For their 2013 collaboration, Interior. Leather Bar, Travis Mathews and James Franco worked on the premise of a reimagining the lost 40 minutes of William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising – cut by censors who deemed it too explicit. Rather than present the extent of their footage however, Mathews and Franco’s film appeared as more an experiment in promoting the latter’s attempt to dismantle the effect to himself, of heteronormative sexual propaganda in the American mainstream. Franco as inevitable subject of the film somewhat obscured the sterling and sincere work being done by Mathews in presenting the lives of gay men on screen, for which the release of the collection In Their Room partially rectifies.
Shot between 2009 – 2013 in San Francisco, Berlin and London, In Their Room documents the lives of gay men within the intimacy of their bedrooms, taking the form of observations of personal habits, sexual encounters and direct to camera interviews on subjects such as sexual preferences, attitudes to relationships and cultural comment. Nudity is a constant, as Mathews frames his protagonists semi, or fully naked, both wide and in some cases, in extreme close-up, so that play with genitalia is presented as equally important as the expressiveness of a face confessing secrets of sexual longing. Though geographically different, San Francisco, Berlin and London are known for being fairly progressive, therefore it’s unsurprising that similarities are revealed between the attitudes of the men featured.
Each segment is connected with others, whether it’s via enthusiastic participation with online dating – the benefits and drawbacks of which are explored – monogamous relationships or a bit of both. With an opening voiceover musing on the expectations of Berlin to fulfil the dream of a fully permissible society beyond the conservatism of other countries, the bulk of feature In Their Room: Berlin (2010) comprises an unsimulated sexual encounter between Luc, who is French and Jolry, who is American. Mathews shows the whole experience, from Luc’s journey by metro to meet Jolry at his apartment, their initial getting to know you conversation, foreplay, and sex itself. There is a level of awkward interaction between the pair, attributable to an inevitable sense of performance for camera.
A revealing post-coital conversation about how they each expected the other to look different demonstrates that contrary to popular assumptions about online dating, both Luc and Jolry say their online profiles don’t do justice to their attractiveness. Another couple featured heavily in In Their Room: Berlin is Jorsten and Micha, observed hanging out in their studio flat, presumably being as silly, tender and natural as they might be without cameras present. It’s perhaps due to Mathew’s Masters in Counselling Psychology that he manages to put his protagonists at such ease, and the spectrum of human experience evident throughout In Their Room can be thought of as a study of the individuality and connectedness of people generally. Each man, by participating, shows clearly their desire to share their life, and thus the project is something of a document of a sharing culture.
As the special feature ‘Process’ reveals, Mathew’s intent with In Their Room, his narrative feature I Want Your Love (2012) and the aforementioned Interior. Leather Bar, is to put on screen, a ‘whole area of sexuality, specifically gay sexuality, that hasn’t been explored.’ This involves showing that sex isn’t just the before and after shots that traditional narrative cinema would have you think, and that the ‘whole experience of sex’ should be shown, placing the affectionate moments next to the raw and explicit. With contemporaries Andrew Haigh (Weekend (2011)) and John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus (2006)) perhaps better known directors of work addressing the spectrum of Queer experience, Mathews’ oeuvre – a less slick, more explicit approach – courts pornography in one sense and in another, is simply a compelling and essential contribution to the cinema of human drama.