DOXA 2013: Interior. Leather Bar.: The straight man's journey into the world of gay sex

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In this era of increased acceptance of all things LGBT, queerphobias (like other forms of discrimination) often get concealed beneath the veneer of PC politeness. Sometimes it's no longer sexuality that's being suppressed but discriminatory attitudes.  

Consequently, codirectors James Franco and Travis Mathews attempt to flush what's hidden beneath the surface by going to extremes in Interior. Leather Bar. A hybrid film that blurs documentary with fiction, the film ostensibly chronicles the filmmakers' efforts to remake the 40-minutes of deleted, sexually graphic footage from the controversial 1980 thriller Cruising, starring Al Pacino as a cop that goes undercover into the world of gay S&M.

The main narrative arc follows Val Laurens, a straight actor who struggles to both comprehend the point of the film he's in as well as the explicit gay sexual activity that the shoot entails. Laurens expresses his discomfort and confusion in conversations with fellow actors on set, his wife, and a friend who tries to discourage him from participating in the "Franco faggot project". In other words, it's the gay-for-pay dilemma that some straight male porn actors experience.

Franco expounds, rather too earnestly, his angst about being basically brainwashed by his upbringing into thinking gay sexuality isn't normal. He raises the point (which is not necessarily new but still relevant) that depictions of violence are far more widely accepted than sexuality.

Consequently, the explicit recreation of the gay leather bar scenes serve merely as a backdrop for a much more introverted exercise.

One of the major differences between the era of Cruising and today is how the internet has changed the ease of access to gay sexual content. What gets depicted in the film isn't necessarily anything that anyone can't find online or queer feature films. Accordingly, the true voyeuristic focal point isn't necessarily the sex but the reactions of the straight actors and, perhaps more importantly, the reactions of audience members. Unlike the average documentary, the content becomes just as much about the audience experience as what is on screen. In that sense, the film may be better suited to the art gallery, which inherently signals to viewers a shift towards active self-questioning, rather than the movie house.

What's more, any insights that the film offers may not go much further than the obvious. In many ways, the film is reminscent of Brüno, in which Sacha Baron Cohen proved that acting flamboyantly around a bunch of rednecks or religious fundamentalists doesn't expose anything we don't already know. On the other hand, straight viewers watching Interior. Leather Bar. may find their comfort levels weren't exactly where they thought they were. In that respect, the film does contribute to the ongoing discourse about issues involved in the depiction of gay sexuality and romance in the mainstream. Yet while shock value has its purposes, it will take much more nuanced works to keep the conversation going.

While the film purports to be about queerness, other biographical documentaries also playing at DOXA, such as I Am Divine and Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, remind viewers that queerness isn't just rooted in sexual orientation or activity but is just as much about asserting social identities that fly in the face of dominant pressures. However, Interior. Leather Bar. does manage to point to the future of queerness, in how both straight and gay people unite to devote themselves to social questioning, subversion, and defiance.

Interior. Leather Bar. plays Friday (May 10) at 9 p.m. at the Rio Theatre.

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