James Franco has what they used to call the ’it’ factor in movies, along with being a solid actor, the camera loves him. When he is not attending Yale, he seems particularly interested in promoting gay themed movies. He was Harvey Milk’s first boyfriend in Milk and earlier this year, he played a young Allen Ginsberg in a film about the Beats. He also likes to upend movie culture, even when it seems like he is the only one in on it. He perpetrated bad drag last year at the Oscars and was so high that Anne Hathaway kept having to verbally rescue him.
Franco‘s project this year is “Interior. Leather Bar.” a docufiction that recreates scenes that were edited out of William Friedkin’s notorious S&M potboiler “Cruising.“ Franco has gotten a lot of press after its opening at the Sundance Film Festival. He co-wrote the movie with gay indie filmmaker Travis Matthews. Matthews’ 2010 film “I Want Your Love” also very sexually explicit, but clearly not pornographic, was a huge international hit at festivals last year. But even with this muscle behind it, at Philly Qfest this week, “Interior” met with a tepid audience response.
Even though “Cruising” has turned into somewhat of a cult film for various reason, it’s real merit was that it was so offensive to gays that the script was leaked and the idea that Hollywood was again going to portray gay men as psychos who mix brutal violence with sex caused a backlash. It has been cited by gay film historian and AIDS activist Vito Russo as a turning point in how Hollywood would have to depict gay characters and storylines outside of stereotypes. Later Russo would be part of establishing the gay defamation organization GLAAD.
Friedkin was a top director in the 70s with mega-hits “French Connection” and “The Exorcist” behind him, so he could get away with basically nothing more than a slasher flick with pretensions of a psychological thriller. The psycho part in fact played into so many negative gay stereotypes.
In the movie, Al Pacino plays a cop who goes underground in the gay S&M clubs to collar a murderer who stalks gay men into the leather scene has bondage sex with them, then brutally murders them. There is a thread in the film that suggests that the cop not only gets entranced by the leather scene, but becomes violent himself.
Not only was this a bad script, Pacino has never been worse. The talk was that the actor was completely uncomfortable playing the part, especially sex club carnavale going on around him that included fisting scenes. Those in particular were part of 40 minutes that were cut so the movie would avoid an X rating.
Meanwhile, Friedkin’s noir cartoon world of the leather bar scene was otherwise completely prurient. And then there is all that bad dancing when Pacino dives in and spazzes out because he huffing club drugs.
That scene is painstakingly and creepingly recreated in “Interior. Leather Bar” as a docu-fiction, as Franco loiters about the set, trying to defend the premise of ‘imagining’ and talks about the illogical reasoning that goes into what is deemed palatable for film. This is such a sketchy a premise that there are long scenes of Franco and Matthews seeming fairly clueless about what they are doing.
Meanwhile, Franco repeatedly tries to explain the purpose of the film to its star Val Lauren, a straight actor who is having trouble with the explicitness of the sex scenes. (life imitating Pacino, wow, what an angle). Meanwhile, Franco lectures on why it is, for instance, acceptable that someone can be dismembered in the most gruesome detail on film, but many sex acts are strictly forbidden. Good question James, you should have written a paper instead.
At the Qfest screenings, fortunately, preceding “Leather” was Matthews’ compelling “In Their Room: London” was shown first. It chronicles the real intimate private lives of gay men and has poetic intimacy and visual power, reminiscent of Mapplethorpe‘s aesthetic. Six gay Londoners talk about their sex and romantic lives as they get ready to hook up. He busts through voyeuristic frames and creates a safe forum for complete candor, the nudity is so secondary to the full portraiture of these men. “Room” is touching, erotic and unpretentious, it is amazing that Matthews didn’t realize that the Leather Bar would be a such a gratuitous bore.