James Franco is a smirking prankster who seems to delight in subverting expectations, flaunting his pretensions/intellect, and toying with rumours of his sexuality. Interior. Leather Bar does all of the above, and then some, before taking the themes and thrust of the ostensible source material, the controversial 1980 film Cruising, and amplifying them in a surprisingly emotional and direct way.
Before watching Interior. Leather Bar, I re-watched Cruising. It had been decades since I first, and for the only time, saw the film. My memory was of being disturbed, titillated and offended. Cruising was critically savaged when it was first released and gay rights groups, then in their infancy, were vocal about the bad image projected. In the years since Cruising has been re-evaluated and has its champions. It is no longer shocking - every sitcom has visited a leather bar for laughs and the leather community can almost be considered mainstream thanks to 50 Shades of Grey and the ilk - but it is still a hot mess of a movie.
Cruising was nominated for numerous Razzies but lost worst picture and screenplay to Can't Stop the Music, and worst director to Xanadu. 1980 was a very gay year in bad movies.
The real problem with Cruising is that it is not terribly coherent. Al Pacino's seduction into the gay S&M lifestyle is implied but we never understand why he is attracted to it. The bar scenes - considered so shocking that 40 minutes were cut from the film - are shot clinically and even the moment where Pacino, in probably his most detached performance, dives into popper-fuelled ecstatic dancing, he seems ill at ease and more of a macho Elaine Benis than a celebrant of gay male sexuality. The only scenes that are shot with director William Friedken's usual stylistic brilliance are the murders, giving an almost Hitchcockian gloss to what should be horrifying. This unbalances the film and equates violence with eroticism in a way that is far more disturbing than any potential homophobia: violent death is treated with a fetishistic gloss while actual fetishes are presented as distant curiosities.
The first murder involves the stunningly beautiful Arnaldo Santana, but the sex scene is awkward and disjointed while the death is shockingly vibrant. Santana is a close friend of Pacino's and also appeared in Scarface before, as IMDb tells it, his: "acting career took a nosedive when the handsome muscular Santana gained over 100 pounds and became a heavy-set character actor." That is a more likely gay fate than murder by a trick.
Whether the 40 minutes that were cut from Cruising would have rectified these problems - the footage included graphic gay sex, was deemed pornographic and cut to avoid an X rating - will never be known: the negatives were apparently destroyed. This is one of the issues that Interior. Leather Bar purports to address.
Interior. Leather Bar begins with the filming of the plans to film a re-creation of the lost 40 minutes from Cruising. Franco's stated motivations are evasive and as the film continues it becomes apparent (spoiler alert!) that Interior. Leather Bar is actually a mockumentary with an agenda all its own.
Though, as a character states, audiences will be eager to see Interior. Leather Bar in the hopes of seeing Franco naked, the real star is actor Val Lauren who plays the actor playing the Pacino part. His growing unease with the sexual demands of the role are used as a springboard to confront homophobia, gay panic and discuss the alleged differences between porn and art. Lauren is quite convincing in his internal debate and it is either a juicy - assuming that Interior. Leather Bar actually is a documentary - found performance or a great piece of acting.
Franco gives a rousing speech where he decries that violence can be shown explicitly on film but sexuality, specifically gay sexuality, is taboo. Lauren warns him that this is a daring and dangerous tack to take for someone starring in a Disney film (Oz the Great and Powerful). Franco chuckles and then the film gets really daring and illustrates the thesis with a charming and explicit sex scene that is erotic in all the ways that Cruising didn't manage. It's a schematic structure but it pays off in the final scenes.
I would still rather see the lost footage but Interior. Leather Bar is a fascinating exploration of the issues that Cruising just couldn't tackle head-on in 1980.
On a not totally unrelated note, the soundtrack of Cruising is fascinating for its inclusion of two tracks by Rough Trade that have been blamed for the demise of that great band. The soundtrack posits that the music played at gay S&M bars is, or will be, heavily punk-influenced. The guitars are heavy and far from what is actually played by DJs at leather gatherings. When Cruising bombed so did Rough Trade's chance at a mainstream audience, and the backlash from the gay community hurt Rough Trade in its one solid and faithful demographic. If only Franco had gone one step further and included one of Carole Pope's recent tracks in Interior. Leather Bar, he could have corrected another terrible injustice.
Both Interior. Leather Barand Cruising are available on DVD.