by: Patrick Gill
It starts with the resonant sound of the slap, muted by only what can be assumed—leather, denim? The action, repeated and peppered with commands, with begs, occurs off camera. Our eye, the lens, is trained on the reaction of a film’s star. Our eye, the lens, holds on his grimace, but drops to feet, cuts to another view, works its way through its list of angles, making obvious that this is a film about a film, but the other film, the one of sound and response, is unimportant. The action of it, sado-masochistic gay sex, or possibly only same gendered bondage and discipline, is important, but we haven’t seen it yet; we have only seen James Franco’s reactions to it, directly in front of him.
Our eyes, though more is in caught by the lens, are taken by James Franco’s lips; circled in scruff, taking their wince with every connection in the off-screen action; this just before he expounds on his reactions: on privilege and heteronormativity, on gay sex and film, on standards that should be smashed. This is a portion of Interior Leather Bar, which made its debut at Sundance this year.
I love it. My gut loves it. Before my, slightly more, studied mind has time to take it in, twirl it round. And I have my disappointments, I also have my hopes. I process them out and resolve to watch the clip two more times. My reservations stay fast, I still think this will be an interesting watch, but they hold.
The immediate one being, I don’t want gay sex confused with same sex BDSM. Though similar they are ultimately different. Sado-Masochism is sometimes a part of gay sex, but gay sex isn’t always sado-masochistic; it’s like rectangles and squares. When Franco, playing himself, spoke to the character Val, he speaks only of the cultural aversion to gay sex in film, to his personal wincing and ultimate acceptance and desire to have the stigma against same sex erotic scenes erased. He is saying all this after we have just studied him, his whole body reactions, to what you know even by the sound of it is not simply gay sex. As much as I agree with Franco’s ideas, I am uncomfortable with having gay sex be interchangeable with sadomasochism.
Leather culture is its own rich and defined culture, it doesn’t need to be equated with gay sex, and it can have its own recognition. Do I want more explorations of kink on screen? Yes, please. Do I want more earnest depictions of gay sex, where we aren’t glossy hyper sexed cartoons slapping parts or non-sexed sassy buckets who can be a best friend or a nemesis. If I prayed more I would pray for it. But to talk about one while filming the other can cause unneeded confusion, can leave an honest but unknowing viewer with the wrong idea or someone looking with vitriol with a wide enough brush to call us all violent sex crazed sinners.
This was when I looked deeper into the reasons for this film. It’s driving action is as a re-envisioning of the 1980 film Cruising, an adapted thriller that had a NYPD officer delving into the leather community to catch a serial killer; the film had 40 minutes of BDSM sex cut in order to avoid an X rating.
I love reconstructing cannon, or what gay men have to consider as a cannon. But do we have to revisit Cruising? With its technical gorgeousness and its best intentions (William Freidken made for damn sure about that), there were flaws to the film—unresolved motivations, underdeveloped ideas—and yes, that may be what Leather Bar is also attempting to rectify with these scenes; but is it time to go back when we have so much more in front of us? When we have better clarity even on the past of our community if we wish to talk about the gay 70s in America? Do we need to remake or retrofit something when an altogether new creation could be so powerful? I look to Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven* as an example of the gay midcentury period drama, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right as a contemporary examination of Type A California lesbian coupling. We have these and more (Weekend, Humpday, movies by Gus VanZant and Jamie Babbit) being made or made, and they have their own expansion and examination to do, why would we go back?
I do owe Franco some thanks, for wanting the sex I have to no longer be stigmatized, I maintain that this film looks both intriguingly shot (Franco is a co-director) and about something we in essence should be talking about. But at some point I would enjoy it if he stepped down from the public eye around this film, that he give the stage to Travis Mathews, the writer and co-director of this film—a gay man.
That’s the ultimate silver lining. This is written and co-directed by someone who has worked on intimate, gay centered films. Unlike Cruising, unlike many early films about gay culture (because I don’t think many people knew/know Kenneth Anger or Jack Smith) this movie has the hand of a community member helming it. That still means something.
Though I know Franco’s face, Franco’s name is what is drawing in the attention, what drew me in—I have to admit— I just wish he wielded his privilege to help the public discover not just a sensational movie, but a filmmaker and the world/community he works within.
*Far From Heaven can actually call itself close to a re-envisioning, as it borrows from the style and story of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. But Haynes makes it all his own, going deeper and adding a queer and interracial story line and developing even further the radiant aesthetic.