Gay cinema may finally make it to the mainstream thanks to filmmakers like Travis Mathews and James Franco.
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26 Feb 2013 - 3:09 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2013 - 3:09 PM

This year at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, two sexually-oriented gay films—one lesbian, one gay male—emerged with huge potential to cross over into the commercial marketplace. While Stacie Passon's Concussion will have few problems with its story of a married lesbian mother venturing off to female prostitutes—Harvey Weinstein has picked up the film for the U.S. and Picturehouse for the U.K.— Interior. Leather Bar., co-directed by Travis Mathews and James Franco, may have to be more creative about its mode of exhibition, given the current failure of the Australian censors to allow Mathews' short film In Their Room: Berlin to screen last year at local queer film festivals, while his first feature I Want Your Love was banned this year.

Mathews brings this up when we meet in Berlin, and mentions how there is a hope the 20-year-old rules may be revised—though sadly not in time for I Want Your Love to be included in the Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane programs. The articulate 37-year-old, who has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology, is not the type to back down on anything, though he's not a hardliner. He's just long been committed to the idea of showing male sexuality in all its glory—and this is why Franco contacted him to make Interior. Leather Bar. Mathews, in fact, says Franco wanted to take the sex scenes even further in his bid—some say crusade—to normalise gay culture. Ultimately, the film, which unlike I Want Your Love, shows no ejaculation, may make it to film festivals here, perhaps even regular film festivals in Sydney and Melbourne. Franco's involvement may make that happen.

So what are the Oscar-nominated star's motivations? Franco is above all an artist, and in a scene from Interior. Leather Bar. he gives an extended rant about pushing the boundaries. He also explains how he wants to complement his Hollywood movies, the latest of which is Disney's Oz: The Great and Powerful by his Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, of whom he is a big fan. (Franco openly told journalists in Berlin how he had been Raimi's third choice after Robert Downey Jnr. dropped out and Johnny Depp was unavailable.)

To his credit, Franco has a realist's view of Tinseltown and has noted how he once spent nine months training for a failed boxing military movie, so that he might as well put his energy, and his fame, to good use in other areas as well. He went back and studied at New York University's graduate school where he says “they teach a form of observational documentary filmmaking based on the Maysles brothers' approach that serves as a great model for exploring a subject”.

At NYU, he met his now frequent collaborator Christina Voros, who directed the Franco-produced Sundance entry, kink, a documentary about Kink.com, the leading producer of bondage-and-discipline pornography and a company which was new, though fascinating, to Franco. He also played the small role as Hugh Hefner in Lovelace, a dramatic feature about the Deep Throat star by the award-winning filmmakers Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein (Epstein also directed The Times of Harvey Milk) and, of course, he had played Allen Ginsberg in their first dramatic feature 2010's Howl. Franco explained at the time how for him “it's more interesting to play roles and relationships that haven't been portrayed as often”.

That is certainly the case in his upcoming role as a pimp with huge metallic dental braces in Spring Breakers, where he appears alongside Selena Gomez, the ex of Justin Bieber (who Franco has impersonated). He even played a character called Franco on the television soap General Hospital. Although deemed wildly pretentious, more than anything Franco probably spreads himself too thin. Still, he certainly keeps us guessing. In Berlin's Kreuzberg until March 9, he has a largely autobiographical art exhibition titled Gay Town, which includes a series of paintings of Spider-Man emblazoned with FUCK spidey and pieces referring to his various other films including Gus Van Sant's Milk, where he played Harvey Milk's boyfriend. Check it out at here.

Interestingly, Franco had first come to recognition in a successful 2001 television movie playing James Dean with whom he bears a strong resemblance. Two years ago in Venice, he premiered his fifth feature as director, Sal, about Dean's one-time lover and Rebel Without a Cause co-star, Sal Mineo, played by Franco's friend, Val Lauren. Now in Interior. Leather Bar., Lauren takes the part Al Pacino played in Cruising (1980) as Mathews and Franco orchestrate the re-filming of the lost 40 minutes of leather bar footage, which had been deemed too explicit to show a general audience. Nobody really knows what exactly was shown and while Mathews and Franco's hour-long film re-creates a few imagined scenes, it's more about the discussion and the heterosexual Lauren's trepidation of playing them, with the probably heterosexual Franco looking on. While it's never clear if Lauren is playing himself or the actor in the film, the point is that he ultimately empathises with his gay cast members.

Whether Interior. Leather Bar. makes it to Australia or not, the film was just about the hottest ticket in Berlin, a city with a vibrant gay culture.

“With James being such a huge piece of this and also us being in very prestigious festivals, it kind of both elevates the conversation but also makes the method of distribution that much more complicated,” Mathews explains. “We have some great companies that like the film and want to buy the film but then there is the dual concern of it being 60 minutes, which is actually more of a problem than the explicit content. But it's going to be fine. We are in different situations with different territories. We are coming up with unorthodox ways to show the film.

“There's the idea of doing a gallery or museum tour with the film and having limited theatricals in order to generate buzz and interest for the VOD platform and DVD to some extent. We sort of understand and agree that it's on VOD where this film is really going to thrive, which is somewhat the case for any film now, but this film in particular I think will have a very large audience on digital platforms. It's also been interesting because the film sort of lives within different genres and different interests. It's not quite a gay film, but it is. It's not quite a documentary, but it is. We are going to Hot Docs in Toronto next month, but we are in the fiction section of Panorama here in Berlin. So there are different ways in which it can be framed for different audiences and that's part of getting it out there.”

Sundance had, of course, this year included numerous films about sexuality with the heterosexual marriage drama Afternoon Delight being my favourite.

“I loved it too; that was my favourite film,” Mathews concurs. “I love at the end when you see her tits and she is in ecstasy right in that last shot of the film. It was so well done.”

In Afternoon Delight, Kathryn Hahn is in a sexless marriage to Josh Radnor and to spice things up she befriends a prostitute who helps her turn her marriage around, even if no girl-on-girl sex is involved. Although we do see beautiful women writhing around in Concussion in a surprisingly similar storyline—only it's a lesbian marriage—there are no erect penises to arouse the censors. In many ways, it's a plus for distribution as women's anatomy is perceived as beautiful and isn't as threatening. The penis, on the other hand, is just such an emblematic thing in society.

“It's fascinating that it continues in the 21st century to be still like that,” Mathews agrees. “So much of the censorship and controversy around male sexuality is still rooted in arguments and beliefs that are so, so old. They just twist and turn and become different things, but they still are there. I think Europe has had much more lax views and representations of sexuality for quite some time and things are slowly changing in the States. In Sundance, it was great to see a crop of American films that are pushing the envelope with sex and we haven't been doing that. These festivals are part of where that conversation is.”

Jain Moralee, the new director of Queer Screen at Sydney's Mardi Gras, couldn't agree more.

“For two years in a row, Travis has had his films banned here,” she says slightly exasperated. “Obviously, when we put in an application for classification exemption this year we argued not only the points we ordinarily would argue for a film like this—basically that it's relevant to our audience—but we also argued that Travis as a filmmaker was about to experience a high level of success with his latest project, Interior. Leather Bar. at Sundance and Berlin. So I argued that this is also about acknowledging the career of someone who is really cementing himself as a leading new voice in queer cinema and how important programming his work is to a festival like ours. There is an expectation that in our programming we can deliver the best content from international filmmakers doing this.

“So having been refused classification exemption impacts on our mission to deliver the highest quality content that we can to our audience. It shows we can't campaign for the filmmakers whose careers we've been following and programming and supporting. It shows a high level of disrespect to us as an organisation as well as to our consenting adult audience, who are able to make the choice of the kinds of films they want to watch. I Want Your Love is the kind of film that a lot of gay men want to watch because it's about contemporary gay male relationships and intimacy, sexual and social; it's about friendship and logical families and all those things. It's not just about sex and the narrative completely supports the explicit content in the film.

“So I guess this kind of censorship poses a huge range of issues that impact on our audience base and on our country's ability to stay progressive and accepting of queer diversity.”