Atlanta Film Festival Retro Spotlight #3: James Franco’s INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR. Explores Lost Footage, Is Just Lost

Ed. Note: INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR.  played Thursday March 21 at the Plaza Theatre. Today’s the last day of the  Atlanta Film Festival (Sun. March 24), and you can still catch encore screenings of festival winners and attend a party at the Plaza starting at 9 p.m. Check out our top Retro picks here.

Retro Review by Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Here’s the pitch: The release version of William Friedkin‘s 1980 oddity CRUISING is incomplete. The, um, problematic film stars Al Pacino as an undercover cop hunting a serial killer in New York’s gay underground, and it’s known today more or less as an ugly, backwards-thinking misfire that depicts gay men as craven lust monsters and deviants. In fact, some footage in the original cut was deemed to be too graphic and contained enough sexual material to land the film the deadly X rating. Cuts were made, 40 minutes of cuts, and since this happened in the era before home video and director’s cuts and special features, that footage is lost forever. Three decades later, directors James Franco and Travis Mathews imagine their own version of that footage and hire a batch of young unknown actors to recreate it. Franco and Mathews encourage the actors to find their own boundaries with the material, to go as far as they’re comfortable. For some of them, this means unsimulated sex on camera.

That’s a fascinating premise, but it begs so many questions. Franco and Mathews can reimagine this footage, but why? What point are they trying to make? What do you do with the footage when you separate it from the context of the film that inspired it? And what’s to be gained by shooting material almost certainly more explicit than the footage Friedkin shot? The actors Franco and Mathews hire ask those exact same questions throughout INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR., but they never get any real answers. Neither, I’m afraid, do we.

INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR. is several movies at the same time. One movie is the recreated footage. Another is a documentary about the making of that footage depicting Val Lauren, a friend of Franco’s and the actor portraying the Pacino role in the new footage, as a confused actor trying to make sense of the project. The last film is a meta-doc about the making of the doc, revealing that all or most of that material is scripted or staged. The result is a film that never seems to get its bearings about what exactly it’s trying to do, when the obvious answer is everything.

Val has the most screen time as the actor asks questions, stares wide-eyed at the sex happening in front of him on the set, and fields calls from a man who is likely his agent complaining that he’s doing “Franco’s faggot movie.” Franco appears in the film as himself, or at least a version of himself who appears gleefully willing to spoof his persona as a Hollywood big shot and all-around weird guy. Val convinces the nervous actors (and himself) that Franco must have a purpose for shooting this footage, but Franco himself can’t muster more than a few incoherent points, basically throwing up his hands and saying “why not?” whenever Val asks why.

INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR. takes a few well-aimed potshots at Hollywood hypocrisy, both in the content that it produces—sex, especially gay sex, can banish a film to obscurity, but bring on all the murders and gore you can carry!—and the people who claim to have artistic ambitions, but don’t really know what that means. But those points are the stuff that stuck after so many other things were thrown at the wall. Franco and Mathews want to declare that sex is beautiful and belongs in mainstream film, but their film is an outsider because of the explicit sex. For all of Val’s agent’s bigotry, he makes one valid point. People will see this film or hear about it, and immediately assume it’s a porno.

I must admit that there’s a certain thrill to seeing something so far on the fringes conceived by and starring a man who right now, today, is starring in a huge, Disney blockbuster at the local multiplex. But INTERIOR. LEATHER BAR. feels like cameras were turned on and footage shot without a plan. Franco (the character) doesn’t seem to have any idea what he’s trying to say. Franco (the actual) seems to want to say too much. Hollywood types, amIright?

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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