Gay and BDSM films from James Franco, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Daniel Radcliffe Jolt Sundance Audiences

(Above) Interior: Leather Bar. trailer from Travis Mathews and James Franco on Vimeo.

NY Times Calls Sundance “Porndance”
by Larry Murray

Park City, Utah: When the New York Times relabels the Sundance Film Festival as “Porndance,” you know the film business has changed. And that is exactly what Brooks Barnes did yesterday when he sat back and tapped out his New York Times column on how “many longtime attendees were starting to mention the amount of sex on screen.”

But let’s be clear here, it isn’t the sex on screen that is getting people worked up, it’s the kind of sex that is being portrayed. Gay sex. BDSM sex. The twilight, carefully hidden kinds of sex you never see on screen, or haven’t until now. For this column, I am going to focus on that, and on the role James Franco is playing in opening up the movie business to the dark corners of America’s sex life. Nothing in these films is made up, the situations and people portrayed all exist. The problem is that, until now, we just didn’t talk about them, much less show them on screen in most neighborhood theaters.

Daniel Radcliffe

There’s plenty to shock, too. Ariana’s popular little blog huffed that “Daniel Radcliffe At Sundance: Actor’s Sex Scenes Shock Audiences” In Kill Your Darlings, he not only plays beat poet Alan Ginsberg, but the Harry Potter star goes all the way. “His young Ginsberg is initiated into booze and drugs, has oral sex performed on him in a library, makes out with one man and gets naked for sex with another man,”reports the Huffington Post.

And Radcliffe is also quoted in the (LGBT magazine) Advocate: ““It’s interesting that it’s deemed shocking,” he told MTV News in an interview Saturday, the day after the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “For me, there’s something very strange about that because we see straight sex scenes all the time. We’ve seen gay sex scenes before. I don’t know why a gay sex scene should be any more shocking than a straight sex scene. Or both of them are equally un-shocking.”

Joseph Gordon Levitt

Then there is Joseph Gordon Levitt’s little film Don Jon’s Addiction in which he stars. He wrestles with the philosophical conundrum, “Is porn preferable to real sex?” Called “Crude, repetitive and rigorously single-minded, the popular actor’s writing and directing debut lays it all on a bit thick, as the few points the film has to make are underscored time and time again,” writes Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter. On behalf of the mainstream he worries that it “will likely appeal to like-minded boys and young men.”


Two Mothers and Kink

Then there is Two Mothers about two women who have sex with each others sons. There was lots of snickering at the debut, some say because the plot was so ridiculous, and others convinced because its reality was hard to take.

But all that pales in comparison to the James Franco produced films. There are two of them, Kink – a documentary directed by Christina Voros about the sprawling production home of Kink,com, a hard-core pornography site. The film’s approach allows for significant amounts of flesh to be displayed on screen.

James Franco

James Franco

James Franco and Interior: Leather Bar goes where no film has dared go before

Interior: Leather Bar sets out to right a wrong. To avoid an X rating, the 1980 film Cruising, simply chopped out 40 minutes of gay S&M footage and destroyed it. Inspired by the mythology of this controversial film, filmmakers James Franco and Travis Mathews collaborate to imagine that lost footage. Read our Berkshire on Stage interview about this film with James Franco and Travis Mathews.

Amid the backdrop of a frenzied film set, actor Val Lauren reluctantly agrees to take the lead in the film. Val is repeatedly forced to negotiate his boundaries during scenes on and “off camera,” as unsimulated gay sex happens around him. The film itself is constructed as a play with boundaries remaining queer in subject and form. As much a film about filmmaking as it is about an exploration of sexual and creative freedom, Interior. Leather Bar. defies easy categorization.

Continued erosion of self-censorship

Back in the 1950’s the Hollywood Code and the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency inhibited filmmakers for decades, and resulted in formulaic films which ring false today. Married couples couldn’t be seen sleeping in the same bed, and all gay men had to die horrible deaths, go to jail or end up ruined. A black man could not kiss a white woman. The Hollywood establishment was constrained for years, and only the competition from television has enabled it to break out of its earlier mold. In fact, cable and syndicated television has become as frank and open as Hollywood these days, so once again, the independent film maker has to find a better way to tell a story, or create what are called “puzzle films” like Memento where the audience enjoys being kept as confused as the filmmaker.

But this trend to sexual frankness comes as a bit of a surprise, even for Sundance which has never followed the mainstream trends.

It’s more than likely that after the howls of outrage have died down, the combined effect of these films will change the rules of the film industry forever. No matter where one may come down on the matter of taste and morals, the world has changed significantly, and most of the Hollywood twaddle that is meant to titillate simply misses the mark. Love scenes which dissolve to black the moment two actors get under the covers are going to seem more dated than ever.

The film industry is edging closer and closer to the moment when they will portray love and sex to its ultimate conclusion, without the artful dodger of good taste making films safe for the delicate sensibilities of earlier film audiences. Today’s audiences are mostly young, and they’re ready for more realism.

The question is whether we critics are, and for that matter the Hollywood establishment itself. No matter what the producers say, the minute one of these films becomes a blockbuster you can bet that the rules of the game will be rewritten, the goal posts moved further down the field.

So it seems, despite the howls, that at Sundance 2013 the past is being buried while the future is literally being laid bare.

Larry Murray is a member of the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association which votes on the Dorian Awards each year.

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