In 2013, James Franco sets the gold standard for self-indulgent Auteur and on a scale that rivals even Andy Warhol. 'Interior. Leather Bar.' (Co-Directed with Travis Mathews) is just one of many Franco-projects that I've found myself viewing this past year (see also: 'Child of God', 'This is the End', 'Oz The Great and Powerful', 'Lovelace', 'Maladies', 'Tar', 'Spring Breakers', 'The Iceman' - and those are just the ones I managed to catch at various festivals). Looking forward to 2014, the man has an entire lifetime of projects (for some actor/directors) in varying stages of production. My take on his absolutely madding and eclectic trajectory; Franco has found a new type of celebrity excess and, be it a creative excess or not, I can't really purport its value to anyone except Franco himself. The films vary from insightful to entertaining, slow & introspective to over-the-top and self-aware. There is not a solid through-line to this career but there is no denying that Franco has an unquenchable thirst for experience and you gotta love him just a bit for sharing it with us. Experience has to have been the impetus for the documentary 'Interior. Leather Bar.' which followings a film crew (Franco included) as they attempt to reimagine the 40 minutes of footage censored by the MPAA from William Friedkin's 1980 film 'Cruising'. The film stared Al Pacino as an undercover cop and follows his investigation of a series of murders in New York City's gay underground. 'Cruising' explores the darkest corners of gay culture: anonymous cruising for sex in public parks and notorious S&M clubs with names like the Eagle's Nest, the Ramrod, and the Cock Pit. It's unclear what footage was actually cut from the original film as it has never been viewed publicly but the general assumption is that it consisted of actual gay sex shot in explicit detail as was true to life in these pre-AIDS-era clubs. The set up for 'Interior. Leather Bar.' is a desire by Franco to expose this suppression and to face what it is that's considered subversive in our culture and explore why it is taboo. After speaking to a number of different people at the Polari Film Festival after party (at Austin's best attempt at a leather bar), I gather that few people actually believed that the film achieved this; I, myself, being one of the skeptics. Instead of placing himself in the Al Pacino role – the straight man posing as gay in the most salacious environment imaginable – Franco recruits long-time friend and acting colleague Val Lauren ('The Salton Sea' / 'Live from Baghdad'). Lauren struggles with the content (which his agent outright refers to as pornography and begs him to decline involvement for the sake of his career), he is given no script, and only the slightest direction as he is plunged into a darkly lit set, surrounded by men in the throes of passion, punishment, and partying. Franco makes appearances, gets up close with his camera, and we get a few asides with him and Lauren as they step away from set and try to come to terms with what they are doing and why; there is a genuine sense that both are disturbed by what they've accomplished and, for Lauren, this single-day shoot might be a life-changing event. Here lies the crux of this film - Franco seems to have a legion of pseudo-sycophants at his disposal who are willing to indulge his every whim. 'Interior. Leather Bar.' seems to be nothing more than one such whim with Lauren as his proxy, playing out the experiences that Franco is too frightened to touch. Alternately, this could be a truly elaborate practical joke directed toward Lauren for reasons unknown – or, perhaps, for no reason but as a salve for Franco's boredom with his own normality. Regardless of its intention the film is an exciting experiment in documentary filmmaking and as mixed as my feelings are concerning the filmmaker, he has accomplished something truly intriguing.
-David Massey (www.popculturebeast.com)
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