gay or straight, diminish or add value to the art? Sadly, that is a question the film fails to answer, but it will undoubtedly be on the minds of audiences as they exit this movie. But one thing’s for sure: by forcing audiences to witness what Val is actually witnessing, Franco and Matthews are making sure we confront our notions of what is acceptable to watch or even partake in. How you end up viewing the film is as much a part of your answer to that question as it is to any other in the film, and that speaks of true art.