Reviews: Cruising The Interior Leather Bar

Andrew tackles Cruising and Interior. Leather Bar.

William Friedkin's polarizing 1980 cop thriller Cruising has long since gone down in history as a rare moment where mainstream Hollywood took audiences to a very extreme place, one that managed to upset both the conservative right as well as the gay, lesbian and transgender community for its portrayal of the leather bar scene. Whether James Franco's 2013 collaboration with gay pornographer Travis Mathews, Interior. Leather Bar, managed to achieve the same degree of notoriety (or validity for that matter) is open to debate.  In an effort to try and understand the co-existence of both of these otherwise uncategorizable films and their place in mainstream Hollywood history, let us take a gander at just what it was behind Friedkin's film that lead to its semi-complete, 33 years late companion piece envisioned by Franco and Mathews.

Cruising (1980 – written and directed by William Friedkin) 8/10

For anyone who didn't know, William Friedkin's spiritual sequel to The Exorcist is an undercover cop story about a straight new recruit (played by Al Pacino) who is assigned to infiltrate the gay S&M underworld in search of a serial killer preying on gay men.  As he immerses himself in the heavy leather culture of whips, chains and Crisco oil, the film shifts gears and becomes less about solving the murders than the cumulative impact it begins to have on Pacino.  Soon he grows distant from his thankless girlfriend (Karen Allen) who herself begins to wonder what's happening to her boyfriend, as he pops in occasionally decked out in a leather jacket with chains and handkerchiefs.  Are the murders ever really solved?  Is Pacino himself a closet homosexual, and perhaps a serial killer ?

"Is that a banana in your pocket or are
you just happy to see me?"

These are among the many questions Friedkin poses as we are dropped in the middle of a fully functioning phenomenon.  Opening with a somber, light Jazz cue from Jack Nitzsche with subtle scratchings and rattling sounds, Cruising begins much like The Exorcist with a near-silent, eerie note of dread, suggesting something both enormous and adversarial.  Now something of a time capsule capturing the waning days of a bygone era of sexual revolution, Cruising turned Friedkin's cameras directly onto the leather bar scene with many real patrons going about their business with no direction from Friedkin.  It's worth noting nearly all of the sexual content onscreen is unsimulated (though carefully edited around Pacino strolling through the bar), which only serves to underline Pacino's innocence sticking out like a sore thumb.  Shot in deep blues, largely at night, the cavernous bars take on a gothic quality, as if we're being pulled deep into the various circles of hell. Sound design, consisting of grungy 80s punk rock, clanging chains and thick leather boots stomping the sticky, sweat and semen drenched floors, all work unilaterally to create an atmosphere full of unfocused dread and unease.  Death could come from any corner of these rooms, and we fear for Pacino as he becomes ensconced in the pit of writing half-naked bodies. 

"This is protection.
I want you to use it."
Cruising was an enormously controversial effort before and after it was released.  When word spread about a murder story taking place within the gay sex community broke out, thousands of gay rights activists stormed the locations with sirens, megaphones, and whistles to drown out the microphones and ruin any usable sound.  Further still, some protesters stood on rooftops with mirrors to offset lighting in carefully lit shots.  The utterly fearless and undaunted Friedkin proceeded with production on Cruising until its release was picketed by protests, with some theater owners flatly refusing to accept the film for exhibition despite being passed with an R rating.  Reportedly over 40 minutes of gay porn shot in the leather bars were excised from the film to avoid an X rating and remains unseen to this day.  It's worth noting for an R rated picture, Cruising contains subliminal flash edits of real unsimulated gay porn, which appear in the blink of an eye during the murder scenes.  Incidentally, years later those same protesters would openly embrace Cruising for what it is, a non-judgmental look at a brief moment in gay culture where sex and death seemed inextricably linked and how easy it is to lose one's sense of self when coming into contact with the scene.  By the end of Cruising, do we know who Pacino's undercover cop really is?  Does he?

Interior. Leather Bar (2013 – directed by James Franco and Travis Mathews) 3/10

"No, I'm just admiring your necklace. Really."
Ever since Cruising shook the world and took both the gay community and Hollywood by storm, the history of Friedkin's production problems and the mercurial missing 40 minutes excised from the film became the stuff of urban film legend.  In the ever evolving expression of young actor and filmmaker James Franco's artistic ambitions emerged an idea between Franco and gay pornographer and artist Travis Mathews to attempt to re-stage and recreate those missing scenes.  Early false reports began circulating through Hollywood that Franco was remaking Cruising, that he would be acting in it, and that it would be some kind of penultimate art porn project intended to demystify gay sexuality in mainstream culture.  However, the project seemed to only amount to heresay and critics began questioning the weight and validity of Franco's endeavor, if any.  After much time had passed, eventually a documentary detailing the short lived, half-realized project known as Interior. Leather Bar hit the screens. 

In the documentary of Franco's vague, thinly veiled art project, Franco and Mathews only manage to produce several minutes of finished footage.  To be fair, their recreation comes remarkably close to the look and feel of Friedkin's film, notably the deep blues, flashing lights, and of course, the heavy leather garb, wrist cuffs and chains. Throughout Interior. Leather Bar, straight actor Val Lauren (passing as the Pacino character) questions his own involvement in a project he himself isn't sure of but holds on out of devotion to his friend Franco. It doesn't take long before Franco is trying to talk Lauren from the tree after being shell shocked at the sights of men performing oral sex on one another (and yes, it's shown in close-up). 

"Ummm yeah. I'm confused about
this look on my face too."
What's most fascinating about the one-hour documentary Interior. Leather Bar is that something resembling a project at all emerged from the vague pretenses of Franco and Mathews. Neither really seem sure of what they're doing, only that it feels revolutionary. Whatever explicit gay sex its two directors were hoping to achieve, for all intents and purposes, never quite reaches the level of excess and transgression Friedkin's film did.  While there's endless talk about what might have been had Friedkin's footage remained in Cruising, Interior. Leather Bar feels like a cos-play, wanting desperately to live in the shadow of Friedkin's film without the courage to live up to what caused so much upset back in 1980. At the end of the day, Franco's half-hearted attempt to provoke by reinterpreting deleted scenes from one of the most controversial cop dramas of all time leave both its makers and audiences empty handed.  It's a novel idea and footnote to Cruising that, unfortunately, has almost nothing to say or new to add to an ongoing argument about what you can and can't show in the movies.

-Andrew Kotwicki