Our Bodies, Our Selves
Chris Wisniewski on Looking (episode: "Looking Glass") and Interior. Leather Bar

“Sex should be a storytelling tool,” James Franco argues in the experimental nonfiction art project Interior. Leather Bar, which he codirected with queer auteur Travis Mathews (I Want Your Love). Franco sees this as a provocation, a gauntlet throwing, a mission statement. Interior. Leather Bar purports to document Franco and Mathews’s attempts at recreating 40 censored minutes of William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 film Cruising. The missing footage was deemed too extreme and too provocative in its depiction of gay S&M subculture for mainstream audiences, and so this bid at reenactment is ostensibly meant to confront that controversy head on and, in doing so, upend deeply held cultural anxieties about gay male sexuality and sex.

Except that it doesn’t. Interior. Leather Bar isn’t really about gay sex or S&M or the missing footage from Cruising. It isn’t even about Cruising at all. It reflects the very anxiety it claims to challenge. Early in the film, while driving to the studio to shoot the movie, Franco’s friend, actor Val Lauren—hired here to stand in for Al Pacino in the Cruising project—has a phone conversation with his wife about the “gay sex” film Franco is making. She leaves him with words of advice: “Don’t take it, give it.” The comment taps into a common fear about gay sex (and particularly penetration, bottoming) as a threat to standards of heterosexual masculinity. There are just a handful of explicit scenes in Interior. Leather Bar, and it’s unclear which, if any of them, correspond to anything that was excised from Cruising. Rather, most of the film is talk—talk about what it means to be a straight actor/artist/celebrity directing a “gay sex” project like Interior. Leather Bar or a straight male performer surrounded by other men, gay and straight, who might, in the context of shooting this film, choose to kiss another man, or engage in oral sex, or maybe, just maybe, top or bottom with another man.

At around the same time that Interior. Leather Bar was making its way to art-house cinemas, HBO was broadcasting the freshman season of the comedic, gay relationship series Looking, created by Michael Lannan and co-executive produced by Andrew Haigh (writer-director of the lovely British romantic drama Weekend). Though the show was frequently billed as a Girls for the homo-male set—a label that certainly limited its appeal to straight audiences—Looking’s patient, character-driven approach to storytelling and its essential gentleness may have disappointed those who hoped it would be a queer answer to Lena Dunham’s controversial conversation-starter—a standard-bearer for young gay male urbanites. Looking averaged just two million weekly viewers, half of the audience of Girls, which it followed on a prime Sunday evening timeslot. Neither water-cooler conversation fodder nor ratings star, the series barely earned its second-season renewal, and from the perspective of cultural significance, it might seem to some hardly worth including in a symposium of articles surveying contemporary television alongside such heavy hitters as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock, The Sopranos, Downton Abbey, and, yes, Girls.

Appearances can be deceiving, though. While Looking exudes an unassuming, almost lackadaisical quality, it is also quietly radical in all the ways that Franco and Mathews’s project is not, despite the way that film’s dialogue positions itself as such. However unsuccessful Interior. Leather Bar may be in turning sex, rather than anxiety about sex, into a storytelling device, Franco’s observation about the urgency and power in such a pivot is astute: in a visual and storytelling culture in which gay sex remains taboo, other, and fundamentally threatening, there is political power in destigmatizing queer sex and recognizing it as a part of the fabric of everyday life. Looking does just that.

In “Looking Glass,” the finale of the first season, written by Lannan and Tanya Saracho and directed by Haigh, Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), one of the series’ principal characters, prepares for a fight with his live-in boyfriend, Frank (O.T. Fagbenie), and rummages through their nightstand drawer. He eventually locates the bag of drugs he’s seeking, but not before he pulls out a bottle of personal lubricant. Later, Augustin has a conversation with his best friend, the show’s protagonist, buttoned-up video game designer Patrick (Jonathan Groff), about the latter’s boyfriend Richie (Raúl Castillo), a Mexican-American barber who had picked Patrick up on a city bus. Augustin, who had previously disparaged Richie to Patrick (“You’re slumming, and it ain’t cute,” he observed quite undiplomatically), asks Patrick what he likes about his love interest, and Patrick waxes on about how sweet and genuine he is, until Augustin mentions the obvious—that he’s “hot.” “I mean,” Patrick responds, “I just want to lick his armpits all day.” This is what gay desire and gay sex feel like when treated as a part of the lived experience of complicated people: in their incidental matter-of-factness, these references to lubing up and armpit-licking cast Looking as more than just an antidote to Interior. Leather Bar’s boot-licking and embarrassed straight-guy reaction shots, which dominate the movie’s one truly explicit sex scene. These moments have a casual, tossed-off quality that seems to respond to Franco’s self-issued challenge—this is what it looks and feels like to use (gay) sex as a storytelling tool.

Looking goes even further. In an episode that had come at the season’s midpoint, a two-hander featuring Richie and Patrick written and directed by Haigh, Richie tells an uptight Patrick that he wants to fuck him. Over the course of the episode, they unpack Patrick’s trepidation about “being a Ross” (bottoming) to Richie’s “Rachel” (the top), filtering indelicate attitudes towards anal sex through the familiar lens of pop culture, in this case the sitcom Friends. Patrick’s feelings about this aspect of gay sex are inescapably imbricated in ambivalent prejudices toward queerness, as an aspect of identity, and race and class. For WASPy Patrick, his behavior and preferences in the bedroom reflect on how his family sees him and the expectations that they and others in his milieu have for him—this isn’t just about what gets him off, but also about who he is, aspires to be, and is assessed as being by those whose opinions matter to him. These issues express themselves through sex, but they’re not sexual issues. The primary story arc of the first season finds Patrick sorting through his conflicted feeling towards Richie—who consistently proves himself to be open, genuine, and emotionally engaged but who also, because of his job and, perhaps, ethnic identity, may not correspond to the romantic ideal Patrick has for himself.

In “Looking Glass,” Patrick gets over some of his sexual reticence, but only in ways that complicate rather than resolve the series’ trenchant examination of identity politics. After he and Richie have a fight, Patrick sleeps with his partnered British boss, Kevin (Russell Tovey), late one night at the office. Throughout the season, Kevin had served as the foil and contrast to Richie, the ideal mate on paper but romantically off limits and emotionally unavailable—because of his boyfriend and their professional relationship. Kevin makes a positively smoldering come-on that plays off their season-long attraction, then asks his subordinate if it’s okay to proceed with what Patrick might call “Racheling,” and Patrick assents. The sequence is undeniably sexy, not least for featuring two attractive queer male stars in a love scene. It’s dangerous to make too strong a case for the value of gay casting in a series like this—straight men are just as viable as gay men in queer roles, and vice versa. Still, in a visual and sexual culture that valorizes the straight man as a locus of desire for gay men (Interior. Leather Bar gets too much mileage out of the appeal of a “gay project” conceived by and featuring Franco) it is refreshing, to say the least, to see two out gay men play a sex scene like this.

Whatever pleasure Patrick and Kevin’s coupling gives is short-lived. Patrick returns home after his office hook-up to find Richie at his doorstep. Richie apologizes to Patrick for the fight. “My pride is something that I’m working through. I’m extra sensitive about where I’m from,” he admits, nodding to his Mexican heritage before confronting Patrick with a painful truth, “You are, too.”

In Looking, (gay) sex is a storytelling tool, but it is always deployed in service of stories that see identity as rich and multivalent. “Looking Glass” charts three relationships at a crossroads: that of Augustin and Frank, the latter of whom ditches him because of a betrayal that reveals, in part, that Augustin is, in Frank’s words, a “bored rich kid”; that of Patrick and Richie, which sees the former trying too hard—and unsuccessfully—to get past the unspoken racism and classism that make it easier for him to acquiesce to a level of sexual intimacy with Kevin than what he can manage with Richie; and, finally, that of their forty-year-old friend Dom (Murray Bartlett), who struggles with insecurity about his age until making a romantic play for his older friend Lynn (Scott Bakula). Haigh films many of the exchanges that dramatize these conflicts in lengthy two-shots rather than in shot-reverse-shot style, giving his able actors enough space to play off each other while moving across registers from insecurity to defensiveness, desperation to desire, and thereby suggesting just how messy an individually specific sense of identity can be. Haigh’s approach isn’t televisual in a conventional sense—on the contrary—but the show harnesses the serialized format of its medium to great effect. By slowly filling in and shading each of these characters over the course of its first eight episodes, the show builds an emotional richness it leverages in each of “Looking Glass”’s three romantic subplots, bringing the characters’ stories to a climactic point without strain or contrivance.

Interior. Leather Bar, by contrast, is a contrivance—almost by definition—a construction used to interrogate the culture’s discomfort with gayness. Where Looking exploits the serialized (cable) TV format to tell a story rooted in queer identity but not consumed by it, Interior coopts the controversy surrounding a 30-year-old movie to make an intervention in identity politics as played out in movie culture. From this perspective, it’s no surprise that Interior. Leather Bar is shot on location in Los Angeles; it repeatedly returns to scenes set in an alley outside its L.A. soundstage, an ongoing reminder of the “constructedness” of the whole project, the way in which it’s ultimately about gayness as seen in the movies. Looking, on the other hand, subtly asserts its San Francisco setting, invoking the city’s legacy as a hotbed of the gay rights movement. Its production design serves as a quietly lovely reminder that the stories it’s telling exist in a context that has a historical antecedent.

The show’s unobtrusively insistent appeal to its setting echoes the charming loveliness of the final moments of “Looking Glass,” which find Patrick and his once and future roommate Augustin alone in bed in Patrick’s apartment watching an episode of Susan Harris’s classic eighties sitcom The Golden Girls on a laptop. The Golden Girls is a show that, like Looking, is about an unconventional family unit that refuses to be pigeonholed into an existing heteronormative framework. The series—an improbable landmark and a touchtone for contemporary queer audiences—took difference as a starting point and examined how people who started as types (the sexpot, the Midwestern dolt, the domineering Italian) could move from their perceived sense of difference to mutual understanding in order to forge a bond that might rival the traditional patriarchal family that otherwise serves as the sitcom standard. If Looking positions itself as a descendent of The Golden Girls, it does so as a show that sees something authentic in the families we make for ourselves and that positions queer identity as a part of that rich tapestry of characteristics (including age, race, class, and gender identity) we all use to make sense of who we are. In Interior. Leather Bar, identity is academic; in Looking, it’s anything but—it’s about who we are, how we live, and, yes, how we fuck, but only in ways that reveal how rich, rather than how narrow, our senses of self can be.