The film Cruising was released in 1980, along with a deluge of controversy. Directed by William Friedkin, the man behind such classics as The French Connection and The Exorcist, it starred Al Pacino as an undercover police officer investigating a series of homicides around the gay S&M scene in New York City.
Plagued by death threats and accusations of homophobia, the film eventually opened to a muted box office and critical backlash. However before it could reach that point, Cruising had to face the MPAA (the American ratings board) who demanded that Friedkin – should he wish to avoid the deathly X rating – cut forty minutes of graphic footage, which is believed to have been subsequently destroyed.
The start of Interior. Leather Bar. informs us that “filmmakers James Franco and Travis Mathews collaborated to imagine their own lost footage”. The key word here is “imagine”.
The film is less of a reconstruction of the missing footage and more of a docufiction approach, presenting a discussion regarding the planning and preparation that inevitably goes into such a project. Very little is actually granted to the depiction of the sex scenes. Instead, we are given an exploration into the issues that arise when deciding on what is the best way to go about attempting a reimagining, including everything from stylistic choices to the nature of ethics and decency, as well as what societal and cultural aspects the making of the film represents.
At times, this provides an interesting insight into not only the creative psyches of directors Franco and Mathews (as well as the thoughts of the actors, many of whom are straight men playing a homosexual character for the first time) but also the goings-on when crafting a picture, especially a fairly original one such as this.
However, there are several moments when the film evokes a sense that it is perhaps a vanity stunt: one scene involves a group of actors conversing as to the significance of the documentary and refer to Franco as an “artist” who is “interested in the range of human experience”. Then again, how many of these actors would have signed up if it wasn’t for Franco’s involvement? For a documentary, the whole thing seems pretty staged.
If the bare bones (no pun intended) of the framework of Interior. Leather Bar. presents the ‘what’, then it’s down to the individuals to propose the ‘why’. On several occasions, scenes outside of shooting involve the actors questioning and probing the directors’ motives, Franco’s in particular.
The film is clearly a labour of love for the directors although it lacks further clarity surrounding what their intentions are. Instead, we get conjecture. As ambivalent lead actor Val Lauren hypothesises, it is potentially about “the right to have the freedom to express your artistic aspirations to tell a story or to not have limits on creativity”. He later wonders if it is all so Franco can simply quench his curiosity.
Essentially then, this is Franco’s film, not Friedkin’s or anyone else associated with the production. The audience is looking through his eyes, rather than as an objective viewer. Co-director Mathews gets sidelined to a few scenes of him giving orders and suggestions to crew- and cast-members, whereas Franco is awarded an entire segment contemplating how a film like this may affect the career of someone who is about to star in a Disney movie. Alongside this is his annoyance at being brought up surrounded by heteronormative dogma (is Franco doing this out of guilt?), in addition to a debate on the dismaying portrayal of sex within Hollywood – something Franco fails to challenge in Interior.
Perhaps the heart of the film, therefore, is about the shifting of taboos. As Bob Dylan once sang, “The times, they are a-changin’”. And while it makes a bold attempt, this a-change is not fully reflected here. If it is possible to recreate footage in modern times that was deemed too shocking 30-odd years ago, then why does it seem as if Interior. Leather Bar. is scared to do so? The film always stays behind the line, shying away from anything truly explicit and focussing instead on the looks of (faux-?) discomfort on Franco’s and Lauren’s faces.
If it never quite pushes the boundaries far enough and all too often misrepresents itself (it comes across as a behind the scenes bonus feature), Interior. Leather Bar. is best treated then as a social experiment. As a vehicle provoking questions about the progressively mutable representation of LGBT characters, it succeeds, but as an investigation into Friedkin’s work, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Interior. Leather Bar. is released on DVD today (December 9th) by Peccadillo Pictures.