UPDATE 1/24/2013: Listen to James Franco talking with Off-Ramp host John Rabe at the LA Art show about "Interior. Leather Bar."
(Documementaran Ray Greene is covering Sundance 2013 for Off-Ramp with daily missives from Park City, Utah.)
It's been fashionable for some time to scoff at James Franco's creative restlessness, as well as what appears to be his genuine unconcern with conventional outcomes in his alternative films projects. After the brave and affecting collaboration that is "Interior. Leather Bar.," I'm pretty sure we all have to take him seriously now.
"Interior. Leather Bar." is a pretty fearless movie to come with the imprint of a name movie star on it -- someone who hosted the Oscars a year ago and who is, as is pointed out within the film itself, "starring in a big movie from Disney" in the very near future ("Oz the Great and Powerful"). "ILB" is also -- thankfully, and perhaps somewhat miraculously -- a fully achieved, absolutely unique piece of work, somewhat comparable to the films of experimentalist William Greaves, but mostly a thing all its own owing to its adventurous spirit and the way it intersects with core contradictions of the image manufacturing complex Franco himself is so very much a part of.
The premise of "ILB" does not describe this movie adequately, nor do it justice, but here it is: Co-directors Franco and Travis Mathews have decided to imagine their own version of 40 minutes of footage excised from William Friedkin's notorious 1980 psychological thriller "Cruising," in which New York cop Al Pacino went undercover within the sado-masochistic subset of that era's gay demi-monde to hunt for a serial killer.
"Cruising" was a watershed event in American movie history, in that what was taken to be its equation of homosexuality with violent psychopathology ignited protests and widespread cries of "homophobia" for the first time. But Franco and Mathews aren't interested in that aspect of "Cruising's" legacy, except tangentially, in their avowed desire to reclaim the film's right to its own voice. In one of the first scenes, Franco makes a nuanced point about the whole idea of normality and transgression, questioning, in conversation with Mathews, what might be lost once gay marriage becomes the norm, and whether the desire to claim a universal right will morph into pressure on gay couples to conform to middle class norms about marriage and love.
Franco and Mathews are not remotely interested in a serious attempt to recreate "Cruising's" narrative strategies, as evidenced by the fact that their "recreation" is entirely improvised, is filmed almost exclusively in close-ups, and also occupies far less than 40 minutes of screen time. The co-directors are instead much more intrigued by "Crusing's" central social experiment--that of placing an ostensibly "straight" man inside a sexual context that violates his own ideas about what's normal, and then seeing how he reacts.
Toward that end, longtime Franco friend and acting colleague Val Lauren is cast in the Pacino role, and then filmed as he's nervously prepared to expect pretty much anything to happen on set. Lauren takes concerned phone calls from well-meaning homophobic friends and from his wife, and he's tracked as he interacts with a variety of actors -- both straight and gay -- who've been hired to simulate and also to perform sex acts in Franco and Mathews' stripped-down club set. It's not quite possible to categorize "Interior. Leather Bar" as a documentary, although it certainly has that feel much of the time. A playful streak emerges about halfway through, when Lauren is finally given a few pages of script to read, shakes his head, and then is shown to be "performing" his upset for Mathews and the camera crew, who compliment him on the believable discomfort we thought was actually happening before our eyes.
There is a strong pornographic flavor to much of "Interior. Leather Bar.," including lingering images of male body parts we don't necessarily associate with actors who star in Disney tentpole films (pun unintended) or as sidekick characters in Spider-Man movies. If that limits "Interior. Leather Bar's" appeal or its distribution, the filmmakers seem more than willing to live with that.
Here's the thing, though: as a nuanced and almost loving exploration of imagery and topics that are frequently dealt with via political hysteria, "Interior. Leather Bar." deserves as wide an audience as is possible for it to obtain. It's a film that doesn't explore sexual transgression so much as question how anything like consensual sex ever became equated with transgression in the first place. That it does this within a layered but quite accessible analysis of filmmaking itself as both a tool for sexual exploration and an accomplice in painting scarlet letters over common human acts of affection and pleasure makes this one of the more intricate hour-long movies you're likely to see.