Let's think about 1980.
It was the year that William Friedkin's Cruising was released to widespread critical derision, a film with the capacity to, in the words of its director, "scare middle-of-the-road gay activists." Gay activists in New York*, where Cruising was filmed, had a lot to be concerned about. How could a narrative of an undercover cop, played by straight actor Al Pacino, solving a series of "bag murders" set within the gay S&M club scene say anything positive about contemporary gay life and culture? Fists were up: Protests on the film shoot were so vigorous that, according to Friedkin, Pacino "really freaked out during the making of the film. He had no idea what had been unleashed."
Yet there was another group of gay men present for the filming of Cruising, a group no one really mentions – the extras. Receiving special dispensation from the Screen Actors Guild, Friedkin secured the services of hundreds of (mostly) gay men who were paid $50 a day to appear as patrons in the very real leather bars Friedkin filmed in, bars such as the Ramrod and the Anvil. And here's the rub: Many of these men were the patrons of these bars. They participated in Cruising ostensibly because they dug kinky sex – and let's face it, the prospect of seeing Al Pacino in leathers, in "their" environment, might have been too delicious to pass up.
Similar currents of desire – for stardom, for sex – flow forth during a lengthy conversation between a group of extras in the hourlong genre-bending 2013 featurette Interior. Leather Bar., set to screen during this year's Polari film festival. Directed by Travis Mathews and James Franco (both of whom also appear in the film), Interior. Leather Bar. takes as its starting point the lost 40 minutes of footage from Cruising, apocryphally thrown on the cutting room floor because of its pornographic content. Austinite Keith Wilson, who worked as cinematographer for Interior. Leather Bar., remembers that "during auditions it became clear that capturing real actor interactions with sex, gay sex, and cruising and the subsequent conversations they had about their varying levels of comfort was some of the most interesting material."
The mélange of gay and straight male actors appearing in Mathews' and Franco's docu-fiction casually shoot the shit, check one another out ("Are you gay or straight?"), and speculate on whether they'll see Franco doing the dirty on the jobsite. They, and perhaps some expectant viewers of Interior. Leather Bar. will be seriously disappointed if the latter is a primary draw. Franco appears in Interior. Leather Bar., but mostly as a kind of winking version of himself, sweet-talking his friend in real life, Val Lauren, into playing Pacino onscreen. Lauren holds together the film's loose narrative arc, and his ensuing uncomfortability and shock parallels Pacino's. In scripted passages that sneakily appear verité, explicit parallels are drawn to the human process of making a film that is, in some way, about queer sex. "Ultimately," says co-director Mathews, "it's a film about filmmaking." While the gay extras approach their task with a sweet sense of excitement, their straight counterparts are more ponderous, wringing their hands. "We did a large casting call at Playhouse West, and the guys who showed up only knew that James Franco was attached and it was about a leather bar," says Mathews of the casting process, "I wish that had been filmed, because it was the beginning of seeing these guys process where their boundaries are and where they'd stretch and not stretch them."
At one point in the film, Mathews asks a series of extras to "cruise the camera," by staring into its lens. Each struggles to successfully complete the task, and some are much better than others. The difficulty in unself-consciously cruising points to the generational space between the Seventies and Eighties and the present, as a system of gay male communication has arguably been supplanted by mobile hook-up apps. This generational gap shows up in perspectives on Cruising as a primary source material. "In some ways, it became interesting and clear to me how there is a fairly drawn divide generationally, between older gay men and younger gay men who look at [Cruising] nostalgically," Mathews carefully says. "Pre-AIDS, free sexuality, no condoms – it's fetishized in so many ways. An older generation in large measure sees the same film as a lightning rod in its representation of gay people."
*Correction: The original version of this article misstated the filming location of Cruising.
Interior. Leather Bar. screens Saturday, Oct. 19, at 10pm at Stateside at the Paramount.
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