Unsurprisingly, “contagion” is the key metaphor that latter-day critics have used in discussing this ambiguous treatment of sexuality and identity, since the impending catastrophe of AIDS lends Cruising’s hedonistic, pre-AIDS sex club scenes a retrospective poignancy. Indeed, the metaphor of contagion also inspired the film’s controversy over the “contagious” media effects of cinematic violence against gays. [open notes in new window] Bill Krohn argues that the film’s almost supernatural logic of contagious violence more closely resembles that of a demonic possession film like Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) than a noir narrative. This parallel is emphasized by the similar use of a post-dubbed voice emitting from multiple killers’ mouths (a là Mercedes McCambridge’s voice work for the possessed Reagan) and the subliminal shots of pornographic anal penetration flashed during the murder scenes (like The Exorcist’s flashes of a demonic face). And much as The Exorcist was rumored to be a cursed film—evangelist Billy Graham even claimed that a demonic force lived within the celluloid reels themselves(!)—a similarly supernatural logic undergirded the denunciation of Cruising for its supposed capacity to inspire real-world violence against gay men.
The hypermasculine “clone” look dominating the SM clubs may help explain and accentuate the visual interchangeability of Cruising’s killers and victims, but it was precisely this apparent inability to tell “evil,” murderous gays from honest citizens that caused so much initial controversy. If even a “straight” cop like Burns could seemingly “turn” gay/murderous through contamination by a gay subculture, then how might straight viewers respond to such images circa 1980, when media representations of gay people were otherwise rare or very stereotypical? In the protesters’ eyes, the film’s derogatory depiction of gays was liable to incite homophobic violence, although Miller opines that the sheer eroticism of the film’s leather bar scenes were “much more likely to have sent closeted gays running to the clubs to confirm [their] verisimilitude.”
|Supernatural contamination between cinema and real life: one of Friedkin’s extras in The Exorcist, Paul Bateson (right), later confessed to at least one of the late-1970s murders of gay men that would inspire Friedkin to direct Cruising.||The clone look makes possible killers and victims, “bad” gays and “good” gays, indistinguishable from each other in Cruising.|
In any case, the film’s latter-day reclamation as a cult object among younger gay men surely hinges on the fact that gay visibility in the media has since become de rigueur, with Cruising’s depictions now carrying far less capacity to “misrepresent” gay men to ignorant straight viewers. Some of Cruising’s early detractors may have accused the clone look of commodifying an oppressed subculture, but in today’s homonormative political climate (in which many gays adopt an assimilationist project modeled upon traditionally heteronormative prerogatives like monogamy, the nuclear family, and overall bourgeois privatization), such signifiers have become nostalgically tantalizing as cinematic time-capsule fodder. Indeed, for Greven, the original backlash against Cruising represented the death of New Hollywood itself: whereas the financial disaster of Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) may have become a production-side cautionary tale about overspending auteurs, the same year’s Cruising controversy saw popular reception turning against New Hollywood’s ambiguous protagonists in the name of aesthetically simpler films that might be more easily legible through a facile form of identity politics that continues to this day.
Interior. Leather Bar.
From Interior’s very first vérité scene, its creators express their interest in pushing back against the latter-day inheritors of assimilationist identity politics which damned Cruising and have since evolved into the post-AIDS push toward same-sex marriage. Casually conversing with the other filmmakers during preproduction, James recalls reading Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal during his graduate coursework at Yale. Lending his project a theoretical impetus, he roughly paraphrases Warner’s argument that the gay marriage debate is “normalizing a queer lifestyle that is incredibly valuable.” Travis concurs that Warner’s ideas will “help to inform [creative] choices” because homonormative politics are “erasing the radicalness and the queerness” of the subcultural world so vividly portrayed in Cruising. For Warner, mainstream gay/lesbian identity politics has marginalized more radically queer lifeways (including cultures of public sex) through its privatizing embrace of monogamy and traditional family forms. Small wonder, then, that the latter-day “documentary” value of Cruising’s SM club scenes would make them such an appropriate topic for a quasi-documentary project about mining the past for sources of creative-cum-sexual expression. Yet, by acknowledging that they lack the resources to actually recreate the forty minutes of missing Cruising footage and must therefore use that mythical footage as a jumping-off point for a reflexive/ performative documentary about the independent filmmaking process, Franco and Mathews also implicitly acknowledge that nostalgia alone cannot will a bygone queer past into existence.
If Robin Wood once suggested that Cruising’s ideological incoherence could be resolved with a clearer commitment to “gay liberation,” then Interior’s own structural incoherence as a vertiginous blend of documentary style and scripted fiction refuses the sort of easy categorization amenable to politically assimilationist arguments about respectably “stable” gay identity. In other words, the epistemological barriers that Cruising erects around the “truth” of Burns’ awakening sexuality and/or the killers’ identity becomes paralleled in Interior’s epistemological barriers over whether we are watching “reality” or fiction at any given moment. Although focused on the process of filming unsimulated inter-male sex, Interior’s “play of boundaries” as a (quasi-)reflexive/ performative documentary thus strives to be less a “gay film” than what Mathews dubs a “queer [film] in subject and form.” As we learn, nearly everyone cast for the recreated Cruising scenes (including Val, one of James’s longtime friends and acting colleagues) is unsure what Travis and James’s film is meant to become. Many actors simply responded to a cryptic casting call about a “Gay bar scene / James Franco project.”
As such, Interior is more about documenting the semi-scripted process than the resulting re-creation (the latter of which only comprises a few minutes of film-within-the-film at Interior’s conclusion). The very fact that Franco and Mathews did not know what exactly Friedkin’s excised Cruising footage contained (beyond unsimulated gay sex) gives them considerable leeway in reinterpreting the source film—even as this lack of a clear historical blueprint ultimately makes Interior less about Cruising than about Val’s (and James’s) faith in the artistic process. Interior’s central conflict thus becomes Val’s homophobic paranoia over the potential damage done to his career by playing the one-time Pacino character in his famous friend’s project—echoing Burns’ own paranoia over what his undercover persona will do to his lived identity. But whereas Cruising largely depicts the “contagion” of queerness as horrific possession, Interior reclaims its source material’s contagious queerness as perversely desirable (if only for James and his gay extras).
This revisionist approach comes across most forcefully in early scenes featuring the on-set extras conversing about the project’s relationship to Cruising. For instance, Travis asks a series of extras to “cruise the camera” as test footage for later shooting the leather bar scenes. Framed in (medium) close-up while standing against an outdoor wall, each man erotically gazes into the camera and also says something about what attracted him to the project. In addition to the aforementioned man who loves Cruising’s bygone “gay dream,” others want to use Interior to explore something about sexuality that they are afraid of; to be in an “out-of-the-box” project compared to the blandness of contemporary Hollywood productions; or even to hopefully “make out with Franco.” Although these casting moments may be self-serving attempts to play to Franco’s queerly inclined modus operandi and thereby earn more screen time, those comments that Mathews selects to include in the finished film carry particular relevance. Resembling the film’s own thesis statement, these responses neatly encapsulate Interior’s multiple threads: nostalgia, “taboo” sex, creative nonconformity, and the erotics of stardom. Importantly, they also actively give voice to the gay men whose onscreen eroticism will recreate some of Cruising’s most notorious scenes. As in the original film, these directly returned gazes seduce Interior’s viewer in a desirous exchange of vision, but with the added effect of emphasizing that these particular extras are not just indistinguishable clones of one another.
These “looks back” are, in this sense, not only a physical alignment of gazes but also a temporal “looking back” at Cruising, a retrospective reassessment of the film’s continuing relevance for a latter-day gay audience. Cruising was initially protested for not only providing a derogatory alibi for literal gay bashing, but also for its “too Hollywood” glimpse into a subset of the gay community that had previously existed in the subcultural shadows. Cruising can, however, now be revisited as a contra-Hollywood relic of creative bravery from a misunderstood New Hollywood auteur—thereby using the pathos of Friedkin’s 1970s rise and fall to lend Interior itself an air of artistic distinction that resonates with the pathos of queer lifeways subsequently lost to AIDS. From today’s perspective, both 1970s New Hollywood and 1970s gay sex have come to seem positively utopian (see, for example, Joseph Lovett’s rose-tinted 2005 documentary Gay Sex in the 70s). These qualities have allowed Cruising to become, for some latter-day viewers, a
“queer utopian memory, that is, a utopia that understands its time as reaching beyond some nostalgic past that perhaps never was or some future whose arrival is continuously belated.”
When Travis, for example, tells the assembled extras that, “unlike 2012, people aren’t buried in their phones” when cruising for sex circa 1980, his emphasis on the importance of vision could apply as much to the pre-Grindr world of non-social-mediated hookups as to the fact of New Hollywood authorship’s latter-day replacement by post-cinematic, “platform-agnostic” spectatorship.
Although Cruising’s original leather bar extras did discuss in the gay press their motivations for effectively portraying themselves in Friedkin’s film, these perspectives are elided within Cruising’s finished form. These extras may have misunderstood the protestors’ anger about the film’s linkage between homosexuality and serial murder (instead mischaracterizing the protests as a prudish reaction against depictions of gay sex), but they still saw their participation as a sex-positive attempt at self-representation for the leather community (however compromised by the exigencies of the police procedural). Meanwhile, rightly or not, Cruising’s detractors largely dismissed the extras’ attempts at “realistic” self-representation as a narcissistic sell-out to Hollywood cooptation and an easy paycheck. Here, however, the perspectives of Interior’s leather bar re-enactors are directly integrated into the film itself—even if their comments remain semi-scripted. In another scene, for example, the extras uphold James as a supposed “artist who’s really interested in the range of human experience” (quite possibly a self-servingly scripted line), while also acknowledging that “there’s going to be a whole segment of our community that’s going to be waving signs and writing blog posts about ‘why is this straight dude touching [Cruising]?’”
Indeed, this question of why it takes a pretentious “straight dude” like James to bring gay sex into the cinematic mainstream is one of the film’s biggest conceptual holes, since it downplays decades of queer filmmaking to instead elevate Franco’s celebrity-cum-missionary zeal for queer content. For Mathews, it was important for Interior to internalize an element of self-critique through reference to the original Cruising protests, since Franco’s involvement would raise the historical specter of hetero-male Hollywood cooptation of a queer subculture. This is partly a symptom of what Lucas Hilderbrand calls “retroactivism,” or a politically energizing “nostalgia…for past progressive social movements” like 1970s gay liberation and 1980s-90s queer activism. But it is also a desire to overcome the blinkered perspective of identity politics through the luxury of historical hindsight. (An early draft of the script had angry protestors outside the black-box studio, picketing against Franco’s directorial role, but the fact that this idea was scrapped suggests something about the overall decline of direct action among an increasingly assimilated gay population.) If the scenes that Cruising’s protestors once found among the most troubling have since become reclaimed as irreducibly sexy, then it makes sense that these blurred political judgments should have analogues in Interior’s blurred epistemological status.
Even from Interior’s opening scenes, the film begins troubling the notion that what we are seeing is purely behind-the-scenes documentary footage. In their first preproduction meeting, Travis tells Val that he should show some struggle with his acceptance of the project, and Val responds (with allegedly real and unscripted hesitation) that he might not understand James’s artistic mission but nonetheless wants to be part of it. Much like the extras lured by the promise of a “gay…James Franco project,” Val is seemingly drawn to the project by his friendship with James (even if his unstated motivation may also be a paycheck). Likewise, a short scene at the film’s end removes considerable doubt about Interior’s quasi-documentary status: Val sits against a wall in the parking lot, the script in his lap, reading aloud this very moment from the script itself (“Val sits against a wall in the parking lot. The script is in his lap. He reads to himself”). Throughout the film, we see Val nervously reading over the script as he hovers on the margins of the set where unsimulated sex is being filmed—but we also sometimes hear Mathews call “cut” from off-screen, allowing Lauren to visibly break character.
In another scene, we hear Mathews giving cues as Val and a fellow self-identified straight actor (Collin Chavez) improvise a discussion about the process of “playing gay” while the latter is being made up to appear in drag (doubling for the Cruising character DaVinci, a transgender hustler, as originally played by straight actor Gene Davis).
|One of Interior’s extras is made up to resemble Cruising’s transgender character DaVinci, both of whom are played by straight actors.|
Although Val admits he has also played gay before, including as Sal Mineo in the Franco-directed biopic Sal (2011), he seems almost perversely fascinated by the sexual limits that other straight actors will set for their craft. On one hand, Val’s nervously intrusive questions (“Are you comfortable with physical contact with, like, other dudes? Have you kissed a guy before?”) seem intended to create a homosocial camaraderie with his fellow straight actor—despite Collin’s more nonchalant admission that he would engage in some homosexual contact “if it felt right” for the role. But, on the other hand, Val’s paranoia over simply kissing another man seems laughable in comparison with the gay extras’ earlier, panic-free negotiation of performing unsimulated sex in what one actor hopes will be “tasteful bondage art-porn."
This humorously outsized anxiety continues in a subsequent scene of Val and James watching a rehearsal of unsimulated SM, visibly shocked by what they see (though likely exaggerating this for the camera, since they have at least presumably seen gay sex before). Finally confronted in person with the project’s sexual explicitness, Val pulls James aside and airs his misgivings—the crisis point of his semi-scripted story arc. Although James admits that the sex “was a little shocking at first,” he explains that he deliberately wants to push himself beyond his heterosexual comfort zone. “I don’t like the fact that I feel brought up to think a certain way” about sexuality, he says, attributing it to Hollywood’s idealization of the heterosexual couple. Furthermore, he also blames U.S. cinema’s representational double standard that valorizes graphic violence but relegates (most) graphic sex to the realm of pornography. Even if conventional Hollywood narratives typically move toward ideological closure by promising the formation of the monogamous straight couple, Hollywood has also popularized the acceptability of onscreen violence over onscreen sex, as famously evinced by the imbalanced decisions rendered by the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system (including its exclusionary use of the X rating).
James notes that Cruising may have figured the gay SM milieu as a descent into a “dark, evil place” due to the serial-killer plot, but that he wants to instead view such sexual practices as “beautiful and attractive.” (Of course, it is easier for James to make these claims when Interior focuses on Cruising’s excised leather bar footage, thereby screening out the murders—none of which occur within the SM clubs themselves—which the original protestors found so potentially “harmful.”) Val responds that sex is everywhere in media culture, but that he personally prefers restraint over the “bad taste” of what he just witnessed—though James presses him on whether the acts themselves or their means of presentation were in “bad taste.”
For James, unsimulated sex “should be a storytelling tool” instead of simply being seen as “porn,” a stance consistent with other creators of sexually explicit art films. But Val worries aloud whether James may be ruining his own career by pursuing such a project immediately after starring in a major Disney film, Oz the Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, 2013). James responds, however, that having just been in a Disney movie is “giving [Interior] half of its power” through the sheer juxtaposition of cultural products to which he attaches his star power. The key difference between this project and other sexually provocative queer films is, presumably, the legitimizing function that James’s hetero-male celebrity can benevolently bestow upon explicit gay sex—notwithstanding the representational limits (yes to fellatio, no to anal sex) that Franco and Mathews deliberately erect. (Their own concession to avoiding “bad taste”?) Moreover, like his previous stint on General Hospital, James’s flirtation with gay “pornography”—a form only a few steps lower than daytime soap opera in cultural ill-repute—recalls his fellow Hollywood celebrities’ appeals to performance art to refute their own association with mainstream blockbuster cinema. But, here, his queer stardom lends the film’s sexual explicitness an extratextual dimension that more fully illuminates his rhetorical engagement with performance artistry.