Interior. Leather Bar. (2013) ****
Dir. James Franco, Travis Mathews
Starring: James Franco, Val Lauren, Travis Mathews
Review By Greg Klymkiw
This is one sloppy tossed salad of a movie. Adorned with thick runny lumps of yummy dressing that spew from a long-necked bottle, held and shaken with manly vigour over the wide awaiting receptacle, never mixed or smeared into the veins of fleshy arugula, lying in wait for a fork to prong into it to greedily ingest the globules that stick upon their resting place, this magnificent Salade de cinéma is an utterly pretentious, self-indulgent wank-fest of the highest (or lowest order, depending on how you view these things).
And Damn! It's a lot of fun.
James Franco, one of the great actors of the 21st century, teamed up with acclaimed queer filmmaker Travis Mathews to co-direct this exploration of gay male sexuality within the context of re-imagining 40 minutes of excised lost footage from Cruising, William Friedkin's MPAA-butchered masterpiece from 1980. A lack of time and money, however, forced the filmmakers of Interior. Leather Bar. to re-imagine their re-imagining, so what we're treated to is a documentary about the making of a re-imagining as re-imagined by Franco and Mathews before, during and after they re-imagine it.
Fine by me.
Franco, who seems particularly obsessed with what he might discover for (and about) himself (and, by extension, society as a whole), hires a straight actor (Val Lauren) to play the Al Pacino role from Cruising and film the entire process. Lauren and Franco engage in a series of conversations that feel very real (but conversely seem, perhaps, to be scripted) and deal with straight attitudes to gay sex in the world at large, but also within the macrocosmic context of the film-shoot itself. Lauren is constantly on edge and always questioning Franco's motives while Franco often retorts with the notion of how sexuality in the cinema (and in particular, gay sexuality) is repressed, while violence is celebrated. (Indeed, the MPAA ratings board were happy to allow all the graphic butchery to remain in the film over the explicit gay sex.)
Furthermore, Franco laments his upbringing (and that of straight society) which ignores, represses and/or vilifies gay sexuality. He uses toothpaste commercials to illustrate this. I mean, really, what's not to love about James Franco?
Cruising is the perfect launch pad for this exploration. The film was, and continues to be alternately vilified and celebrated by members of the gay community. Even during its making, hordes of angry gay men protested at the filming locations and the studio hired over 300 off-duty NYC officers to keep the peace. Mistakenly perceived as an anti-gay anthem on celluloid, Cruising is a relentless and unnerving mystery thriller about a "homo killer" on the loose in New York and a straight, doe-eyed rookie cop (played by Al Pacino) who matches the physical attributes of the victims and is sent to live undercover within the Big Apple's sect of leather bar S&M aficionados. Pacino becomes a sort of Dorothy in the Land of Oz - introduced to genuine friendship with a gay neighbour (Don Scardino) and most importantly, the joys of leather-clad gentlemen openly fellating, sodomizing and fist-fucking each other in gay leather bars whilst one of the best soundtracks in movie history grinds out the ever-so cool and malevolent sounds of John Hiatt, Rough Trade, Willy DeVille, Madelynn von Ritz, Lump and a bevy of others.
Friedkin's film is a masterpiece - albeit a flawed masterpiece. When submitting the film to the MPAA to get a rating, he was forced to make cuts totalling 40 minutes. This does wreak some havoc with the film's narrative, but what remains is a nightmarish vision of how homophobia (and closeted self-hatred) manifest themselves into the ultimate assault upon homosexuality - a serial killer who butchers beautiful young men he's attracted to during and/or after he's had sex with them runs rampant amongst the leather bar community clearly has considerable metaphoric value. Some might argue that Friedkin creates an inferno of evil when his camera "cruises" the streets and bars, but frankly, it's not this world of leather-clad Hershey Highway Lovers that ever seemed evil to me. It's all so stylishly, lovingly rendered that I always found it unbelievably sexy and cool. The men, all shapes and sizes, are simply mouth watering and the endless array of sexual activity is tantalizing.
At one point in Franco's film, he talks about his re-imagining by stating that he wants to render the evil images from Friedkin's film into something fresh and beautiful. This is not the first, nor last time Franco contradicts himself in the movie (since he also extols the virtues of Cruising). I suspect these odd contradictions are part of the overall design and if not, they at least feel like it and add to the film's wonky charm.
And while this might sound weird, charm is what this movie has in spades. Franco and Mathews are a charming team and whether we see them in action during the prep or production, it's always a blast hearing Franco waxing eloquent while Mathews is a rock solid filmmaker attacking everything with both art and craft. Val Lauren is completely and utterly charming as the young actor chosen to recreate the Al Pacino role. What's always cool is that the film is capturing a genuine actor who must play the thing he is - a straight man who needs to cruise a bar. He's a bundle of trepidation and excitement. Watching the lad ruminate during prep, slowly get into character until he fits in the leather bar scenes perfectly and gaze on with Franco, agog, yet delighted with a sex act performed in front of them, it's so obvious why Franco loves working with him and how, if the heavens are properly aligned, this could be a star-making performance for Lauren.
The bottom line is this: I love James Franco, I love Cruising, I love Friedkin, I love charming, naked men and I love seeing stuff on screen that I can genuinely walk out of the cinema and declare I've never seen before. If you feel likewise, you'll probably love the movie as much as I do.
"Interior. Leather Bar." is playing at the Hot Docs Film Festival 2013. For tickets and showtimes, contact the Hot Docs website HERE."
Take a look at this sequence from CRUISING and THEN try to tell me that William Friedkin is NOT one of the world's greatest living film directors.What you'll see here are a series of montages with Al Pacino cruising bar after bar after bar. Includes, my fave, "Precinct Night" and some fab Crisco action.
And here's a taste of INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR.