By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 12, 2013 at 3:43PM
So let's clear up a few misconceptions about this film -- and of course there are misconceptions, it's a James Franco project. In fact it's the third title to boast his involvement at this Berlin Film Festival (after "Lovelace" and "Maladies"), but here he is pulling double duty as co-director with Travis Matthews, and performer, as himself (kinda). Firstly, "Interior. Leather Bar" is not a recreation/reimagining of the "censored," never-shown 40 minutes from William Friedkin's "Cruising," nor even footage inspired by that missing footage. Instead it's a semi-scripted, hour-long documentary about the production of that reimagined footage, in which much less of the actual recreated footage appears than the stories around its making, the concept behind it and the utterly self-conscious, self-referential approach. Hope you're still with us?
Secondly, while Franco is credited throughout with being the guy who came up with the "Cruising" angle, it quickly becomes apparent that this film ends up being less an homage to an existing film than, like many other Franco projects, an examination of the creative act and a meditation on the nature of his own personal brand of celebrity, albeit one with a higher than usual erect penis quotient. And the last misconception we'd like to address that may have arisen during points one and two above, is that the film is therefore unwatchably precious. It's not. It's actually pretty good.
If we sound surprised, we were. But after a shaky start, featuring Franco, Matthews and reluctant lead actor and longtime friend of Franco's, Val Lauren, "talking through" the project and in the process revealing they have no real idea what they're doing, we go straight into an audition sequence and the film actually starts to take shape. In fact, the most beguiling aspect of it may be the frequent references by all of the principals to just how little they understand what the end result of their labors might be, and yet here we are watching it, and it is so much more interesting than the thing they are struggling to even loosely describe. There is some weird alchemy going on.
Anyway, the to-camera profiles of the actors who get cast as the extras in the scene are really great, and while some are gay, some are straight, and some are willing to have full sex on camera, others are squeamish about even kissing, and their personal reasons for being there vary wildly, there is a throughline and it is Franco. Some of them just want to meet him, others are hoping to see him naked (that does not happen), and still others are really sold on his "vision," whether or not they themselves fully understand it. In fact, Val falls into that last category, but as he has known Franco so long, he is the one who challenges him about it. In the film's best scene, he and Franco emerge, flushed and a little dazed, from being onlookers at a scene of graphic gay sex they had been filming inside. Their conversation feels utterly authentic, as though the ideas and arguments they generate, prompted by what they've been watching, are truly occurring to them for the first time: they seem like men feeling their way along the darkened passage of the creative act, with only the faintest far-off glimmer of light to guide them. And if Franco's own reaction reveals the edges of a perilously large ego, along with his behaviour throughout (walking off set, giving utterly useless, non-committal direction to his friend who is struggling to help him achieve his "vision"), we then remember that actually he must have had close involvement in the edit, so he chose to leave those bits in. And that makes us kind of like him all over again.
But actually that touches on the other main narrative that we were impressed by -- for all the talk about sexuality and censorship and art and societal norms, the film is not just intellectual onanism (thought here is a fair bit of that). There are some real emotions on display here -- Val Lauren emerges as a kind of model of a great friend, someone who challenges Franco when he disagrees with him ("You gotta be careful with this stuff, man, you're making a fucking Disney movie right now"), but ultimately believes in him and will help him out even when others are advising him not to, and telling him rightly that a disaster here would be so much more injurious to his low profile than to Franco's expanding fame. And between the extras there are nice revealing moments of getting-to-know-you-because-I'll-be-spanking-your-leather-chaps-in-five-minutes conversation. And of course there are a lot of shots of blowing, masturbation, bootlicking and gratuitous body-oiling, so best not take your mom unless she's into that.
So how much of this is set up, and how much is actually real? The "spontaneous" phone conversations and a scene in a car park in which Val reads from a script that he's sitting in a car park reading from a script, are just some of the elements that draw attention to the artificiality of what we may have thought was real. But ultimately we can't know the answer to that and it doesn't matter because the more intriguing questions have already been provoked. We have been critical of Franco before, and probably will be again for the times his experiments cross the line from personal exploration into pretentious exercise. But with "Interior. Leather Bar." that line is walked cleverly (are Mathews and Lauren perhaps a good influence as collaborators?), and Franco has finally delivered a side project that does at least some justice to his eclectic artistic ambitions.[B]