James Franco is on a mission. It's a valid mission, but also one that you might expect from an undergraduate with a passion for pushing buttons, a liberal sensibility, and resources like wealth and Hollywood connections. Franco is a 35-year-old actor who's pursuing a PhD at Yale and has three MFAs under his belt while continuing to be a huge movie star, and at times he comes across as naive. He sounds new to the academic concepts some of us take for granted like gender normative behavior, sexual identity, and ideas around censorship and taboo but as many undergraduates believe, he thinks they are as new to everyone as they are to him. At the core of what he wants to accomplish with two new films he produced in 2012 is a breaking down of boundaries between porn and art, and collapsing the limits of what a mainstream film audience is comfortable watching on screen.
We learned back in December that these two Franco-produced films would be premiering at Sundance, one shot in San Francisco at the Kink.com Armory, and another concerning a S.F.-friendly topic: leather bars. The former is a documentary directed by Christina Voros, and the latter turns out to be more experimental, a "docu-fiction" as co-director Travis Mathews dubs it, that both imagines what some of the lost leather bar footage looked like from William Friedkin's 1980 film Cruising and takes a documentary-like approach to discussing the issue of gay sex on screen with Franco and various performers involved in the modern-day shoot. Needless to say, neither of these qualifies as a film aimed at a mainstream audience, but he produced them both and in attaching his name it gives both films a boost on the festival and indie circuit, insuring them more viewership than they would have had otherwise.
We attended the midnight screening of Kink on Friday as part of the Frameline Film Festival and can honestly say it's a well made and compelling documentary. Voros skillfully weaves her way through the halls, offices, and dungeons of the Armory speaking to models, directors, a casting director, a set designer, a videographer, and the founder of Kink.com, Peter Acworth, and paints a picture of a real and functioning workplace that happens to produce hardcore BDSM pornography.
There is a certain sensationalism to some of Voros' shots, which feature bound and screaming women being variously whipped; a man strung up naked in rope bondage aroused but in obvious pain; a woman strung upside down being relentlessly stimulated by a large vibrating machine between her legs; and a young man being mock-drowned in a bathtub by a dominant male. But there are also multiple moments of honest pathos, including one in which a straight male model admits he is really only there for the money and that he wishes he was "on the other side" with the documentary filmmaker; and an older female model admitting she was dreading telling her kids about her job as a dom, and admitting that "there are a lot of lost souls" roaming the halls of the place, and she didn't want her kids to be one of those lost souls.
It was in that moment that we thought Voros had achieved the greatest success in her film, which is filled with plenty of intelligent commentary on BDSM, the varieties of pleasure, the politics of consent, and the way consent can be blurred by the money that's at stake. You see directors being sincerely tender and sensitive to their performers, changing storylines when situations start to read too violent or rape-like. But in showing that female model admit what no one else would, that the models of course range from the very well adjusted, like herself, to the lost, the film rises above the level of sex-positive propaganda to a more balanced portrait.
Interior. Leather Bar, however, is a less successful film, in large part because of the documentary conceit it uses without actually having the integrity of documentary. Filmmaker Travis Mathews, who collaborated with Franco on the film, is known for recent efforts like his In Their Room series documentary shorts focusing on gay male sexual and grooming habits that feature a lot of nudity and masturbation and last year's I Want Your Love, a film shot in San Francisco that's been lauded as a kind of new-generation porn film, featuring bearded gays, "real" sex, and an indie-movie style storyline. He's a kindred spirit for Franco, and one with the experience and knowledge in the world of gay sex and film to take Franco's mission in a direction he couldn't take it by himself.
The film centers on the character of Val, played by Franco's friend Val Lauren, who is cast in the Al Pacino role for this re-imagined leather bar sequence which both Franco and Mathews declare at the outset won't be an exact reshoot, by any means, but a loose reinterpretation of footage that Friedkin might have shot. The purpose of the film is extremely unclear from the get-go, and feels a bit thrown together from the opening the interview sequence at the Chateau Marmont in which Franco and Mathews discuss their plans with Lauren. We then follow Lauren to his day on set, in which he discusses his choice on the phone both with his wife and his agent (played by someone who was not his agent), and with other performers on set. He also sits down with Franco for a conversation at the center of the film in which Franco explains his mission as clearly as he knows how: He hates that his mind, and tastes, have been conditioned by the straight, white society he grew up in, and he wants to reprogram all of that. Also, he thinks the violence on TV and film is egregious and the taboos around sex are stupid, and the former should be tamped down while the latter gets amped up, until we're able to watch real sex on screen all the time. It's a noble, if again somewhat naive, goal.
Unfortunately, we couldn't help but sigh and cringe a little when Franco began one of his thoughts with, "One of my professors at Yale says..."
One primary flaw of the film is that Val's discomfort with the shoot, which is the central tension of the film, is itself part fiction. While not operating with a script, Mathews makes clear that he's coaching the conversations that are shot, including one that Val has with another straight actor on set. In the Q&A at last night's screening Mathews admitted the "docu-fiction" aspect like the fake agent who calls Val to warn him about appearing in this piece of pornography and took pleasure in some "meta" elements of the film, like one in which Val is seen sitting in an alley reading script pages aloud that describe him sitting in an alley reading script pages aloud. None of these things, however, redeem the film as anything more than an experiment that wants to be deeper than it is, and they call to question whether it needed documentary elements at all.
The film also fails to accomplish what it sets out to, which is to recreate some 40 minutes of footage that was cut from Friedkin's film for being too racy. What we get, amidst a great deal of build up, costuming, interviews with inarticulate performers, and semi-intellectual talk while sitting around on set, is about five to seven minutes of that footage, showing Val's Pacino-like face in a dark and dirty club environment, eventually doing poppers and dancing wildly with another sweaty man. Though there are brief moments of nudity and sex interspersed in the film, it's neither abundant nor shocking enough to justify all the indulgent discussions of it. In fact, after so much talk, we thought we earned a lot more shock. (One extremely brief sequence involving domination and boot licking is cut so short that Val's dismay over it feels especially unearned.)
Franco's comments about dissolving taboos and not being scared of sex played well to a packed house of (mostly gay) San Franciscans, obviously. But there wasn't much there to mull over in the end. We couldn't help but feel that the documentary conceit was an effort to invent a narrative, and kill time, where there would otherwise only be some disconnected bar scene or sex footage not to mention an excuse for the filmmakers themselves to become the stars, and to discuss their less than rigorous thinking about sex and film in general. We just wish they'd found something more to say than, "Hey. Sex is sex."