JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Interior’s resemblance to performance art documentation also owes much to the sheer theatricality of SM as “the most ceremonial and decorous of practices,” a staged exhibition that “flouts the edict that manhood is synonymous with mastery, and submission a female fate.”[80] [open notes in new window] But unlike Cruising’s neorealist long shots of cavernous SM clubs filled with revelers, Interior’s reconstructed leather bar scenes are much more claustrophobic and tightly filmed, deliberately hiding the filmmakers’ reliance on a far smaller cast of extras and a nondescript, black-box studio space in place of actual lived spaces.

And although Interior portrays some of the same fetishized sexual activities seen in Cruising (e.g., boot worship), its filmmakers’ willingness to only show certain types of unsimulated sex produces scenes that are paradoxically tamer than the sheer variety of (simulated) sexual acts portrayed in Cruising. Interior’s club scenes show unsimulated close-ups of fellatio and masturbation, for example, but the overall film does not go so far as to provide visual evidence of anal penetration, and does not even attempt to emulate Cruising’s audacious (but still simulated) fisting scene. Despite their ability to deliver the sort of “pornographic” footage that Friedkin was forced to cut, then, Franco and Mathews are actually quite restrained in comparison with their source material, perhaps hoping to avoid the charges of “exploitation” that Friedkin had faced back in 1980.

Indeed, the same actor, Brenden Gregory, who hopes aloud that Interior will become “tasteful bondage art-porn” makes this comment after filming a surprisingly tender sex scene with his real-life boyfriend, Bradley Roberge—but this sex scene also represents Interior’s greatest deviation from its supposed “lost” source material. As Travis explains, we have already seen these unnamed characters (who have no analogues in Cruising) meet at the leather bar, and they have now been taken back to an apartment (filmed on another sparse studio set) where they will have sex on a couch under the instruction of a real-life top, Master Avery (Christian Patrick), who watches from nearby. Although Brenden and Bradley initially follow Master Avery’s pre-filming instructions to engage in a discipline scenario featuring light slapping, they quickly move away from these scripted commands and follow their own SM-free passions. With Master Avery’s topping literally relegated to the margins instead of vividly portrayed in action, the theatricality of SM is eschewed for the more comfortable naturalism of couple sex. This scene thereby moves furthest away from Cruising, but in doing so, it also moves away from the public, kinky, and recreational valences that made the simulated sex in Friedkin’s film so provocative, both yesterday and today.

Travis and Master Avery provide pre-filming instructions for the couple’s light SM action.

But Master Avery is soon relegated to the sidelines in favor of kink-free companionate sex. 

Interior’s monogamous gay couple steals the show. They share a tender scene of explicit sex far removed from Cruising’s public, kinky, recreational action.

Despite James’s opening gambit about Cruising’s depiction of a far less homonormative, pre-AIDS period before the rise of gay marriage, this pivotal scene nonetheless privileges the de-queered couple and thus undercuts Interior’s own political ambitions. Michael Bronski suggests that this scene perhaps “alleviates the free-floating anxiety of desire that has been circulating” because couple sex more securely grounds gay identity in specific performers whose real-life love seems “an expression of [socially] acceptable emotion.”[81] Even Val, chatting with the other actors, seems to have greater respect for Brenden and Bradley after watching their sexual intimacy, explaining that he could tell they were a couple. If Cruising is about Burns’ fear of becoming one of the anonymous SM clubbers, Interior is about Val overcoming his apprehensions in standing above the other actors as the (straight) Pacino stand-in, eventually instead becoming at ease with the (gay) extras whose included voices prevent them from becoming interchangeably anonymous.

Indeed, it is notable that we see James quietly leave the set during the couple’s sex scene, as though deliberately testing Val by effectively cutting the lifeline that his celebrity friendship represents. But if this abandonment is meant to represent a crucial point in Val’s own transformation vis-à-vis James’s queer project, this unsimulated sex scene’s emphasis on kink-free gay coupledom lacks the higher stakes implied by recreating Cruising’s more sexually casual, polymorphously perverse milieu. James may want to portray gay sex as “beautiful and attractive,” but he is less successful in portraying it as hot and sexy, especially compared to the longer and more explicit tradition of all-male art-porn (such as the films of Wakefield Poole, Fred Halsted, Curt McDowell, and Joe Gage) that predated Cruising and goes conspicuously unmentioned here. Rather than privileging the intensity of raw, anonymous sex seen in such art-porn, and even in Cruising itself, the intimate, companionate couple remains Interior’s privileged sexual configuration. In a homonormative society, straight men like James can

"validate the not-gay quality of their homosexual contact" by "casting queerness as that which is sincere, love-based, and, in the minds of more liberal heterosexuals—beautiful. [...] With gay identity now tethered to love and biology, these other forms of homosexual relating can be more easily taken up by straights, as they are increasingly believed to be distinct from the true meaning of gayness: monogamous same-sex love and the gay and lesbian families presumed to ultimately result from this love."[81b]

We next see Val talking to his wife on the phone as he sits behind the studio space, watching as leather-clad Master Avery walks down the alleyway during a break in filming. Val’s wife jokingly asks him whether she should buy a strap-on dildo after filming concludes—an oblique reference to Cruising’s final scene, in which Burns’ girlfriend curiously tries on his leathers while he is in the bathroom.

Master Avery struts his stuff in the back alley while Val is on the phone with his wife, in a moment recalling Nancy’s assumption of Burns’s leathers at the end of Cruising.

Burns and Val-as-Pacino give themselves over to drug-fueled dance in Cruising and Interior. Leather Bar.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, anal penetration remains figured as the privileged act that would seemingly confirm one’s homosexuality, which makes its absence from Interior’s visual register of unsimulated acts all the more telling as the product of an actor-filmmaker who only considers himself “gay…up to the point of intercourse.” Interior finally ends with a blue-tinted film-within-the-film sequence featuring Val and Master Avery cruising each other in a rough re-creation of Cruising’s extant scene of Burns frenetically dancing with another man. Discussing Cruising, D. A. Miller suggests that, in the absence of more explicit confirmation about Burns’ potential trysts with other men,

“[this] moment when Steve joins the dancing offers the most satisfying ‘gaying’ of his character possible, all the more ingenious in that, given that he’s ‘the Pacino character,’ we would never be allowed anything more explicit in any case.”

Moreover, by Cruising’s ambiguous closing scene featuring Nancy dressed in Burns’ leathers,

Whom he has sex with will no longer prove much; his body has been desublimated, released from the organizational grip of sexual orientation. Is he now homosexual? All that seems certain is that he’s no longer not. He’s been queered.”[82]

By placing this re-performed dancing scene at Interior’s conclusion instead of the mid-film point where it appears in Cruising, Val himself is thus figured as having been finally “queered” by his on-set experience—overcoming his gay-panic anxieties and joining the fray as one of many queer performers, no longer positioning himself as the project’s privileged heterosexual star. Like Franco’s forays into performance art, then, the hetero-male “celebrity” (Val-as-Pacino) is meant to disappear through a proximity to explicit homosexuality that “queers” him away from the normative sex-gender privileges enjoyed by most Hollywood stars. Yet, because Interior’s most faithful re-creation—displayed here as the production’s end result—consists of a club scene that was already extant in Friedkin’s original film, not a “lost” fragment of X-rated footage that never reached screens, Franco and Mathews reveal a certain imaginative limit that, as in Friedkin’s film, injects an ideological incoherence into their project’s overarching aims. That is, much as the queer political ambitions behind Val’s supposed transformation are soft-pedaled by visually privileging the homonormative couple in a scene that drastically departs from Cruising, the filmmakers cannot seem to reconcile Cruising’s most transgressive depictions of kink and public/recreational sex with their own creative desires to re-imagine Friedkin’s compromised vision.

Despite their ability to play with the bounds of celebrity and performance art through a project about unsimulated sex, Cruising’s “lost” footage remains just that: a missing fragment from a retrospectively inaccessible time that Interior cannot properly approximate. Much as re-performances of famous art events cannot accurately reanimate past reception contexts, Interior constructs its own epistemological limits—some more intentional than others—around what Friedkin’s uncut film might have included. Franco and Mathews may acknowledge that their film is not directly intended as a historiographic intervention (à la reconstruction or restoration), but their very inability to access the “lost” past inadvertently highlights the difficulty in creatively re-imagining past sexual attitudes without somehow falling back on the social valuations of our deeply homonormative present (e.g., the idealization of the gay couple). Like his other projects, then, Interior. Leather Bar.’s focus on different layers of stardom and performance in process ultimately does more to interrogate James Franco’s celebrity than to illuminate queer culture on its own merits. But its own limitations as a film more interested in the idea of Cruising’s excised footage than in accurately executing this concept nevertheless reveal the sheer struggle involved in attempting to unthink homonormativity. If Franco’s film ultimately fails in its higher ambitions to aesthetically proselytize on behalf of the gay sex from which he personally excludes himself, then his failure of imagination testifies to the contra-straight potential that excavating queer pasts might, in other creative hands, still hold for challenging our present political strictures.