James Franco Brings Graphic Gay Sex To Sundance With Interior Leather Bar

By Katey Rich 2013-01-20 09:22:13discussion comments
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Thank God for James Franco.

Sure, the multi-hyphenate movie star often seems a little too obsessed with pushing the boundaries of his own career, or for acting too cool for things like hosting the Oscars, or making documentaries that no one understands and never sees the light of day. But in a time of publicist-controlled images and fake reality TV personalities, it's good to know there's at least one star out there who wants to use his power just to fuck with your head. At this year's Sundance, that involved premiering two different movies in one might, both of them about kinky sex, and at least one of them featuring actual, unsimulated sex.

No, Franco doesn't participate in it-- in fact, he's at best a marginal character in Interior Leather Bar, which I walked into last night expecting to be what the description promised: a recreation of the 40 minutes of footage cut out of William Friedkin's 1980 Cruising in order to avoid an X rating. Instead the movie is kind of a behind-the-scenes look at shooting that recreation, except it's not actually a documentary-- we hear Franco's co-director Travis Mathews offering direction in what's supposed to be an off-the-cuff scenes, and at the end of the movie, the main actor Val Lauren reads a script not for the Cruising recreation, but for Interior Leather Bar itself. It's all very meta and snake-eating-its-own tail, but accessible too-- I was anticipating some quick-cut hour of experiential nonsense inside a leather bar, but the film is far more open and up front about its intentions than that.

And yet, what those intentions are becomes increasingly unclear as the movie goes on. Franco starts out talking about a desire to help reclaim the queerness of gay culture, but then constantly mentions his role in the upcoming Disney film Oz Great And Powerful, as if he's doing this simply to add more shock value to his own career. When the shoot to recreate the Cruising scenes begins the film largely focuses on Val Lauren, a straight actor seemingly thrown into the shoot just to react uncomfortably to gay sex scenes happening in front of him. At first Lauren feels like an unwitting victim of Franco and Mathew's cruel experiment-- asked for direction in the cruising scene, Franco tells Lauren to "just do what you would do in that situation." But as it becomes clear that Lauren's shocked reactions are part of the script-- and he and Franco have what feels like a very deliberate conversation about mainstream depiction of sex-- Lauren's character becomes a nice stand-in for the entire audience, struggling to keep his cool even when presented with the most extreme elements of queer sexuality.

Interior Leather Bar does contain one very graphic sex scene-- a tender encounter between two men we are told are a real-life couple, which seems to be entirely against the film's idea of re-queering gay sex. And in general it's much more about talking about sex than actually showing it, which also makes its claims toward provocation a little weaker. At several moments it seems there are more people with cameras documenting the sex on the set than people actually in the scene, with a handful of women holding tiny handheld cameras for no apparent purpose, and Franco lingering with a DSLR on the fringes while Mathews actually directs the actors. If Franco and Mathews really wanted to challenge mainstream acceptance of queer sex, they might have spent less time talking about it and more time actually showing it-- or, for that matter, including said sex in a film remotely likely to see a mainstream release. Interior Leather Bar is 8 different kinds of thought experiments, putting a whole lot of intellectual weight on what is, in the end, just sex.

But how many other actors with mainstream clout, gay or straight, are even asking those questions? However inauthentic the Franco "character" in Interior Leather Bar is compared to the real one, it's the real Franco's name on this film that got attention at Sundance to begin with, and as much as he may be punking us in these experiments, there's a genuine curiosity in there somewhere too. James Franco may not be mainstreaming gay sex with this film, but he did get a scene of a real blow job onscreen at one of the world's most prestigious film festivals. Like the film's muddle of intellectual ideas, it's not a fully-formed effort, but it's a start.

You can read my full Sundance coverage here.
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