Warning: This post contains spoilers.
I was cruising Netflix the other night, looking for a movie to watch. I had the living room to myself and was trying to decide whether to watch a cerebral independent movie or a quirky, intelligent, romantic comedy, when I figured I was in the mood for something along the LGBTQ line. There are a ton of recommended LGBTQ films on Netflix, a few of which I've seen or remember the trailers from, and it took me awhile to decide. But when I stumbled upon Interior. Leather Bar. I figured I could combine an evening's entertainment with valid research on the gay leather bar S&M scene.
Not sure quite what to expect, and anticipating a titillating view into the realities of the 80's New York City leather bar scene, it was only sixty minutes long and I figured I'd start watching and see if it was to my liking. I already knew that the film was an attempt to re-imagine the missing forty minutes of leather bar footage that had been deleted from the Al Pacino movie Cruising by the producers in order to avoid an X-rating:
The Motion Picture Association of America originally gave Cruising an X rating. Friedkin claims he took the film before the MPAA board "50 times" at a cost of $50,000 and deleted 40 minutes of footage from the original cut before he secured an R rating. The deleted footage, according to Friedkin, consisted entirely of footage from the clubs in which portions of the film were shot and consisted of "[a]bsolutely graphic sexuality....that material showed the most graphic homosexuality with Pacino watching, and with the intimation that he may have been participating." In some discussions, Friedkin claims that the missing 40 minutes had no effect on the story or the characterizations, but in others he states that the footage created "mysterious twists and turns (which [the film] no longer takes)", that the suspicion that Pacino's character may have himself become a killer was made more clear and that the missing footage simultaneously made the film both more and less ambiguous. When Friedkin sought to restore the missing footage for the film's DVD release, he discovered that United Artists no longer had it. He believes that UA destroyed the footage. Some obscured sexual activity remains visible in the film as released, and Friedkin intercut a few frames of gay pornography into the first scene in which a murder is depicted.
It became immediately apparent that this movie was more of a documentary of the conceptualization and filming of the destroyed footage than a straight re-filming of what those scenes might have included:
"I wanted to be taken on a ride. I wanted to make a film that was as much about the experience as it was about making something. I wanted to go to a place of uncertainty, to set up parameters and then let the movie make itself. I wanted to explore the beauty of queerness, beautiful because it is counter to everything normal. As “straight” becomes the new “gay,” I wanted to find places where the anti-normative still thrived. Travis became my partner and guide on a trip to the queer-side."
~ James Franco
In fact, Franco and writer/director Travis Mathews, do this rather expertly.
We are introduced to Val Lauren, who will play the character of Steve (originally played by Al Pacino), expressing his ambivalence about taking on the role and his confusion as to the part he will play and the level of involvement he will have within the leather bar setting. He expresses his admiration for James Franco and his willingness to be a part of Franco's artistic vision, at the same time trying to get more information about where Franco wants to go with this project. Franco is purposely vague and gives a sort of half answer, hoping that Val will put his faith in Franco as his friend and producer to create something more than a porn film.
For a little while, as it became clearer to me that this was a documentary about recreating the X-rated 40 minutes of leather bar footage, I was uncertain of James Franco's intentions, but I definitely thought that filming the hesitation and reluctance of a straight actor negotiating and feeling his way into an intense scene that would involve actual gay men, real gay sexuality, and more than representations of gay leather kink/fetish, was fascinating.
Later on, it became obvious that the entire purpose behind the film was to expose normative sexual attitudes and how they responded to witnessing honest and unedited non-normative practices and identities.
Writer/director Travis Mathews speaks about casting the extras in the film:
"We also had a casting call at Playhouse West, where James first started acting. I’d never done a casting call like this before — I had done auditions, but not an actual casting call. The only thing that the guys who showed up knew was that it was a James Franco project involving a gay bar scene. There were probably 50 guys who showed up, and they all sat in these theatre seats, as Iris Torres, one of the producers, gave me the floor to talk about this project. Once I got into the specifics, a good third of the men left the room. I wasn’t asking any of these guys to have sex. They were all going to be extras for the bar scene, but I was asking for them to be in a very gay space where sex would be happening around them. For this, I needed to know how comfortable they were with kissing and touching another man in a space that was supposed to be a gay leather bar. What we ended up doing was putting different people in different corners of the room based on their comfort level interacting with another man and being so close to actual gay sex. I kill myself a little every day wishing that we’d filmed this. It was pretty rich and would have probably made it into the final cut."
My favourite part of the film is the depiction of actors Brenden Gregory and Brad Roberge (a couple in real life) having sex under the direction of Master Avery, in full view of the visibly uncomfortable Val Lauren.
Afterwards, in a discussion with the actors, Val admits that what he was observing became something more than objective gay sex to him. He could tell that the men had tender feelings toward each other and were an established couple, and I think this became a turning point for him, when he realized that the love and sexuality between two men who care for each other may not be that different from that between a man and a woman who feel the same.
The last scenes of the movie show Val actively participating in the leather bar footage with Master Avery, engaging physically and seemingly releasing himself from his preconceptions and getting caught up in the moment. The final shot is of Val driving away after dark, heading home to a missed dinner date with his supportive girlfriend. It seems obvious that many of his normative views have changed and he is speculating on what he has experienced over the past twenty-four hours.
I really loved this movie. There is a section during which James Franco and Val Lauren discuss gay sexuality and the ways in which it is still considered by a good portion of the population as divergent and non-normative because as Franco says, we are all brainwashed to believe that only straight, normative, monogamous sexuality is acceptable. He speaks about the possibility of bringing gay sexuality into the mainstream, or really any kind of alternative sexuality, because it seems strange to him that graphic violence is considered perfectly acceptable, and perhaps even desired, in mainstream art and film, but that certain representations of sex are not. Franco's vision for this film is actually to counteract the Cruising film, where Pacino's character goes undercover into a " deep, dark, evil place" by having Val's character go undercover into a place that is "I think, beautiful and attractive."
This entire discussion between Val Lauren and James Franco and the ideas that Franco puts forth, represent exactly my own thoughts and ideas about sexuality in all its forms:
Val: So, you think that, it (gay sex) should be in movies and, um, people should be able to see this?
James: Yes. Fuck, yes. Yes. Sex should be a tool - a storytelling tool, but we're so fucking scared of it. Everybody talks about sex but then don't dare put it in a movie. It's like, what the fuck. Or like, you're allowed to talk about it in certain ways, like locker room humour or frat house kinda humour, but, oh, oh don't show gay sex ... In previews, they have people getting fucking blown away and killed, but don't show gay sex.
Val: They do show gay sex, they show it in like rated X theatres...
James: Put it in the fucking mainstream.
Val: *laughing* Why?
James: To help tell stories, it's a great fucking tool. It's who we are. Everybody has sex, everybody thinks about sex, all the fucking time. We can't fucking put it in movies? We can put people killing each other, strangling each other...
Val: There's sex in fucking movies everywhere.
James: In a certain way. It's fetishized, it's turned into...
Val: ... something a little more tame for people, right, a little more palatable.
James: Why don't they give us violence in a little more palatable way, and amp up the sex? That's what I say.
Val: People like it (violence).
James: People like sex! Everybody fucking watches porn they just don't wanna talk about it. They just don't wanna talk about it in public. Everybody fucking watches porn. There's nothing wrong with it. People have sex.
Amen, brother. Amen.
Visit the Interior. Leather Bar. website for synopsis, cast information, press notes and reviews.