"Cultural appropriation" is usually understood as a one-way street: A privileged outsider steals from a disenfranchised group and eats the profits. This is an easy enough narrative, but the truth is generally more complicated—see Little Richard's gratitude for Elvis Presley as an "integrator." Or take James Franco and Travis Mathew's new film Interior. Leather Bar, a fascinating instance of cultural "appropriation" that feels like cultural exchange.
Interior. Leather Bar is a mockumentary about the relationship straight men have with gay culture. Franco, dazzled by otherness, sets out to recreate the 40 minutes of leather-bar action that was excised from William Friedkin's divisive 1980 thriller Cruising. His movie largely takes place at that film shoot. The actors he employs have various levels of comfort with the gay sex they're being asked to engage in and simulate—some are gay so they're down with sucking dick, or whatever, on camera.
Franco's principal, Val Lauren, who's playing the Al Pacino role, is squeamish not just about what he'll be made to do as a straight guy attempting to fit into a gay environment, but what he'll be exposed to and, on top of that, what they're all exposing to the masses. (In this way, he channels not just Al Pacino's Cruising character Steve Burns, a cop made to go undercover to investigate a serial killer who's picking off gay guys in New York's leather scene, but Pacino himself, who reportedly was also squeamish about having to rub elbows—and whatever else—with gays.) Interior. Leather Bar, really, is about Val's journey to comfort with gays and himself.
So what do gay men get out of having their culture examined and harvested for the sake of straight men's comfort? For one thing: Titillation. It's hot to think of James Franco thinking so hard about a gay movie, so desperate to see its 40 minutes of cut sex that he is willing to put time, money, and effort into recreating it himself. Interior. Leather Bar is the most explicit expression of bicuriosity that cinema has ever produced. Heterosexual discomfort and compliance with gay sex seasons this movie and it's delicious. Straight-guy fantasies may betray internalized homophobia or fucked-up prejudice about gay men's capacity for masculinity, but whatever: This isn't a therapy session, and hot is hot. For many gay guys, straight guys are incredibly hot, and straight guys doing gay things is even hotter. Interior. Leather Bar is so humid, it's fucking boiling.
"It's not a porn for titillation," Franco warns, and it's so straight-guy to not realize the hotness implications here. That's endearing. He says that in an even more endearing scene during the middle of shooting Interior. Leather Bar's movie-within-a-movie. Val's had a taste of the leather bar activity and his discomfort leads him to questioning the morality of making this thing in the first place. The monologue Franco launches into is maybe a little too on the nose, but it's also crucial for him to explain what he's doing because few things confuse people more than serving a message with sex (or having sex be your message):
I don't like the fact that I feel like I've been brought up to think a certain way. I don't like thinking that. I don't like realizing that my mind has been twisted by the way the world has been set up around me. And what that is is straight normative kind of behavior and it's fucking instilled in my brain. And it's…yeah, I'll say it, it was a little shocking to me at first when I was watching that but only, I believe, 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 fucking love story is a dude that wants to be with a girl. And the only way they're gonna end up happy is if they walk off in the sunset together. I'm fucking sick of that shit. So if there's a way for me to just break that up in my own mind, I'm all for it. And that's, I think, why you want to be an actor and be an artist.
Straight-guilt is rarely expressed so eloquently. It would be something close to admirable if the conversation ended there. Franco could pat himself on the back and say, "Nice priv-check, bro." But no, he wants to actually do something about this. He wants to actually take that power of his and use it to create the change he wants to see. He goes on to express anger about the taboo of portraying gay sex and this is his solution:
Put it in the fucking mainstream. To help tell stories. It's a great fucking tool. It's who we are. Everybody has sex. Everybody thinks about sex all the fucking time. We can't fucking put it in movies? We can put fucking people killing each other? Strangling each other? Murdering each other?
(Note: The 40 minutes cut from Cruising reportedly came entirely from scenes shot in the leather bar that were sexual in nature. There are multiple stabbing portrayals in the final cut of the movie.)
Interior. Leather Bar is Franco making good on his word here. There is explicit sex in this movie, mostly in the form of blowjobs. You see hard dick. Not a lot of it, but it's there. This movie guided by mostly straight men is unflinching about gay sex in a way that so much of today's mainstream for-gays-by-gays pop culture is not. Franco's co-director, Travis Mathews, has made sexually explicit films, most notably I Want Your Love, but because it lacked big names, it stayed mostly gay-ghettoized. "It's about being in a Disney movie and doing it," says Franco in reference to his recent work in The Great and Powerful Oz, which was playing as Interior. Leather Bar did the festival circuit throughout 2013. "That's what's giving it half its power." He's right.
Though still reviled by some and met with on-set protests from gay activists, Cruising came from a similar place of straight-male curiosity. Ten years before, Friedkin directed the seminal movie adaptation of the play about a group of mostly miserable gay friends Boys in the Band, and so it's fair to assume he was an ally at that point. He and his producer Jerry Weintraub began attending gay leather bars in New York as soon as they signed the deal for the movie, eager to expose themselves like Franco is here. That Interior. Leather Bar is more explicit and a collaboration with a gay man is a palpable sign of how times have changed.
And so are modern gay narratives—though in a direction that is not suited to my taste. HBO's upcoming series Looking (about which more in a later review), which concerns the lives of a handful of gay friends in San Francisco, seems quaint and prudish (the show cuts away before a threesome can even begin, never to return!) compared to Interior. Leather Bar. It is normative and post-queer, an increasing sensibility within modern gay life that Franco himself discusses (with wariness) in the beginning of Interior. Leather Bar via Michael Warner's book The Trouble With Normal.
Interior. Leather Bar is not normative. It's a weird fucking movie, a mockumentary about recreating lost footage from a gay slasher thriller, in which everyone plays themselves. It's a declaration of curiosity about gay sex from straight men. It's oddly paced and structured with the same sort of open-ended finale as Cruising. It's an hour long. Interior. Leather Bar is so weird and so different and so perfectly itself that there's no better single word for it than queer, and I mean that as a compliment.