As “queer” continues/completes its progress out of the academic imagination and into a somewhat unsettled resting place as descriptor for a wide variety of non-normative sexual and social practices, that phrase “non-normative” seems to grow both in complexity and as a site of contention. What, exactly, are the limits of a queer identity, a descriptor whose borders are intentionally fluid? How far can we open it? Is there a point at which “non-normative” transitions from a liberatory field of possibility into a weird, self-fulfilling prophecy of its inverse as a new terrain of assimilation? More bluntly, what is to be done with all these straights?
These questions reside somewhere in the background and/or offscreen over the course of Travis Mathews and James Franco’s Interior. Leather Bar., never quite making it into the picture, though Franco himself spends a great deal of onscreen time asking boilerplate rhetoricals along the lines of “Isn’t it fucked up that a lot of people still don’t want to see men fucking on screen?”
The film, which purportedly documents the attempts of the two co-directors to recreate the mythic lost 40 minutes of footage censored from William Friedkin’s gaysploitation noir Cruising (1980), appears to aim for a messy integration of praxis and theory. But what results is more a haphazard clashing of Franco and Mathews’s aesthetics than real theoretical sparks — despite the clear possibilities inherent in the collaboration of a heterosexual mainstream actor with a San Francisco auteur, whose featherweight but charming first film, I Want Your Love (2012), found a comfortable space somewhere between gay porn and starry-eyed community document.
Shot on pocket-sized cameras that are often visible onscreen, the film plays with integration and confusion of documentary and scripted footage as the team assembles actors and arranges set design for the leather club that was the setting for Cruising’s cut footage of presumably uninhibited S&M play. For his part, Mathews spends most of his onscreen time in Interior. Leather Bar. consumed with the practicals of overseeing his recreation, and there’s a touching camaraderie between him and the gay actors. But the majority of the film is loosely structured around a heavy-handed narrative involving the actor Val Lauren, who plays the Al Pacino role in the re-creation, as he comes to terms with his discomfort about gay sex in films.
Taken alongside Franco’s onscreen Intro to Queer Studies factoids, which handle the bulk of the theoretical exposition, and his incessant pep talks with Lauren, the overall prefab “tolerance” arc weighs heavy, even if this arc is revealed as scripted rather than documentary in one of the least interesting reflexive reveals in recent memory. Filling in what might have been propulsive areas of indeterminacy with an all-too-clear overarching purpose, this focus fixes the film around a reductively heterosexual lens on the queer experience that remains sadly un-interrogated. It’s also quite poorly acted.
Nevertheless, the film’s freewheeling aesthetic approach does allow for a few moments of interest and play to bubble through, such as a montage early in the film involving gay actors cruising the camera as an audition tape and explaining why they wish to take part. When the oft-discussed onscreen fucking finally arrives, it’s an unexpectedly lovely moment that cuts between spare documentary images of the team shooting the scene and heavily color-graded footage of the resulting scene, playing with heterosexual spectatorship of the queer experience in a manner that for once feels relatively unforced, save a few unfortunate close-ups of Lauren telegraphing “discomfort.”
Moments such as these — and there are many more, tucked into momentary asides such as the pleasantly bemused expression on a gay actor’s face as he’s instructed on just how to paddle someone — encapsulate the integration of performance and (gay) performativity with documentary in far more elegant ways than the film’s central arc can — a division best summed up in an exchange between a participant in the climactic fuck, Brendan Gregory, and Lauren. Gregory ruefully laughs about how he’s only been in three films and he had sex onscreen in all of them, to his mother’s dismay, while Lauren responds with a clearly scripted bit about his girlfriend and her discomfort, a lived reality butting up against a far weaker scripted one.
The result of these fleeting moments and images taken alongside the many blunter moments results in something like watching two films play out simultaneously, a feeling one is tempted to ascribe to Interior. Leather Bar.’s two creators. But there’s a third film in the room, far less often glimpsed: the footage of those lost 40 minutes, recreated. When it does appear, it’s largely underwhelming and hardly more explicit (save a few moments of penetration) than the footage that made it into the final cut of Cruising. At its best, this elision functions productively as a sense of loss, of a dreamed-of experience not yet seen. At worst, it’s a proudly queer eros left aside for the sake of far less interesting (and far more heterosexual) pursuits.