Monday, April 28, 2014

Dual Movie Review: Cruising (1980) & Interior. Leather Bar. (2014)

Cruising (1980)
Directed by: William Friedkin.
Written by: William Friedkin based on the novel by Gerald Walker.
Starring: Al Pacino (Steve Burns), Paul Sorvino (Capt. Edelson), Karen Allen (Nancy), Richard Cox (Stuart Richards), Don Scardino (Ted Bailey), Joe Spinell (Patrolman DiSimone), Jay Acovone (Skip Lee), Randy Jurgensen (Det. Lefransky), Barton Heyman (Dr. Rifkin), Gene Davis (DaVinci), Arnaldo Santana (Loren Lukas), Larry Atlas (Eric Rossman), Allan Miller (Chief of Detectives), Sonny Grosso (Det. Blasio), Ed O'Neill (Det. Schreiber), Michael Aronin (Det. Davis), James Remar (Gregory), William Russ (Paul Gaines), Mike Starr (Patrolman Desher), Steve Inwood  (Martino), Keith Prentice (Joey), Leland Starnes (Jack Richards).

Interior. Leather Bar.
Directed by: James Franco & Travis Mathews.
Written by: Travis Mathews.
Featuring: Val Lauren, Christian Patrick, Brenden Gregory, Brad Roberge, Robbie Acklen, Osbaldo Daniel Alvarez, Andres Barcelo, Samantha Barrows, Nick Buda, Seana Carroll, Collin Chavez, Jol Devitro, Julie Diaz, James Franco, Brianna Getrost, A.J. Goodrich, Jonathan Howard, Caleb James, Anna Kooris, Michael Lannan, Eva Lauren, Loc Le, Tatiana Leipet, Tyson C. Lenard, Travis Mathews, Matthew McKelligon, Joel Michaely, Chervine Namani, Adrian Pena, Ben Phen, Liz Phillips, Jake Robbins, Scott Schwenk, Jay Sosnicki, Lane Stewart, Iris Torres, Rob Vincent, Keith Wilson.

In 1980, William Friedkin made Cruising with Al Pacino. The production was beset by protests from the gay community, because they feared that it would portray them badly – as nothing but perverts. The film is set in the world of S&M, leather bars in New York, where a serial killer is finding and killing his victims. The police Captain in charge of the investigation, Edelson (Paul Sorvino) wants desperately to solve the case, so he gets a “rookie cop” Steve Burns (Al Pacino, then in his late 30s, so far too old) to go undercover in this world because he “looks like the victims”. Burns isn’t gay, and is uncomfortable with his new assignment. When he descends into this world, it’s like descending into hell. The film had to be radically cut after Friedkin finished it – 40 minutes in all were said to be trimmed to get a R rating – but those 40 minutes apparently had little to do with the plot, and were about the world of the leather bars. Was their hard core fucking in those minutes? We’ll never know, the footage was never released, and many believe the studio destroyed it. It came and went a commercial and critical failure, and then was mainly buried by the studio – who didn’t release it on VHS until 1996 and not on DVD until 2007. But it has become a cult film – many among gay viewers.

In 2013, James Franco and Travis Mathews made Interior. Leather Bar which was marketed as a film that “reconstructs” those lost 40 minutes of Friedkin’s film. That marketing is a lie. Interior. Leather Bar is actually about Franco and Mathews making those 40 minutes – and their lead actor Val Lauren, who is not “playing Pacino” but is “playing the same character Pacino played” and his discomfort with the project. Like Pacino, and the character he plays, Lauren is not gay and is uncomfortable descending into this world. In his first meeting with Franco and Mathews, he confesses that he “doesn’t understand” the project or its vision. But he’s a longtime friend and collaborator of Franco’s – so he trusts his vision. The whole shoot of those lost 40 minutes seem to happen all over one long day – a day in which Lauren grows increasingly uncomfortable with what he’s watching. How much of Interior. Leather Bar is staged, and how much is real? It plays like a behind the scenes documentary, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the whole thing is staged.

Getting back to Cruising, it is at best a flawed film for Friedkin. The original protestors were somewhat right about the film. The identity of the killer (if he really is the killer, or should I say the only killer) does represent kind of the worst sort of “killer Queen” stereotypes that upset gay viewers to this day. Yet, it is also true that Friedkin never really does any moralizing about the clubs themselves. There are two blatantly homophobic cops near the beginning of the film, but they are portrayed as such. Sorvino’s Edelson is more than sympathetic to the victims and wants to find the killer. There are gay characters – like Pacino’s neighbor – that don’t fit into the stereotypes we normally associate with gay characters (at least completely). Friedkin’s camera captures what was happening in the leather clubs, but doesn’t make it look sick or disgusting and doesn’t judge the people in them. This is mainly why the film has become a cult hit among gay viewers – it’s one of the only films of its era that addressed gay characters at all – and almost works as a look back to a more carefree, hedonistic time in gay culture – before AIDS came along and ruined it. There are certainly elements to the film beside the “killer Queen” angle that come across as slightly homophobic – the giant black man in a leather G-string who is apparently on the NYPD payroll just to beat gay people during interrogations for example – but it almost seems accidental. I believe Friedkin when he says he never saw the film as about gay culture, but rather a murder mystery set in gay culture. And if the film is dark and nihilistic, offering a very bleak view of humanity, well’s that’s perfectly in line with the filmmaker who made The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, To Live and Die in LA and Killer Joe. He has never been the cheeriest of filmmakers.

What sinks Cruising for me though is the central character played by Pacino, who is a character you never really get a handle on. The ending of the movie implies some things about him, that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the movie. There is a darkness to him to be sure, but as much as the movie implies? Perhaps that what was what the missing 40 minutes really were – something that explains why Burns does what the movie implies (but never states). I can see any numbers of things that happened during that time making the ending make more sense. There are other problems with the film – Karen Allen as Pacino’s girlfriend for example is given nothing to do except to be there when he wants to fuck a woman to remind himself that he’s heterosexual – but it’s the confusion of the ending, that strains for profound ambiguity but doesn’t make it – that makes the film a somewhat ambitious (perhaps even honorable) failure.

Interior. Leather Bar is an interesting film, but in some ways has the same problems as Cruising – in that it wants
ambiguity and ends up with confusion. Watching the film, I was never sure what I was watching was reality or staged – which I think is part of the point of the film but one that I found increasingly annoying. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film that’s more about itself than Interior. Leather Bar is. Lauren admits he doesn’t know why the film is being made – and when he asks Franco, the director, he admits he doesn’t know either. Franco has a few monologues about how he doesn’t like how he’s been conditioned to except “normal” to be heterosexual, and expressing frustration that you can show pretty anything in a movie you want to – but not sex, which is the most natural thing in the world. He wants to make Interior. Leather Bar, with real, un-simulated sex, in part to show it as a beautiful thing. Lauren is unsure. What will this do to his career? Franco is a major star, so he can do whatever he wants. But will Lauren become just the star of the “Franco faggot film” and his friend on the phone calls it.

Watching Interior Leather Bar I couldn’t help but think that the whole thing was really just an elaborate joke on Franco’s part. He is a celebrity who has done his best to become anonymous but in the opposite way most celebrities do who crave it do- which is to be reclusive - Franco instead is seemingly everywhere, doing everything. You can never get a read on who the “real” James Franco is, which is how he wants it, and makes him an exciting actor to watch – because you never know what the hell he’s going to do next. He has been dogged by “gay” rumors for years – his entire Comedy Central Roast last year was basically 90 minutes of his friends calling him gay – and Franco decides to play with that in this film. He’s not “in” the film – just directing it. But he’s in the film as the director “James Franco” which may or may not be the real James Franco. Who knows? Who cares?

The film is interesting in many ways. It does contain some interesting material about all the gay stars of the films – basically unknown actors who show up for a casting call, some of which know Cruising, some of which don’t – and are willing to do whatever Mathews (who seems to be the only one directing the film within the film, as Franco recedes to the background if he’s on set at all) wants them to do – including a real life couple who actually do have sex on screen.

What is Interior. Leather Bar really about then? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps it’s about an actor confronting his own discomfort with gay sex, or about flipping the idea of what a film featuring gay sex is really about. Basically though, it’s about itself and its own making. Strangely, although the film itself plays like a making of documentary about itself, I would like to see the making of documentary about the making of Interior Leather Bar. But then again, perhaps that is what I already saw.

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