Review: Interior. Leather Bar.
By Nathan Lee
(James Franco & Travis Mathews, U.S., 2013)
Does James Franco suck dick? I mean, does he literally put dicks in his mouth and suck on them? A lot of people could care less, or claim to care less, for various reasons. Because celebrity sex lives are boring. Because James Franco is boring. Because we live in a fabulously enlightened post-gay wonderland (exemplified by James Franco). Because we know people whose dicks have actually been sucked by James Franco. Whatever the case, let’s not pretend the question doesn’t exert a certain grip on the imagination, among other organs. Our investment in the problem of Famous People Who May Or May Not Be Gay may well be irritating, a kind of stubborn cultural chlamydia, but what’s at stake in that investment is real. Franco knows this, and has turned it into a constituent aspect of his celebrity. Thus do we arrive at an even more annoying question: what does it mean that James Franco is playing with the fact that we know that he knows that we want to know whether or not he sucks dick?
Not much! But more, in any event, than the questions raised by Interior. Leather Bar., a movie that continually puzzles over what it is and why it is being made. Directed by Franco and Travis Mathews, the hour-long featurette stages itself as a meta-making-of-documentary devoted to the meta-project of imagining, casting, re-creating, and filming 40 minutes of sexually explicit material rumored to have been excised from the original cut of Cruising. Released by United Artists in 1980, William Friedkin’s notorious thriller about a straight cop (Al Pacino) who goes undercover in New York’s hardcore gay leather scene to catch a serial killer remains to this day the most graphic representation of queer culture to come out of Hollywood. An amyl nitrate fever dream of leering subterranean perverts, delirious fisting orgies, and lurid montages of sodomy and stabbing, Cruising has been recuperated in some quarters as a singular archive of pre-AIDS sexual abandon. For others it remains a touchstone of Bad For The Gays cinema.
Interior. Leather Bar. positions itself squarely in the former camp, emphasis on square. Val Lauren, an actor buddy of Franco’s, has been cast in the Pacino role, and spends most of the movie in a state of performance anxiety about what the fuck he’s doing in an experimental film featuring DUDE OMG UNSIMULATED GAY SEX. That he is, to some extent, performing this performance of performance anxiety as part of a “meditation on performance” is clear enough from the sub-Symbiopsychotaxiplasm indeterminacies at play. Sifting through the levels of simulation to get at some kind of authentic position misses the point of Interior. Leather Bar., not least because its conflation of narrative normativity with heteronormativity is sheer MacGuffin. Franco’s nebulous platitudes about challenging a patriarchal culture notwithstanding, the really queer object here is the force field of his celebrity.
The most keenly observed moments subsume the discomfort of participating in “Franco’s faggot project” into a larger anxiety about making it in the business; Interior. Leather Bar. might have been called Gay. For Pay. As for the unabashed homosexuals on set, notably the “real-life” couple willing to fuck on camera, the pleasure they take in each other’s bodies is the least affected thing on view, a rebuke to the flaccid identity games being mobilized by a movie star with a boner for queer theory. For some guys, the fact that you put cocks in your mouth and suck on them and everyone knows it is the most straightforward thing imaginable.