To accompany a special double bill of Cruising and Interior. Leather Bar that Katherine McLaughlin, Martyn Conterio and I are presenting at the ICA on 15 Dec, here is my review of the latter.
Sending straight cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) undercover to investigate serial killings in the gay leather scene of Brooklyn’s Meatpacking District, William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) found itself buffeted by two rather different pressures. On the one hand, its entire production was plagued by parts of New York’s gay community, determined to sabotage a film they were prejudicially convinced was – or would be – homophobic. On the other hand, in order to avoid an X rating from the MPAA, which would have spelt the film’s commercial doom, Friedkin had to remove 40 minutes of notoriously hardcore vérité from his original version.
Those 40 minutes have never been publicly screened, and are now lost, probably forever – but Travis Mathews and James Franco have used the resonant mystique of those missing scenes as a springboard for an experiment in metacinematic docufiction. Interior. Leather Bar reimagines several sequences (and their making) while tracing the journey of straight actor Val Lauren as he, like the character Steve whom he is playing, negotiates his own – and the viewer’s – limits and prejudices. Make no mistake, this is a film about boundaries, exploring that grey interior area where straight ends and gay begins, where the acceptable and the taboo meet in an awkward dance, and where the distinctions between fly-on-the-wall reality and scripted fiction start to break down.
Interior. Leather Bar is a tricky proposition to categorise. It is precluded from a conventional theatrical release as much by its not-quite-feature length of 60 minutes and its mercurial narrative form as by its (occasionally) graphic content. It is neither the leather porn flick that some might be expecting, nor (at all) the mainstream enterprise that Franco’s presence might suggest, but rather, something nebulous and indefinable existing between those two camps. “Just doing it, and being in Disney, that’s what’s giving it power – half of its power,” insists Franco at one point, alluding to the fact that he was – improbably but truly – working on Disney’s Oz: The Great and Powerful at the same time as he shot what one character calls the “Franco faggot project.” Franco, like Lauren, is putting himself on the line here – and Mathews meets them both halfway.
Those parts of the film not devoted to reenacting the cosplay and cockiness of period S&M scenarios instead focus on a cast of actors – gay and straight, professional and non-professional – constantly trying to work out between themselves “what the fuck is really going on”, “what story are we telling?” and “why James [Franco] would want to do this”, with only the most abstract or impish of guidance from their two directors. These off-set, (maybe) off-the-cuff discussions between the players establish a reflexive dialectic in which questions about the nature of what is being watched – and of watching in itself – are expressly raised for any viewer who is out on the cruise for meaning.
Ultimately, Interior. Leather Bar may be one for and about the male gaze – but while it is all too easy to celebrate (or indeed to dismiss) Friedkin’s original as a darkly camp time capsule, this provocative recreation strips away the psychopathic violence that saw Cruising labelled (wrongly, in my opinion) as homophobic in its own time, and instead confronts us with just how much – or how little – our attitudes towards sexuality and its representation, towards porn, censorship and otherness, have changed in the intervening decades. For Lauren’s Steve Burns is still following much the same probing, ambiguous path as Pacino’s, along a repaved yellow brick road that winds between hetero and homo, as well as between Mathews’ gay-niche cinema and Franco’s Hollywood celebrity. All the foregrounded artifice and layers of self-referentiality here might leave you feeling a little lost, but then there is no easy route through the thorny issues of identity that this film is trying to map out.