NewFest 2013: James Franco, BDSM and Sexual Performance

Jessie-Colter

James Franco is into bondage, apparently. He has two films on the subject at this year’s NewFest, New York City’s premiere LGBT film festival. The first is a more personal project, the ostensibly nonfiction Interior. Leather Bar. in which Franco and his co-director Travis Mathews (I Want Your Love) try to recreate the lost 40 minutes of sexually explicit footage cut from William Friedkin’s Cruising. The other is Christina Voros’s Kink, a documentary about Internet pornography company Kink.com produced by Franco. Both films try to take apart the way that we perform and perceive sexuality. One of them succeeds gracefully; the other most certainly does not.

First up, pornography! Kink.com is a group of various fetish sites, based in San Francisco. In 2006 the company purchased the San Francisco Armory, an intimidating historical relic in the middle of the Mission District. It’s the perfect place to shoot a wide variety of BDSM videos, and founder Peter Acworth has encouraged quite a bit of expansion and diversification. Kink.com appears to be at the top of the pack in this particular subset of the porn industry.

That being said, the business side of things is not really the most exciting part of Voros’s documentary. It isn’t really the sex either, though there are plenty of titillating moments among the film’s 80 minutes. The real focus is on how the directors at Kink.com go about creating these videos. The unexpected central element in their production style is that they are not interested in acting. Heightened performances are actively discouraged in favor of real, genuine responses to the BDSM activities.

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In part this is a safety issue. If an actor is being whipped and is loudly pretending to be in a great deal of pain, how can you tell when things have gone too far? Directors at Kink.com will stop a shoot immediately if they think they’ve pushed someone even the slightest bit too far, as a rule. The staff at The Armory is very insistent upon a positive working environment.

Voros is preoccupied with making this point, defending Kink.com from the perception of BDSM pornography as exploitative and abusive. This is understandable, and there are definitely a whole lot of misconceptions out there regarding what probably happens in The Armory. Yet the film’s best moments come from a rawer examination of sexuality, peering into what actually emerges from Kink.com’s complete rejection of “acting.” The whole act of filming BDSM sex becomes transformational, more about the submissive participant’s emotional journey than anything else.

Voros is more interested in the face, contorted in the ecstasy of agony, than she is in the whip or the machine. Admittedly, participation in one of these videos is still effectively a performance. Yet the goal of Kink.com is for actors to avoid any affectations, anything exaggerated or fake. The result is, ideally, submissive actors performing their own wish fulfillment as a therapeutic act. They are compelling to watch because they retain their subjectivity, an attempt to present something different from pornography’s more common objectification.

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Interior. Leather Bar., meanwhile, isn’t compelling at all. It also isn’t really a documentary, though it masquerades as one. At the very beginning of this (mercifully) 60-minute film, Franco and Mathews clarify that they wouldn’t really be able to film all of Cruising’s missing 40 minutes of leather bar antics. Instead they’re going to make a film about filming a small handful of those minutes. Eventually it comes to light that the whole thing is scripted, though that’s obvious much earlier than Franco and Mathews might realize.

Much could be said about the film’s insufferable sense of self. It’s full of on-set interviews with actors and crew who can only talk about how excited they are to work with Franco, for example. Yet the conceptual problem that makes Interior. Leather Bar. so thoroughly bland is something else: its confused presentation of the same theme that makes Kink so interesting.

The principal narrative drama of the film has to do with the casting of Val Lauren in the Al Pacino role. The actor, who previously worked with Franco on Sal, is presented as extremely uncomfortable with taking part in this near-pornographic production. He commits only because he supports Franco’s “vision.”

Meanwhile, it becomes pretty clear that said vision is really more of a misguided mission to get straight dudes to watch gay dudes have kinky sex. Franco, as himself, explains to the audience that the initial problem with Cruising was that Friedkin presented New York’s BDSM community as something lower, lesser and wicked. Basically, the goal of Interior. Leather Bar. is to contribute to the end of heteronormativity with its explicit sexuality.

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Lauren is the stand-in for stodgy, heterosexual America, watching and taking part in this erotic experiment. The camera is more fascinated with the actor’s reactions than it is with the allegedly stimulating orgy happening in front of him. By the end of Mathews’ script he comes around, having seen the genuine love of one gay couple whose erotic encounter is the last significant sexual scene in the film.

By those last moments, Interior. Leather Bar. has become so thoroughly about the male heterosexual perspective that one wonders why Franco and Mathews even bothered to film all of the leather bar scenes in the first place. The few brief moments of recreated Cruising footage we get to see are awkwardly choreographed and bordering on ugly, aesthetically inferior and barely an ideological improvement on Friedkin’s material. The whole thing is also noticeably tamer than anything that did make it through the MPAA in 1980, never mind the missing X-rated footage.

So, what does Interior. Leather Bar. actually accomplish? There’s one line in the film that offers something of an explanation. In defending his interest in the project to his co-stars, Lauren says of Franco, “He’s got a purpose, even if the purpose is to quench his own curiosity.” This brief moment does show some self-awareness on the part of the film, which I guess is admirable. But, if the impetus for the film is really so personal and whimsical, why ask the rest of us to watch? Any viewer’s perception of BDSM would be much more clarified through the empathy of Kink than it ever would be by the selfishness of Interior. Leather Bar.

NewFest 2013 begins tomorrow, September 6, and runs through September 11 in New York City. Most screenings are at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. Interior. Leather Bar is showing on Saturday night while Kink screens on Monday.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.