Acting, performance documentation,
and pornography

As already stated, involvement in a vaguely defined “James Franco project” attracted many of Interior’s extras, much as Val’s friendship with James allegedly inspired the former’s participation in the project’s central acting role. The specter of celebrity looms over the proceedings, with James’s stardom and artistic motivations for Interior constantly discussed by the on-set cast and crew. This is in part because James himself is conspicuously absent or hovering around the margins throughout much of the film, leaving Travis to perform most of the day-to-day direction. (In one of Interior’s more humorous nods to its source material, we see Val calling and recording a message for the absent James, mimicking the singsongy rhyme spoken by Cruising’s killer: “Who’s here? You’re not here. Where the fuck you at?”)

Apart from several crucial conversations with Val and the crew, James is mostly seen texting on his phone, serving as a secondary camera operator, or watching the production from the wings. Even when Val directly questions him about the project’s aims, James is deliberately evasive, explaining that even Pacino was nervous about playing the Burns role. Although dissolving his star status into the less visible, behind-the-scenes role of co-filmmaker, James’s artistic motives remain seemingly inscrutable to even his close friends. If Val is expected to become Pacino’s analogue (and, per James’s instructions, to play the part as “Pacino-esque” instead of over-the-top “SNL Pacino”), James becomes closer to Friedkin’s analogue by attempting to recreate and show the unsimulated sex scenes that Friedkin apparently could not include.

Val is thus uneasily positioned between two generations of star images—Al Pacino and James Franco—with different relationships to queer content. Whereas Pacino allegedly requested script revisions to minimize his onscreen portrayal of homosexuality,[63] [open notes in new window] Val’s anxiety over “playing gay” in a role originated by his “favorite actor” markedly contrasts with James’s frequent portrayal of queer characters. Val might thereby echo Pacino’s reticence over the Burns role, but the vastly unequal celebrity status between aspiring actor Val and established stars like Franco and Pacino means that Cruising’s sublimation of its star into the image of the gay clone has different implications for a minor actor whose career might be hurt by sublimating his professional identity into roles that might somehow mischaracterize or typecast him against his (heterocentrist) strengths and limits.

“I have ego problems. I need to be worshipped and adored,” says Lukas (Arnaldo Santana), an actor and soon-to-be victim of Cruising’s first onscreen murder, explaining to his eventual killer why he goes to SM clubs. The very act of having (queer) sex in public violates the heteronormative expectation that sexual expression be privatized within the individual home. Public sex is thus performative in the sense of openly enunciating desires that are otherwise expected to remain purely “personal,” behind closed doors—and thereby public sex brings queer counterpublic spaces into existence.[64]

Cruising’s simulated fisting scene draws parallels between public sex and performance/body art.

The theatricality of Cruising’s notorious (albeit non-explicit) fisting scene, for instance, shows how public sex performance and performance/body art are not so different, since both are potentially organized around a “crowd transfixed by the scene of intimacy and display, control and abandon, ferocity and abjection […] scenes where sex appears more sublime than narration itself” and live spectatorship is itself a form of participation.[65]

It is not difficult to see why Franco would be attracted to the leather milieu’s paradoxical combination of “narcissistic fetishism”[66] and the clone look’s diffusion of identity—especially via the clone’s sartorial performance of working-class signifiers seemingly distanced from the typical Hollywood star’s conspicuous economic wealth.[67] The theatrical nature of SM instead breeds a strange mélange of subcultural “stardom” and social anonymity that becomes reproduced in Interior’s on-set scenes of aspiring actors competing for professional distinction. Val’s agent, for example, calls several times, pleading with his client to reconsider starring in “the Franco faggot project,” reminding Val that James is a “major actor” who has far less to lose from his involvement in such controversial subject matter:

“Anyone seeing this will consider it pornography and you will be in it.”

Repeatedly appearing in his famous friend’s queer-themed passion projects might heighten Val’s professional visibility, but at the risk of damaging his career prospects through too close an association with homosexuality and pornography. Indeed, it bears mention that Cruising already prominently links homosexuality and pornography, whether through the gay sex magazines littering many of the men’s apartments or a gory murder of a gay man in a peepshow booth.

Much as Friedkin/Franco enlists Al/Val to “go undercover” in the Burns role, James’s behind-the-scenes status as Interior’s co-filmmaker instead of star parallels Cruising’s paternalistic relationship between Capt. Edelson and Burns. Orchestrating the undercover investigation, Edelson clearly represents a father figure who (like James) has already achieved a mature career, substituting for the actual father with whom Burns apparently has a strained relationship. But beyond a father/son dynamic, the Edelson/Burns relationship also carries a queer charge, as exemplified when Burns eventually breaks down and confesses that he can’t do his job anymore because he is (sexually) changing. As though tonally shifting from police procedural to melodrama, Friedkin cuts in to a close-up of Edelson earnestly replying, in language rife with subtext,

“I need you. You’re my partner and you can’t let me down. We’re up to our ass in this.”

Moreover, it is not difficult to extrapolate from this father/director, actor/son relationship to the implied queerness of James and Val’s relationship as refracted through their respective biopic performances as James Dean and Sal Mineo (the latter also directed by Franco), two bisexual actors whose off-screen sexual relationship was mirrored in Rebel Without a Cause’s (Nicholas Ray, 1955) queer subtext.

Overall, then, Interior finds Val caught between the movie stardom he has not yet achieved and the various performances of queerness that might alternately propel or compromise his career aspirations—a conflict rooted in his proximity to the unsimulated sex scenes that some viewers might read as “pornographic.” Given its common associations with corporeal rutting instead of dramatic skill, pornography’s disputed status as neither skilled acting nor reputable performance might taint “legitimate” actors like Val—after all, some of the extras have apparently been hired specifically for their willingness to perform sex on camera—hence his anxiety over James’s obfuscation about Interior’s aims. Indeed, as Mattias Frey notes, the relative novelty of unsimulated sex within even sexually explicit art films tends to refocus the viewer/critic’s attention upon the flesh-and-blood actor him/herself instead of the character. This corporeality distracts from the character’s fictional milieu, even as the actor’s willingness to participate in such scenes for their craft might demonstrate an artistic seriousness and commitment distinct from the realm of mainstream Hollywood moviedom.[68]

Small wonder, then, that both Shia LaBeouf and James Franco capitalized on projects featuring unsimulated sex to mark their “rebellious” distinction from Hollywood via connections to performance/body art. LaBeouf used the promotional circuit for Nymphomaniac (a European art film in which he appears to perform unsimulated sex—albeit with his face digitally grafted onto a body double) as his performance art stage, his antics trading on Von Trier’s existing reputation as a provocateur. Likewise, Franco used his celebrity status to implicitly frame Interior’s gay sex scenes within the context of his widely publicized forays into performance art. Indeed, much like the only intermittent on-set appearance of James himself, the phrase “performance art” is conspicuously absent throughout Interior as well. Like a structuring absence, it nevertheless haunts the film via James’s star persona as a performance/body art aficionado whose filmmaking motives seem deliberately ambiguous. In fact, Interior’s many on-set scenes of cast and crew either discussing or watching the filming of unsimulated sex resemble the documentation of a live performance event. Like the interpellation of the viewer during the gaze-heavy cruising scenes, the on-set audience (e.g., Val, James, et al.) becomes the live sex performers’ medium for affective commutation between performing/viewing bodies.

Collapsing cultural-taste valuations between the work of Marina Abramović and Annie Sprinkle, Adair Rounthwaite usefully argues that there is “no essential difference between pornography as document and the documentation of performance art” in their affective aims. Both forms ontologically privilege a past profilmic event in which the performer’s body underwent some “affective change…as guarantee that something had occurred,” while also providing an affective impact upon the present viewer, albeit at a historical remove.[69] With both pornography and performance art documentation, “viewers of the past performance become performers themselves, creating a constellation between document and body in which the document, originally a recording of a past event, incites the production of new, live affects”—even if the present-day affects can never be identical to the original ones.[70]

Notable here is Abramović’s recent popularization of re-performance, which allows space for reinterpreting past performance pieces instead of attempting to wholly recreate a “lost” original using extant documentation—an ontological impossibility, given the different historical reception contexts attending each iteration.[71] Indeed, Abramović chose to re-perform in Seven Easy Pieces famous works that she was “not able to see in person” and “really struck [her] deeply, but had done so only through photographs and the little documentation that one could find at the time.”[72] For Abramović, then, the in-person experience of a performance piece may be vastly superior to its photographic or moving-image documentation, but the documentation of an ephemeral live event can still prove creatively generative decades later.

Theorists like Rounthwaite and Philip Auslander, however, disagree with this

“fairly orthodox feminist position on the ontology of performance, which differentiates performance from theater on the basis that performance is not repeated and cannot be saved or reperformed.”[73]

Auslander, for instance, argues that performance art documentation can be divided into two categories—documentary and theatrical. The former constitute secondary traces of a live event (e.g., Abramović’s basis for Seven Easy Pieces), and the latter are performances

“staged solely to be photographed or filmed and have no meaningful prior existence as autonomous events presented to audiences” (e.g., Cindy Sherman’s photo series, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films).[74]

Furthermore, Auslander argues that performance art is not defined as such by the initial presence of an audience, since even documentary-style performance documentation primarily focuses on what an artist did, not how an audience reacted:

“we cannot dismiss studio fabrications of one sort or another from the category of performance art because they were not performed for a physically present audience.”[75]

If the performative act of documentation itself, and the past performance’s ability to impact present audiences through such documentation, are more important than the presence of an original audience, then the affective impact of encountering such documentation “may not even depend on whether the [original] event actually happened.”[76]

Following Auslander, then, I would argue that Interior’s own “studio fabrication”constitutes Franco’s re-performance of the “lost” Cruising footage, in the sense that “understanding how documentation works in relation to an original” requires “an appreciation for the specificity of authorship of each document.”[77] In other words, much as Franco himself was not able to witness the now-excised vérité footage that Friedkin may or may not have actually captured back in 1980, Franco now attempts to reinterpret that footage through an awareness of present-day queer politics and his own role as authorial stand-in for Friedkin. Although relying on Cruising’s extant SM club scenes (i.e., Auslander’s theatrical documentation) for its re-performative cues, Interior focuses on supposedly documenting the on-set process of capturing unsimulated sex (i.e., Auslander’s documentary documentation) instead of simply presenting the finished “re-creation” footage itself.

It does not matter if the original Cruising sex scenes were performed for a live audience or even filmed by Friedkin at all. Rather, Interior’s “pornographic” explicitness provides the affective link between a hypothetical past and a retrospective present through the performative act of documentation itself. Like Franco, we cannot truly gain access to how the on-set extras felt or reacted during Cruising’s alleged performance of unsimulated sex back in 1980—especially if such scenes were primarily staged for the camera instead of for a live audience of onlookers—just as we cannot literally recreate the same affective impact of an event that may have happened over three decades ago. As  Rounthwaite says,

“[I]mages can survive through time, but bodily affects [e.g., physical arousal] created by performance cannot, even though the original affects may have been incredibly intense.”[78]

Hence, Franco’s re-performance of the “lost” footage can at least attempt to approximate what that affective impact might have been, albeit without going so far as to portray Val, James, or Travis as physically aroused during filming. James may talk a queer game about depicting gay sex as “beautiful and attractive,” but his on-set bodily reactions to that sex remain nearly as guarded as Val’s reticence to engage with the gay extras on camera. Interior’s focus on the present-day cast and crew’s on-set reactions to filming unsimulated sex acknowledges the presentness of their (and our) bodily responses at a very different moment in LGBTQ history than 1980. And yet, by placing limits upon showing sexual arousal among the filmmakers, the film also points toward the limitations of its own historiographic attempt at textual reconstruction.[79]