James Franco and Travis Matthews have collaborated on an ‘imagining’ based on the lost 40 minutes of Friedkin’s controversial 1980 film Cruising. Screened as part of the BFI’s London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival 2013, Interior. Leather Bar was accompanied by two other documentary shorts, Tom’s Gift (Verow & Lum) and In Search of Avery Willard (Kehahan). Together the films document aspects of queer history in the USA while also lamenting the current state of affairs in terms of gay assimilation and ongoing homophobia and structural heterosexism.
Franco and Matthews’ offering running at 60 minutes and having received substantial press coverage in the gay and mainstream press, was the dominant element of this triptych and, having recently watch Cruising in preparation for the screening, I was eager to see how this artistic duo (one straight, one gay, one a Hollywood A-lister, one more well-known for incorporating live gay sex into his films) would imagine the 40 minutes of original footage that was stripped out of Cruising in an effort to avoid an X-rating from the classification board.
Sadly, those mythical 40 minutes of leather men, leather sex and leather culture are not re-imagined, at least not wholly. Instead, what the audience is offered is a many-layered discussion that re-imagines and dissects the nervousness that Pacino’s original character, Steve Burns, embodies as he goes undercover in the dimly lit night-time world of New York’s meat-packing district.
Franco and Matthews (though we are quickly informed that this is Franco’s vision first and foremost) have set out to create a series of concentric narrative spirals that explore themes of heteronormativity, non-normative sexual practices and desires, institutionalised homophobia and masculinity. These spirals are then sliced through with the meta-theme – that of film and film-making. Given Matthew’s background it makes sense that filming sex becomes a topic of the documentary, rather than just an act. What does it mean to film sex and to use sex as a ‘tool’ (Franco’s word) to tell stories in film?
If Matthews brings sex to the text, Franco knowingly brings his star persona, or rather, an awareness of his starriness. The film includes statements from a variety of the cast expressing interest in whether Franco will be on set, in whether he will be engaging in any of the scenes, and in his reasons and motivations behind developing this project. Indeed, at times one feels as though Franco has assembled these actors, gay and straight, leather-men and vanilla, in order to stage a vignette for his own intellectual and artistic purposes. True, the film was originally made as an artistic project (commissioned by CoSTUME NATIONAL). However, one is at times left feeling that the Hollywood A-lister is pulling on the strings of his puppets for his own self-gratification and interest.
Of course, you cannot really ever be sure of this though. For, one thing this film does do – constantly – is to undermine the veracity of the cinematic text. We witness a conversation between two heterosexual actors that we are invited to read as a slice of cinema verité, only for this illusion to be shattered as one performer is asked to rework a line, to direct the conversation towards a specific goal. In another shot, the camera draws back from Val contemplating the script to reveal another camera filming the scene, and then another camera filming that camera and so on. Later we witness the lead actor sat on the cement floor of a parking lot reading aloud from his script, which describes him sat on the cement floor of the parking lot….
This destabilising of the text is clever – perhaps a little too clever sometimes – in that it serves to undermine a narrative cohesion which, one might argue, is central to the maintenance of (hetero)normative ideological structures within contemporary film. I was reminded of those experimenting with new queer narratives and of the work of Araki et al. in the mid-90s.
This queering of narrative and of truth is noble, not least given the framing of the film, which leans on queer theory – Michael Warner (a former professor of Franco’s) is mentioned in the first line of the film. Likewise, the conversation that takes place half-way through the film (again, allegedly verité) , between Franco and lead actor, Val Lauren, situates the political vision that the directors have for this piece. Examining and reflecting upon their discomfort at witnessing the preceding leather sex scene, Franco demands (of himself, and of the audience) that such discomfort is caused by the internalising of heteronormative codes – of an ideology that frames normal as straight, as vanilla, as procreative as gender-bound, and everything outside of this as abnormal. For anyone who has studied queer theory – or cultural studies for that matter – this is hardly ground-breaking. But this is coming out of the mouth of someone who is currently appearing at your local Odeon in Disney’s Oz. That doesn’t happen every day.
As admirable as Franco’s attempt to engage in a queer deconstruction is, I was left feeling less than comfortable at the way in which this was achieved. The directors have drawn actors from the leather scene, the BDSM scene and the wider gay community. We are asked to believe that the couple who are directed to have sex under the guidance of Master Avery are in fact together in real life – suggesting that what was being shot was ‘real’ in a way that porn isn’t.
However, watching this in the context of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and in an auditorium that had a majority gay male audience I did feel that Franco and Matthews’ film was made for a different audience. It almost felt like this was a film made by a famous straight guy who got a less famous gay guy in to direct kinky gay sex scenes which the straight guy could then pontificate on in order to demonstrate his own queer credentials… and shock his straight audience.
This sounds incredibly unfair , and I do think it is important to remember who Franco is, how respected he is in the mainstream film industry and – therefore – what kind of a risk he is taking in putting his name to this kind of a project (not to mention being the driving force behind it). That said, I walked out of the screening feeling like I’d just been lectured by a straight guy about queer politics, and in the meantime, a bunch of queer guys had appeared on camera but only as the objects (never really the subjects, to borrow from Stuart Hall) of their own representation. Do I care who is speaking on my behalf for queer rights and against the symbolic (and real) violence of heteropatrichal society? I guess not. But wouldn’t it have been great if the straight guy had done more of the listening and the gay guys, more of the talking???? Now that, would have been challenging.