Acclaimed actor/filmmaker James Franco has an issue with gay sex in film, but it is not what you think. Franco is tired of the fact that only heterosexual intimacy is shown in mainstream films. Furthermore he is bothered by the fact that he, and most people for that matter, have been raised from a young age to believe that this is the only type of sexual intimacy that is acceptable and “normal.” Aided by fellow director Travis Mathews, Franco embarks on an experiment that will test the limits of art, audiences, and most importantly his crew.
Taking its inspiration from William Friedkin’s 1980 thriller Cruising, Interior. Leather Bar. is based on a simple “what if” premise. Franco and Mathews ponder what the rumoured 40 minutes of controversial footage, which was cut out of Cruising in order to get an R rating, might have looked like and set out to recreate those moments. However, not everyone agrees that this experiment is a good idea. In fact the majority of the actors casted to re-imagine the scenes, including Val Lauren in a leading role once played by Al Pacino, question if Franco’s vision will be interpreted as nothing more than gay pornography. The fact that the film does not have a full script does little to quell their fears. Despite the reservations of the crew, Franco is determined to see the project through to the end even if it may jeopardize his career in the process.
It is Franco’s determination that makes Interior. Leather Bar. such an interesting and frustrating film. The notion that there needs to be a revolution in regards to the way we think about and consume sex on screen is a valid point. It is odd that in an age when gay marriage is far more accepted than when Cruising was originally released images of tender intimacy between two men or two women are still considered taboo. The problem with Franco’s plight is that the project was ignited from a sincere place, but the execution feels alarming false.
There is a manipulative aspect to the film that Franco and Mathews take great pleasure in exploiting. Mathews will interrupt conversations between actors to instruct them as to what questions they should “casually” ask in their discourse. There is a constant awareness of the camera being present at all times, even in the film within a film moments. This creates a level of disconnect with the audience that Interior. Leather Bar. never seems to resolve. The divide is extremely noticeable when Franco and Mathews incorporate footage of the sex scenes they shot into the documentary. The scenes are explicit and leave the viewer feeling cold as it is clear Franco was purely aiming for shock value. It is one thing to want to show graphic sex on screen, but it is only impactful if it fits with the characters. Unfortunately we rarely get to know either the characters or the actors portraying them.
At one point Lauren, who is a longtime friend, questions Franco on why he would take a risk making such a film when he has ties to Disney? This is an obvious reference to Franco’s work in the smash hit Oz the Great and Powerful, which was likely filming at the same time. His response comes off more as an act of defiance than a true logical argument. Franco remarks that the fact that he can make a Disney film and make a gay sex scene is exactly why he is doing the project. The flaw with this point is that Franco’s career is not ever really at risk.
For all the talk of what the project will mean for Franco’s career, his Disney fan base is completely different from the small section of people who would have actively searched for the film. Most of his young fanbase would not have heard of Cruising to begin with. While Franco’s name helped to get both the project and this documentary made, it becomes apparent that it is the rest of the cast that have the most to lose. Lauren and the rest of the actors are the ones whose faces are in front of the camera.
Interior. Leather Bar. is a documentary that wants to educate through reflecting Lauren’s uneasiness, and presumably the audience’s as well, back on them. However, the most effective moment in the film arrives when the film drops the artifice and just focuses on Franco and Lauren having a frank discussion about the issue at hand. The scene works extremely well as it comes right after the two men have witnessed a graphic scene firsthand. While it would be nice to believe that Franco and Lauren’s facial reactions are genuine, the audience can never be sure of anything in the documentary.
The problem with Interior. Leather Bar. is that the artistic manipulations detract from what could have otherwise been a really compelling commentary on society and sexuality. At times the film feels more like an artistic exercise rather than something striving for importance. Interior. Leather Bar. is a film that has a lot to say about sex, gender, and film. It is just unfortunate, and frustrating, that the audience must rummage through artistic liberties in order to figure out what Franco is really trying to saying.