Thursday, February 20, 2014

Interior. Leather Bar. (2014): Being a Minority

Interior. Leather Bar. (2014)
dir: Travis Mathews, James Franco

I wonder if the gay community that protested Cruising in the 1980s would have protested if they knew that 34 years later Cruising would be used as the basis for a meditation on heteronormativity.

William Friedkin, the director of The Boys in the Band, is a straight man who made an underground thriller about a murder spree set among the gay leather scene of the 1980s. Al Pacino, also a straight man, played a heterosexual cop who has to go undercover in the gay leather scene to catch the murderer. And, of course, Pacino gets caught up in the scene, has sex with the men, and everything gets twisted.

In 1980, of course, gays were far more sensitive about their deviancy than they are now. When a mainstream heterosexual director, who previously made a movie that was condemned by the community for being a negative stereotype, announced his plans to make a movie about murderers in a sexually deviant community, of course the community is going to rally against the movie for fear of it being yet another example of negative stereotyping of a community.

Beyond the protesting gays, Friedkin had to face the MPAA, who slapped Cruising with an X-rating (the NC-17 rating still being a decade off). Friedkin stated that he had to send Cruising back 50 times, losing at least 40 minutes of footage, which is now completely lost as UA has, apparently, destroyed the footage. The footage has been speculated to be mostly scenes in the leather bars that had a lot more hardcore action than what remains in the R-rated film.

James Franco and Travis Mathews have taken it upon themselves to re-imagine what those 40 minutes might have looked like. They didn't have the budget to fully recreate the 40 minutes to the point where they could reincorporate it into a film. They barely had a budget to pay the participants in the film. But, Interior. Leather Bar. isn't even the 40 minutes of footage that they recreated to stand in for the symbolic 40 minutes of footage. That 40 minutes of footage is too heavy a symbol to be recreated in any satisfactory manner (especially since they're not nearly as talented of directors as William Friedkin).

What Mathews and Franco have created is a meditation on what it means to be homosexual in the world of a exploring what it means to be heterosexual in the world of the homosexual. Interior. Leather Bar. is a movie examining what heteronormativity (a term Franco almost uses, but decides to keep things on a more populist level) and the constant bombardment of heterosexual images actually means in terms of the world that's created.

Interior. Leather Bar. centers around Val Lauren, a heterosexual actor who is hired by James Franco to portray the Al Pacino character in the Leather Bar scenes. The character of Val is scripted as a heterosexual who is uncomfortable portraying a homosexual, and who is also uncomfortable with the hardcore homosexual activity that he is being surrounded with. Throughout the film, he deals with his own feelings of being uncomfortable with the sexual activity, as well as with his ideas of what the purpose of this project actually is.

Mathews, who also wrote the screenplay, has created a fictional movie that acts like it is a documentary in order to examine the behavior of hetero people when put in an environment where they are the minority. James Franco, Val Lauren, and a couple other guys are surrounded by gay guys who are doing gay things, including sucking, fucking, paddling, licking boots, and other kinky behavior. Of course, kink and public sex isn't necessarily normal or average for the gay community, which is why he includes the role of an experienced Dom to educate and teach a gay couple on how to act domineering in the part. Kink is as deviant in the gay community as it is in the straight community; it's just a bit more accepted in the gay community as one part of our community.

The main thesis of Interior. Leather Bar., as explained by James Franco, is to burst out of the heteronormative vanilla bubble that is constructed for most people. He opines to Val that Freidkin set Cruising in a dark dirty place in order to make the movie darker and dirtier than normal. Franco says that Pacino had to face his sexuality on the set in these dark places from a distance of seeing the gay leather community as an other. But, Franco then tells Val that he and Val are facing these other constructions from a happy, open, healthier place. That he wants to embrace this other sexuality from a place of openness, even if he isn't perfectly comfortable with the actual acts because they aren't part of his sexuality.

Mathews is sly, though. Through the surrounding of heterosexual main characters with homosexual behavior, he's making a statement about what it means to be gay in the world of heterosexual behavior. Also, a pattern which comes out of Franco's mouth, though not nearly as explicitly as possible. In this one scene, in which he outlays the "thesis" of the film, Franco is laying out Gender Studies 101 theses while also dancing around the terminology to bring the behavior patterns to a more populist audience.

What Franco dances around is that the world that's been constructed for him and Val is a world in which hetero sex, or couples, are used to sell everything from cereal to soap to cars. And, by facing a world surrounded by homosexual behavior, he is, in turn, experiencing what it is like for gays to be surrounded by straight behavior. The world constantly asks homosexuals to participate in hetero behavior. Neil Patrick Harris practically sent this up with his NPH creation in the Harold and Kumar series by having his NPH character be a drug-using, woman-using, straight celebrity. Other gay men are frequently asked to act as heterosexuals in films and television just to make a buck. However, when a straight man is asked to participate in gay behavior, its generally met with fear of a stereotype (especially from agents), and can be faced with "hey, I'm straight. I'm just playing gay!" comments, even from established actors (glaring at you, Michael Douglas).

Mathews sends up the pressure for heteronormative behavior as well. Not only by having Val talk to his girlfriend constantly, but he also scripts a call from Val to his agent. The conversation of Val and his agent is all about how gay sex is pornography, and that many people will see this as a porno, and that Val will be associated with this porno for awhile. Which not only informs of the internal struggle to be completely straight, but also the external pressure to act straight even if you're not.

Along with Kink, Franco is trying to burst America out of its rigid bubble of sexuality. When I reviewed Kink, I commented on how Kink was mainly focused on female alternative sexuality, and tended to distance itself from the male kink perspective. Not necessarily because Kink was afraid of the male sexuality, but because the director was a female and focused on what intrigued her about the project. Interior. Leather Bar. also isn't focused on the whys of the male alternative sexuality, but instead focuses on the internals of male straight and vanilla sexuality. The connection that both movies share, however, is a push toward the normalization of alternative sexualities, and a creation for the sexuality rainbow.

But, and there's always a but, both movies are explicit. Far beyond what would garner either movie an R-rating. Of course, sexuality has been a hiccup for the MPAA in general, and Mathews through Franco comments on that too. Mathews, of course, has been a creator of movies about gay relationships with explicit gay content. His last movie, I Want Your Love was co-produced by the gay porn site Naked Sword, and has been labeled as a split between porno and gay romance. It was also denied screening in Australia. But, gay sexuality has always had a troubling history with the MPAA, guilty of the idea that gays can be shown to adults but not seen fucking. In both Weekend and Keep The Lights On, they were released Unrated. Whether they got slapped with NC-17 ratings, or just bypassed the MPAA altogether is unclear, but they decided that the films would be better released without an MPAA sticker on it than by even thinking of having to cut out the not-that-explicit sexuality that is a key part of either film.

Interior. Leather Bar. and Kink are both confronting the adult fear of sexuality in general. Mathews, through Franco, hoists the usual petard of Americans are OK with seeing violence, death, torture, etc on green-band all-audience trailers, but as soon as you show a hint of gay sexuality, then all hell breaks loose. Even straight sexuality is slapped with R-ratings for anything under the clothes, but a guy getting shot is A-OK. This isn't explored much, and just more of Mathews wanking around with college level 101 critiques of American culture.

The big question of Interior. Leather Bar. is what is it trying to say that Cruising didn't already express 34 years ago? Looking at Cruising, the hypothesis that Mathews through Franco posits is that Cruising was looking at gay alternative sexuality as a deep dark place full of sinister sleaze. As a result of this viewpoint of gay leather as the other, which Cruising never really resolves, Friedkin makes a safe haven for heterosexuals to shun the gay leather community, even as their hetero cipher Pacino is trying to save them from the murderer. Gay leather people may be people who you can't relate to, but certainly they deserve somebody to save them from being killed, right? And, bless Pacino for sacrificing his sexuality to delve into these dark places.

Of course, that was the old viewpoint, still held by many in the community. No disrespect to them, but that viewpoint has changed quite a bit, considering Friedkin's usual misanthropic viewpoint. Friedkin is no less damning of the gay leather community as a dark, sleazy place as he is of southern culture, Washington families, or motels. It's a setting full of people doing things that frequently look sleazy and scary, in no small part because that style turns people on. Friedkin was merely reflecting what he saw.

So, is Interior. Leather Bar. merely deconstructing Cruising in an attempt to attach college-level sociological language to what people will actually experience while watching Cruising? Or, is Franco and Mathews actually creating more of a safe space for Val to explore what it feels like to dive into gay sexuality, and gay culture? Did Franco and Mathews create a movie that expands upon the inversed fish-out-of-water story that was Cruising, or did they merely simplify and deconstruct? That may depend on where you're coming from.

Which brings us to the problem of Interior. Leather Bar. Who's the audience? If I had my way, I'd force every straight person in America to watch this. Every single one of them. It provides a hard look at the culture they live in, and maybe some will be self aware enough to realize that the feelings they're feeling are felt every day by the people who don't share their sexuality. But, it is hardcore gay sexuality as well. So, most straights won't go out to see it. So, is it for the gays? Certainly, gays will go see a movie about gay leather sexuality, especially if it is explicit. But, most gays don't need to be versed in sociological wankery about heteronormative lifestyle, and the straight guys' reactions become more of a comedy than a mirror for their own lifestyle (especially since most of us have had decades of being surrounded by straights). So, will the straights see it just because of James Franco? Who knows.

What I do know is Interior. Leather Bar. is a peculiar provocation of a film that is penetrating and asks the same old questions in new ways. Even if its intended audience will skim over it in the search for their next Adam Sandler film, Mathews and Franco have tried to advance the culture simply by peering into the soul of everyday straight person, and asking them to do the same. By inverting the question, they're simply asking for acceptance of that which you may not like. And, that, is all the difference.

Required viewing.

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