Sundance Review: James Franco’s ‘Interior. Leather Bar.’
Director William Friedkin had to cut 40 minutes of his 1980 thriller Cruising to secure a widespread release for the film. Starring Al Pacino as undercover cop Steve Burns, the movie dove deep into the world of homosexual S&M to unmask a serial killer haunting New York’s underground gay scene. In 2013, filmmakers James Franco and Travis Mathews reshot that lost footage.
Just to be clear, Interior. Leather Bar. is not itself the reimagining: the film is a one-hour documentary detailing the production of it. Actor Val Lauren thus becomes our subject and star. It is through his eyes and experiences (with his fellow actors and even with his directors) that we meet and comprehend the full thematic charge pumping through the gay bar bass sets. When he is curious, we are curious, and as is often the case, when he becomes uncomfortable, we all become uncomfortable.
That being said, why was the original footage cut to begin with? If you think about it long enough, it becomes frightful just how detestable the answer is. Val Lauren, our protagonist and everyman, has an issue with what eventually boils down to gay sex. And if, like me, you cringe (however faintly) at the sight of one man going down on another, what does that have to say about you?
But while I refuse to dismiss the creative and artistic thunder that our directors wield like wooden paddles and leather whips, I do question its execution. For when you try to create a film like this, you have to pick a side and stick with it. What I mean is that you’re either working a documentary or a fictional narrative, and what we have here is not exactly either. We catch glimpses of the man behind the camera coaching Val and his compatriots on what to say and how to say it, which ruins the third-party appeal we could have warmed up to had we not known it was all staged from the get-go.
In other words, what we seem to have on our hands is a fictional film about a documentary on the modern day reshooting of 40 minutes cut from a bad, early-80s William Friedkin movie. It’s a confusing thought to wrap your head around, and when you finally manage to clamp down on it, you’re immediately bothered by what can only be the sting of utter and absolute pretension. By the simple inclusion of a few scattered bits of directed documentary, the entire idea behind the film threatens to unravel at its leathery seams. Yet, it somehow hangs on—if only by a thread.
However much you want to lambast its execution, Interior. Leather Bar. achieves exactly what it set out to do: make you think, and think hard. If you are at all unaccustomed to homosexual S&M you will be made awkward, and like Val Lauren, you just have to sit there and watch. But rather than shut yourself off from the experience altogether, try reasoning with Franco, Mathews and even yourself. Ask the tough questions and see what you come up with. No doubt—like every actor, director, script supervisor & PA on that set, you might be surprised with what turns out.