James Franco in Leather, in a Bar, in a FIlm about Cruising

There’s a conversation in the middle of Travis Matthews and James Franco’s Interior. Leather Bar., which has its first screening tonight as part of Toronto's Hot Docs Documentary Festival, that’s worth quoting at length:

Here’s how I feel: I don’t like the fact that I’ve been brought up to think a certain way. I don’t like realizing that my mind has been twisted by how the world has been set up around me. And what that is, is straight, normative behaviour, and it’s fucking instilled in my brain. And, yeah, I’ll say it: it was a little shocking to me at first, while I was watching that, but only because of the world around me, because every fucking toilet paper commercial has a man and a woman living in a house together, and every love story has a dude chasing a girl, and the only way they’re gonna be happy is if they walk off in the sunset together. I’m sick of that shit, so if there’s a way I can break that up in my mind, I’m all for it.”

Franco explains this line of reasoning to actor and friend Val Lauren in order to assuage his concerns about the nature of the project in which he’s found himself starring, a docufiction experiment that is at once a standalone film and its own making-of. The fictional dimension of the film is relatively straightforward, at least conceptually: Franco and company are attempting to reimagine and recreate the 40 minutes of footage excised by MPAA command from the R-rated cut of William Friedkin’s Cruising, which starred Al Pacino as a cop working the early-80s gay nightclub scene undercover. But Interior. Leather Bar. would more accurately be described as a documentary following the production of this fictional footage, which is why Franco feels justified in pontificating loftily about the purpose of his own film as he’s ostensibly making it. This is the rare case of a film that, rather than articulating its themes through form, opts to crudely explicate them, becoming in the process not so much a film about queerness as a film about being about it.

Franco’s conception of normativity, though not exactly sophisticated, nevertheless contains an important truth: representation is inherently political. It’s important to recognize that our understanding of the world is governed to a staggering degree by a dominant ideology, and that, yes, the toilet paper commercials and love stories toward which Franco is indignant offer exclusively hetero-normative models that contribute to our perception of the parameters of what’s socially acceptable. One ought rightly to be sick of that shit. To be aware of all of this and to attempt to “break that up,” as Franco suggests, is tremendously valuable—both as a matter of personal effort and as an artistic endeavor—much in the same way that, say, actively dismantling rape culture is valuable. And so to the degree that Interior. Leather Bar. represents an attempt to engage with normativity and disrupt its influence (as Franco’s impassioned treatise suggests), its intentions are commendable. The problem is that it in practice has the opposite effect.

Interior’s response to the status quo is to offer an alternative in the extreme. In a sense this is a reasonable approach: because the images are thoroughly provocative—the fictional diegesis includes graphic depictions of unsimulated sex acts—an audience, and in particular a straight audience, will be theoretically compelled to think about why these representations seem shocking or otherwise transgressive. One can imagine the ideal line of thinking: someone repulsed by the images then reconsiders their own repulsion, acknowledges that their conception of normal sexual behaviour has been socially constructed, and finally concludes, happily, that the cultural hegemony must be rejected. Part of the issue here is that the gay sex represented in Interior—a self-conscious mockup of S&M-club cruising circa 1981, at least as imagined by a Hollywood film of the era—is extreme in an almost parodic way, less an accurate depiction of queerness than a falsified portrait of it. The resulting images are in a way grotesquely shocking, straight-conceived caricatures of a bygone era, rather than organically provocative in a way that might be fairly illustrative. The question the film asks is: why are these images shocking? Franco wants the answer to be “because heteronormativity dictates it,” but one wonders if it isn’t actually “because the images are absurd”.

It’s hard to shake the sense that what’s really going on Interior. Leather Bar., much more than any vaunted “liberation” of the queer image, is tacit marginalization. There’s a word for the manner in which the film relegates queerness to a niche extreme: ghettoization. It’s true that there is value in the incendiary—challenging perceptions so deeply ingrained sometimes requires a degree of intensity that can be problematic in the broad view—but, besides the fact that maybe a straight man of immense privilege isn’t the best person to decide whether adopting this position is appropriate, this particular polemic seems at odds with its stated purpose. Franco’s desire to see his socially governed preconceptions of normality undermined doesn’t demand an image designed in sharp opposition; that kind of flip-side revelation is liable to reify a sense of difference rather than erase it. What Interior. Leather Bar. fails to understand is that sexual difference ought to be itself naturalized, not by marginal representations but by an endless, self-effacing panoply of behaviours and desires. Queer sex isn’t some absurd, ritualized thing that needs to be bracketed and scrutinized; it’s just sex, as wonderful and natural and whatever as any other kind. The film is right that toilet paper commercials and love stories are uniformly straight. It’s wrong about the appropriate response: a gay S&M pseudo-porno packaged as an arthouse docufiction isn’t the progressive way to dismantle the status quo; making toilet paper commercials and love stories that are unexceptionally queer might be.
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