Sure. With the ending of each year comes the start of a new one, and with that an entire new slate of films, many of which during this point in time each year have about as cinematic value as the popcorn each theater shoves into the hand of movie goers does nutritionally. The January and February doldrums rarely bring with them truly great big releases, many of those being simply releases that were bumped out of their release date the year prior for a number of reasons.
However, the indie circuit finds this time as fruitful a release period as any a year could offer. Ostensibly, what I’m getting at, is that for every Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, the indie art house world give us a film like Interior. Leather Bar.
Despite his massive name, actor/writer/filmmaker/renaissance man James Franco has become as interesting a cinematic voice directorially as he has been in his time on the big screen. Throughout his career behind the camera, the actor hasn’t been afraid to truly take risk after risk, the riskiest of which may very well be this new documentary feature.
Teaming with filmmaker Travis Matthews, the pair take on a myriad of themes in this new documentary, yet another bit of proof that many of cinema’s great experiments come out of the world of non-fiction cinema. Back in 1980, William Friedkin’s legendary film Cruising hit theaters, and not in its originally intended form. In order to get over an X rating, 40 minutes of the film was cut, which itself included various sex acts, turning this chunk of lost footage into something of a iconic and nearly mythological bit of cinema. Set within the confines of what is ostensibly an S&M gay bar, this chunk of film is now re-imagined by these two filmmakers in what is yet another example of documentary cinema blurring that line between fact and fiction.
Setting out to bring to life the 40 minutes cut from the film, directors Franco and Matthews collaborate to re-imagine this lost footage. Teaming with actor Val Lauren, Interior. Leather Bar is their attempt to not only bring to life this footage, but bring to light various themes ranging from creative freedom to sexual taboos.
Clocking in at just an hour in length, the film itself may be graphic in its depiction of sex, but it isn’t without both formal experimentation and some deeply profound sociological ruminations. With LGBT issues seemingly a theme Franco has been intent on delving into throughout his career, this may be one of his most interesting bits of work to date. Formally experimental, the film does ultimately try to blur the line between what seems like a full blown documentary and something a bit more scripted, only to become something entirely its own. Franco spends much of the film openly discussing the fact that he’s not quite sure what he’s trying to say with the film, and while that may seem cumbersome and pretentious, it leaves the viewer to him or herself dig into the various ideas that arise throughout the film.
Actor Val Lauren takes on the Pacino role here, and it is his story that seems to be the film’s biggest downfall. While the final “act” here allows the viewer to see one of the film’s most interesting moments (Lauren tells a gay couple after seeing them have sex that he thought their scene was beautiful), the film’s short runtime never really gives the viewer enough time to really connect with Lauren and his narrative.
Aesthetically straight forward, the film’s ever shifting form proves to be its biggest reward. While it plays like a documentary looking at LGBT acceptance and sexual taboos, you also find moments like Lauren reading a script, a script that one discovers is ultimately the script not for Cruising, but for this very film. Ultimately, the film’s formal playfulness is what will draw many viewers in, and the various (albeit brief) moments of the actors discussing their own discomforts with this work are what will leave the viewer thinking.
Overall, while the film itself may not be everyone’s cup of tea, that is arguably the film’s biggest theme. Why is this film challenging? Why does gay sex make people uncomfortable? Why does this world see gay sex and gay people as something to be turned away from? These various issues are at the very core of Franco and Matthews’ Interior. Leather Bar, a film that may be a bit too short to mine anything deeply profound, but will leave any and all viewers hell bent on starting a discussion about LGBT issues, something that isn’t said enough with regards to modern cinema.