Home Video Hovel: Interior. Leather Bar., by Matt Warren
James Franco. Gay sex. Penis. At least Interior. Leather Bar. makes SEO easy. But if there’s one thing directors Franco and Travis Mathews make easy when discussing their new, multi-layered art-project-cum-documentary-cum-video-essay, it’s every other thing. So hang it there, readers—I promise we’ll get through this together. But hey, at least I get to say “penis” and “cum” a whole bunch on the front page of Battleship Pretension. You’re welcome, Film Criticism.
First, some context: the (pretty good) 1980 cop thriller Cruising—directed by French Connexorcist film-brat bad boy William Friedkin—starred a late-early-period Al Pacino as a New York homicide investigator sent undercover as a denizen of lower Manhattan’s gay S&M club scene to catch a serial killer praying upon the city’s kinkiest and most mustachioed homosexuals. For realism, Friedkin shot the movie in actual sex clubs of the era, with real-life gay extras engaging in actual sex acts on camera.
Like many of the best New York movies, Cruising is primarily interesting, from a contemporary viewpoint, as a snapshot of very specific moment in the city’s history. Namely, of gay culture’s surging post-Stonewall self-identity in the last few halcyon days before AIDS reared its ugly head and completely redefined what it meant to be gay in NY during the 1980s.
As a piece of commercial cinema, Cruising was not successful, and was controversial among busybodies of every sexual and political persuasion. Reportedly, Friedkin had to trim 40 minutes of transgressive frottage-and-wiener-dense B-roll to even get an “R” rating. Thought lost, those 40 minutes have never been seen…until now?
Cut to: Interior. Leather Bar.
The premise: sometime movie star and fulltime conceptual art dilettante James Franco and a collaborator Travis Mathews have conspired to “re-imagine” Cruising’s lost 40 minutes by turning a cramped black box theater in North Hollywood into the seedy sex clubs of the early-eighties Manhattan, filling the space to capacity with gimp masks, assless chaps, Reagan-era dildonics, and plenty of M4M extras champing at the bit—often literally—to recreate their forbearers’ kinks with hardcore gusto.
At the center of this petroleum-scented maelstrom is actor Val Lauren, a friend of Franco’s from their mutual acting workshop. According to Franco, Val is hired not to “play Al Pacino” but to “play the role Al Pacino was playing.” Straight, married, and infused with swarthy, olive-scented Mediterranean machismo, Val bristles against the physical requirements of the role—i.e. smoochin’ dudes and voyeuristically watching live gay sex—much as Pacino himself is reported to have done during production of Cruising. And like Pacino, Val considers walking.
But here’s the thing…and stop reading here if you don’t want to know anything else. Or don’t. I’m honestly not sure if what I’m about to say is a spoiler, or if it’s integral to understanding the movie. Like I said: this shit’s hard—like a tumescent penis straining erect against the inside of a vinyl codpiece.
For roughly the first half of Leather Bar I took the film at face value, assuming that what I was seeing was a straightforward (gayforward?) behind-the-scenes documentary about the creation of an unusual art project. But as the backstage intrigue heated up, I began to get an uneasy feeling. The emerging narrative felt too clean; Val’s struggle with his own sexual boundaries too clear an echo of the reluctance experienced by the detective character he was playing—and, allegedly, Pacino’s own.
Then it hit me: this was a mockumentary. Pause. Google. Confirmation. Turns out, the entire film is put-on. And fair enough. You almost got me, Franco! However, it’s unclear from press materials and scant online info about the film whether or not Leather Bar is intended to deceive, or if the viewer is supposed to be in on the joke from the jump. Either way, Franco and Mathews are playing with at least two or three different layers of meta-reality here, as Lauren plays, essentially, an actor playing an actor playing an actor playing an actor (undercover law enforcement being the most extreme form of improv theater there is).
This is some graduate-level mindfuckery, and I sincerely appreciated the filmmakers’ cleverness in using a semi-obscure piece of pop culture trivia like the production backstory of relatively unsuccessful William Friedkin cop thriller to economically conjure such an intricate closed-loop ecosystem of ping-ponging metaphysics, all courtesy of James Motherfucking Franco, who, in the film, comes off as about as bright as a precocious college freshman who just read Slaughterhouse-Five for the first time. Is this the real Franco, or just another character? Is there a difference? (These and many more rhetorical questions available over at my blog: TriteObservationsAboutPostmodernism.com).
But despite containing elements of fiction and narrative, Leather Bar has much more in common with Room 237 than it does Waiting for Guffman. It’s a piece of film criticism, a queer-studies essay, and prurient slice highbrow pornography all rolled into 60 succinct minutes. Will it be for everyone? Hahahaha—no. It’s barely for anyone. But if you’ve made it this far in the review, you’re probably one of the weirdos who might appreciate Franco’s convoluted mission. Welcome to the club, brother. Now let me see your scrotum.