Proving that a movie shot over a day and a half can premiere at Sundance if it has James Franco’s name attached, “Interior. Leather Bar.” is an infuriating stunt that misrepresents itself as Franco and co-director Travis Mathews’ reimagining of the 40 minutes William Friedkin claims he was forced to cut from “Cruising” to get an R rating. Yet it would seem “James Franco’s 40 Minutes” don’t exist either, leaving only this hastily tossed-off companion piece, a partly authentic, partly scripted behind-the-scenes featurette that never quite conveys the star’s “high/curious” interest in all things taboo. After Sundance and Berlin, relative obscurity awaits.
On paper, the project echoes Franco’s earlier “Memories of Idaho,” two experimental films made from scraps that Gus Van Sant discarded during the making of “My Own Private Idaho.” A notorious embellisher, Friedkin has often said that he brought “Cruising” to the ratings board 50 times before they relented and gave him an R, despite still-graphic footage and talk of bondage and numerous other fetish acts, nearly all of it unsimulated.
In his DVD director’s commentary for “Cruising,” Friedkin explains how he recruited actual members of Gotham’s leather-bar scene: “Of course, I filmed all these activities in their entirety, but all the other film that I shot has somehow disappeared.” With or without the lost X-rated material, “Cruising” was an important and controversial film in its time, serving as a time capsule of a pre-AIDS sexual subculture, while conflating its play-acted aggression with a series of ripped-from-the-headlines New York murders.
As such, it’s a rich text to reopen, though Mathews (an openly queer director who shook up the LGBT fest circuit with his art-porn feature “I Want Your Love”) makes no effort to investigate what went missing or query Friedkin, but instead focuses on Franco as the pic’s more marketable meta-subject. Recognizing how the “is he or isn’t he” debate has dogged nearly all of Franco’s recent art projects (beginning with his blatantly homoerotic NYU student short, “The Feast of Stephen”), Mathews attempts to shift the attention onto Franco and his creative process.
None of the young actors who agree to participate in the film, least of all Val Lauren (a longtime Playhouse West cohort and star of Franco’s directorial debut, “Sal”), would have enlisted if not for Franco’s involvement. Although Franco appears in the film, his role is mostly that of the man behind the curtain, stirring things up with half-baked opinions, such as his complaint that the MPAA is to blame for his hetero-normative upbringing: “Why don’t they gives us violence in a little more palatable way, and amp up the sex?”
Franco really should have agreed to take the pic’s Al Pacino part himself — a Kinsey Zero assigned to go undercover and blend with an extreme queer subculture — but instead delegates it to Lauren, asking the actor to “play” a version of himself. To the extent that this sloppy assembly has a shape, the film constructs an arc in which Lauren constantly questions his participation in the project (different from the controversial tension underlying “Cruising,” where exposure to leather bars may be turning Pacino’s cop aggressive and/or gay). Lauren is seen debating his choice with the other actors, most of them straight, and improvising calls to a homophobic friend (performed by one of Franco’s producers) and his supportive wife.
The “Cruising” re-creations make up only a small portion of the pic’s running time, shying away from Crisco-covered forearms and the other extreme acts that caused Friedkin so much grief, while trying to portray barroom fellatio and a random, unrelated rough-love scene between three bears as “just right.” This last act pushes the underlying insult to new extremes, cutting between “dirty” closeups and the expressions on Lauren and Franco’s faces as they watch from the sidelines, pretending that witnessing this act of outre lovemaking has somehow broadened their minds.