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By Mark Bell | January 20, 2013

William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising, starring Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover to find a killer in New York City’s gay, S&M-friendly leather bar scene, was so controversial for its time that the director had to remove 40 minutes from the film to avoid an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Travis Mathews’ insanely meta film Interior. Leather Bar. follows the filming of a short film re-imagining of those missing 40 minutes, as directed by James Franco. With actor Val Lauren in the Al Pacino role, Franco assembles a number of different actors, of different sexual preference, to re-create his idea of what existed in those 40 minutes.

I wasn’t sure what I was in for with Interior. Leather Bar. Part of me wondered if I was just going to see the 40 minutes played out, but I liked the extra step back perspective that is gained by making an exploration of a making of a film. In that way, it becomes more than just creating a challenging short film, but it becomes about the creative energy that surrounds that process.

And that creative energy is all over the place, depending on your own perspective, and it is equally intriguing to see how the different actors approach the short film, and their reasons for getting involved. For some, it’s a case of doing something different, more daring than traditional fare. For others, it’s a case of hearing the name “James Franco” and saying, “If he’s involved, I want to be a part of it.” Everyone comes at it from a different perspective, and even Val Lauren finds himself in a camp that is dubious about what the short’s purpose is, but entirely supportive of James Franco regardless. Lauren may not “get” what the short is, but he believes in Franco enough to move forward despite his doubts.

Which makes Lauren an avatar for the audience too. As he has his doubts and concerns, so too might those watching the process. Likewise, as he finds himself, perhaps not comfortable, but more accepting as the filming goes, the audience finds their own peace with the film. Or they don’t.

Franco doesn’t necessarily make it easy, either. Often, when questions of how to play the scene come up, Franco becomes almost annoyingly evasive, with little direct answers. Only when Lauren expresses his objections to filming unsimulated sex does Franco’s purpose seem to come out.

Because sometimes, it seems even Franco doesn’t feel comfortable with the film. But that’s part of the point, that feeling of discomfort doesn’t come from a pure place so much as a societal conditioned place, and Franco wants to confront his own discomfort. In doing so, he helps us do the same.

Likewise, he has a point (well, many) in his feelings of sex as a storytelling tool, and one that should be allowed to be taken as far as it can. If violence, in comparison, can find newer highs (or lows, depending on your opinion), why is it really so taboo to show gay sex, or any sex, in a film? In this format, he’s not going after the sex under the guise of trying to entice or arouse the audience; it’s part of the story, and thus should be showed.

In the end, I’m glad this film was more than just the 40 imagined missing minutes of Cruising. Not that there isn’t a merit to seeing that footage in its entirety as a short under the purpose expressed by Franco in this film, but again, with this extra step back, the layers of the entire experience become more fun to work out, and the entire project more intriguing. There’s value here in a number of different directions, from the exploration of the creative process to the conflicts that can arise to personal feelings of and on sexuality; I appreciate films that challenge the audience and leave them thinking, and I think Interior. Leather Bar. does just that, regardless of how far into the meta-experience you let yourself go.

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