Travis Mathews has proved to be one of the year’s most controversial filmmakers. Int. Leather Bar, which made its first appearance on Irish screens as part of the GAZE film festival, replaced his earlier effort I Want Your Love, when Australian authorities banned that film at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Int. Leather Bear also gained notoriety at this year’s Sundance and Berlin film festivals. So, what’s all the fuss about?
James Franco, star of Disney’s Oz The Great and Powerful, has a problem. “My mind has been twisted by the way the world has been set up around me,” he says. And one thing that troubles one of Hollywood’s brightest stars is how we think about sex and how it appears in films, gay sex in particular. (Franco is straight.)
The “Franco faggot project”, as an actor’s agent describes Int. Leather Bar, twists and plays with an episode from cinema and gay liberation history. Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet, was particularly critical of the film Cruising (1980, William Friedkin). It featured Al Pacino playing a cop who goes undercover while attempting to catcher a murderer of New York homosexuals. Activists opposed the negative depiction of queers and protested during the film’s production and release. Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), allegedly filmed sexually explicit scenes in New York’s gay S&M bars, but the MPAA forced cuts of up to 40 minutes of footage. Franco’s project was to shoot scenes that might have appeared. He wanted to show now what couldn’t be shown before.
Franco developed the project with Travis Mathews, whose sexually explicit naturalist drama, I Want Your Love, featured at last year’s GAZE. Their collaboration has produced a genuinely funny and provocative film that playfully, yet skilfully, explores, not the representation of gay sex acts, but the boundaries of pornography, documentary and fictional filmmaking.
Franco recruited actor Val Lauren to take on a role similar to Al Pacino. The film provides three points of entry to the viewer: seeing Franco, a grade A Hollywood star, explain the rationale for his folly; seeing Mathews write and direct the scenes; and seeing Lauren struggle to understand exactly what he has become involved in.
Co-directors Franco and Mathews construct scenes, not solely to display graphic gay sex acts (the most extreme of which is fellatio; there is no penetration), but also to draw attention to Lauren looking at them take place. The filmmakers are challenging notions of naturalistic sex in film. Even when the sex is the “real thing”, i.e. not simulated, it remains totally contrived. They reflect the philosopher Žižek’s reading of Lacan: “Sex is minimally exhibitionist and relies on another’s gaze.” Sex is always a performance. So, we see a couple of engaging in intimate acts on a sofa, and then a wider shot reveals Franco, Mathews and other cameraman taking shots of the same scene from different angles. What appeared as a naturalistic scene of non-simulated sex has become a spectacle captured from a multiplicity of viewpoints.
This corruption of film’s apparent authenticity and naturalism affects the way the film works as a documentary. Shot mostly in a fly-on-the-wall style, it features Franco, Mathews and others behaving as if the camera was not there. Yet they constantly disrupt are belief in its apparent authenticity when Mathews, for example, instructs two actors “wait till I’m done talkin’, so it’s clean,” to wait till he gives his instruction and then rephrase their conversation as if Mathews hadn’t interrupted to get what he wanted to be said. Similarly, Lauren sits in a parking lot, reading aloud the script, reading the part where it describes Lauren sitting in a parking lot, reading aloud a script. Picasso said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” and the filmmakers expose film as such a lie.
Int. Leather Bar clearly features sexually explicit scenes, but the filmmakers carefully control their shock value by mediating them through Lauren’s experience. Lauren is a married man. His phone calls to his wife appear genuine.
Peccadillo Pictures will distribute the film in the UK. It joins the ranks of what Linda Williams has called “hardcore art cinema”, a genre discussed at length by critics and academics, but little seen by the general public, which is perhaps a pity. It really is a remarkable work.