Interior. Leather Bar.
Dirs: Travis Mathews & James Franco
Cert:18 • US: 60 min • RabbitBandini Productions • January 19, 2013
I finally got to see Interior. Leather Bar after following its journey and reception at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and chatting electronically to the film’s director, Travis Mathews during that whole wild experience. Its screening at the LLGFF is the first time it has been shown in the UK and also its first in a specifically queer context. Interior. Leather Bar seeks to re-imagine the ‘lost’ 40 minutes from William Friedkin’s film Cruising, cut in order to secure a general cinema release. What’s caused much of the publicity garnered so far has been because of the involvement of American film actor and star, James Franco. The film itself, which teases and plays around with the audience’s expectations, anticipates many of the reactions to Franco’s involvement – the inevitable questions about his own sexuality, puzzlement at why he would want to engage with the original, controversial, material, and whether Franco himself would be participating. The actors all sit around discussing Franco, as they try to figure out what it is they’ve signed up for and are preparing for action.
The action involves real gay sex, but Travis Mathews, whose filming of sex in I Want Your Love caught Franco’s attention in the first place and lead to their collaboration here, makes the film about so much more than that. In fact, you see very little sex at all. Rather, the film examines the politics of what it means to film and show and watch sex, outside of a framework of pornography. The narrative sets up questions around freedom of expression, individual and societal homophobia, and anxieties about depicting sex generally, so that the sex itself, when it happens, becomes an embodiment of those issues. As James Franco himself says at one point, “sex is who we are and should be used to tell stories”. The sex in Interior. Leather Bar is a narrative tool used to tell the story of the making of the film itself.
The movie starts with a brief discussion from Franco and Mathews about the notion of gay marriage leading to an assimilation of a queer lifestyles that, in effect, neutralises them. The leather scene and BDSM that are explored and, ultimately, condemned in Cruising, are here celebrated and re-evaluated as important spaces of desire that shouldn’t be lost.
It becomes apparent, as the movie progresses, that the central participants are playing versions of themselves – James Franco is ‘James Franco’ – and that what at first appear to be spontaneous conversations, responses, and action, are set-up, semi-scripted, and often explicitly directed. Mathews undermines and reveals the tricks and techniques of documentary filmmaking and the conventions of cinema verité in a playful manner, reinforcing them as conventions while making us question everything we see. Franco’s friend and fellow actor Val Lauren plays ‘Val Lauren’ playing ‘Al Pacino’ playing ‘Steve Burns.’ In a scene straight out of an Italo Calvino novel, Lauren at one point sits in the parking lot, the script on his lap, and reads to himself, “Val sits in the parking lot, the script in his lap. He reads to himself.” At other times his expressions of anxiety about being a straight guy participating in what his agent calls ‘The Franco faggot project’ are revealed to be set up for the camera – and not just one camera, there are many layers of filming going on here, many layers of reality.
This also raises questions about whether it’s ever possible to film ‘real’ sex, and therefore about the performativity of sexuality itself. The outfits, the paraphernalia, the aesthetic, of the leather and BDSM scenes, all point to a self-aware sexuality that is about role-play and trust – to what extent are we all actors in our sexual lives, learning to trust and push our boundaries? This is an avowedly self-conscious meta-movie but that doesn’t mean it’s not involving, and it’s also often very funny. There may well be people disappointed not to see more sex, and for it to go further in terms of its depictions of BDSM, but that’s why this isn’t pornography – its purpose is not just to get you off but, like the best sex, the film affects you and stays with you afterwards.
Having said all that, the moments in the movie when we get the film-within-the-film, their re-imagined version of what Friedkin shot, are very slick, and undeniably hot. The men are very sexy, but their bodies are more ‘real’ than porno, something Mathews has always sought to do in his films. The other central theme that permeates so much of his work, that of intimacy, becomes here about the bonding and trust that is necessary in the process of having, filming, and witnessing sex. This is something that applies to those on-screen and us, the audience. Franco says, “Everyone watches porn but no one fucking admits it”. Here, we forced to, but the collective experience makes it strangely liberating.
Financial and time constraints meant that Mathews and Franco were limited to one day’s shooting and a finished film that comes in at just 60 minutes That’s a shame because I would have loved more of all of this – more sweaty, oiled-up guys dancing to techno-rock, more frightened straights discussing how far they would or wouldn’t go, more of the debate around sexual and artistic freedom, more discussion of the assimilation of queerness. What’s really interesting though, is that Mathews has queered filmmaking itself here, pulling it from the straight with his playful subversions. That’s a more sophisticated and genuinely creative response to Friedkin’s mythical lost footage than simply re-creating it, and the result is a much better, more convincing, piece of art.