Monday Editor’s Pick: Cruising (1980)

by on September 5, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Sept 12 at 1:15, 5:05, 9:00 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Dbl Ftr w/ BAD LIEUTENANT (Abel Ferrara, 1992)


Ten years ago Film Forum had to cancel their “NYPD Festival” double bill of Cruising and Bad Lieutenant after the events of September 11. Allegedly, when Film Forum Repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein informed William Friedkin of the disturbing timing, the Cruising director responded with somber silence.


When the film was re-released in 2007, however, critics were anything but quiet…


Kim Morgan for The Sunset Gun:

Oh how misunderstood and unjustly hated Cruising was. Friedkin went through hell for this picture and the stigma remains, just watch the documentary The Celluloid Closet during which the film is discussed as a blight on homosexual progress. And worse, the cause of gay bashing. But I’m with Camille Paglia on this one. Paglia has called the film a work of “underground decadence that wasn’t that different from The Story of O or other European high porn of the 1960s.” It’s better than high porn, but it certainly plays sexually shocking, even today. Others have come around, and the movie is enjoying a re-release at 2007’s Cannes Film Festival and on DVD). Goddamn finally. Again, accused of stereotyping and insensitivity to gays, this taut, finely scored and bravely acted (by Al Pacino) picture finds straight police detective Pacino going undercover in the subterranean gay subculture of leather bars and S&M to capture a (yes) gay serial killer. As Pacino struggles with his identity and sexuality, the picture goes far beyond ideas concerning sexual preferences and practices (we learn a few things about the handkerchief system, for instance) and truly explores all those gnarled secrets simmering under certain men. And the sounds of rubbing leather and footsteps have never been so gorgeously ominous. I can’t even imagine this picture, with this big of a star being made today.


Andrew O’Hehir for Salon:

Viewed from almost three decades’ distance, “Cruising” now looks like a masterly work of psychological disorientation, guilty only of a certain insensitivity — in putting the most extreme imaginable example of gay sexual subculture into a mainstream film — but innocent of any homophobic intention. Pacino’s performance as the undercover cop who gets drawn into the leather underworld (how far he gets drawn in, we mostly have to guess) is extraordinary and sensitive, and the film’s frank depiction of the pre-AIDS night world of gay Manhattan remains shocking. No one would get away with it now, or even try.



Essential Reading – Alt Screen’s Nathan Lee for the Village Voice:

Cruising is an amazing time capsule—a heady, horny flashback to the last gasp of full-blown sexual abandon, and easily the most graphic depiction of gay sex ever seen in a mainstream movie. Filmed in such legendary bars as the Ramrod, Anvil, Mine Shaft, and Eagle’s Nest (the latter two eventually barred Friedkin from the premises), Cruising is a lurid fever dream of popper fumes, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore disco frottage, and Crisco-coated forearms. Nowadays, when the naughtiest thing you can do in a New York gay club is light a cigarette, it’s bracing—and, let’s admit, pretty fucking hot— to travel back to a moment when getting your ass plowed in public was as blasé as ordering a Red Bull.


Elaborating on the infernal urban horror show of Taxi Driver, Friedkin imagines the entire West Side of Manhattan as an expanse of sticky asphalt swarming with tumescent Honcho sluts. Grotesquerie abounds—leering sex fiends, freaky bondage weirdos, fugly trannies—but so does a palpable sense of fun. Nothing at the orgy is as shocking as the smile on everyone’s face. This atmosphere of uninhibited sexual camaraderie—invisible to the protesters and long since vanished from the scene—overpowers the trite homophobic conceits. Cruising‘s lasting legacy isn’t political but archival. One year after the film was released, the first symptoms of AIDS were detected in New York City.


Dave Kehr for the New York Times:

A lot, of course, has changed for gays in America since “Cruising” made its debut. But times have also changed for serial killers: The shadowy figure that “Cruising” deploys as an embodiment of pure evil has become, thanks to “The Silence of the Lambs” and television shows like “Dexter,” a surreptitious figure of identification for the audience. Movies now invite us to react to the serial killer’s power and remorselessness not with revulsion, but with laughter and perhaps even envy. Hannibal Lecter is less a monster than he is a stand-up comedian, and snappy one-liners are not what interest Mr. Friedkin.


Instead, his enduring theme is the reality of evil and its uncomfortable proximity to sex, a theme the world embraced when he adapted William Peter Blatty’s theological best seller, “The Exorcist,” in 1973. But applying a similar gothic approach to “Cruising” — a film noir that turns into a horror movie — got Mr. Friedkin in trouble, and not only the political kind.


“Cruising” only falters when it reverts from horror mode to the police beat and fingers a disappointingly trite perpetrator. In interviews Mr. Friedkin has suggested that he wanted the movie to be “nearly abstract,” with an ending that left the murders unsolved. But Hollywood was not ready for that in 1980, and is probably less ready now.



Gary Morris for Bright Lights Film Journal:

Cruising has a special niche in gay history as the queer equivalent of Birth of a Nation — a film in which an artist outside a subculture creates what appears to be a disturbingly negative, ill-informed portrait of that subculture. Friedkin’s sweaty tableaux of leather-clad, popper-snorting, fist-fucking, sadomasochistic hedonists was bound to trigger a reaction from gays who feared society would assume all homosexuals were busily engaged in these activities. (This sounds dangerously similar to the middle-class queens who complain about the presence of leather, drag, or nudity in gay marches.) What they failed to note is how Cruising points the finger for a violent, decadent society far past the gyrating leather queens, who come off more as fun-loving party-boys than sinister sexual psychopaths. Before we meet Pacino, we see another pair of cops viciously harassing two gay street prostitutes to the point of orally raping them. The policemen’s dialogue shows a sweeping nihilism on the part of the police that the film continually reinforces. “They’re all scumbags,” one of them says. “Who?” “All of them.”


If Cruising links anyone to the killer, it is Pacino. Besides sharing a physical resemblance and eventually a similar taste in clothes (leather gear), both have insular, troubled relationships with father-figures. Sorvino, as Pacino’s superior, subtly bullies him into remaining undercover even when Pacino is ready to crack up; in what could be a flashback or a mental invention, the killer’s father — a stern, remote figure — reminds him of what he “must do,” that is, the father forces him to kill.Cruising is no masterpiece, but even in its butchered form it’s a striking record of the New York leather scene in the late ’70s, a powerful indictment of police brutality, and — typical of much of Friedkin’s work — a whodunit that calculatedly fails to tell us “who done it.”


Eric Henderson for Slant:

For all its bad judgment, questionable portrayals, and arrogant artsploitation aims, Cruising is precisely what Brokeback and all excepting a small handful of eternally rewarding fringe gay movies (Tropical Malady, Bad Education, Mulholland Drive) are not: an interesting film. If Cruising’s homophobia is also in contrast with Brokeback Mountain‘s purported lack, well, no one said art (or even faux-art) went down easy. Just ask John Waters, who put the words “the life of a heterosexual is a sick and boring lifestyle” into the snaggle-toothed mouth of Edith Massey years before Cruising got so many dicks bent out of shape.


The politics of homosexuality in America are in a continuous wrestling match with the societal standards of heterosexuality. Every policy, every attitude, every lifestyle choice is made in reaction to the standard of hetero monogamy. The Larry Craig incident is only the latest example; countless editorials surmised that airport bathrooms will continue to bear the brunt of unwiped spooge trails until homos are allowed the rights intended them by our nation’s forefathers to violently thrash the springs of their marital beds, that sex between two men (or two women, though you wouldn’t know it even exists listening to media talking points) would be dirty until the act of filing taxes jointly validated it for everyone. Does the resuscitation of Cruising at this moment when political correctness is on its deathbed have more impact from a cultural standpoint than it does from an aesthetic one? Unquestionably. No matter what any number of Army of Shadows-fellating critics will tell you, the aesthetic values of re-released films are rendered negligible by their cachet as time capsules. In that sense, the appalling horror some may glean from Cruising isn’t its cold, clinical efficiency as both a thriller and a fag-baiting manifesto of hate. Its truly unnerving quality is that its existence is a brutal reminder from the past that homosexuality is not heterosexuality, and that any attempt to reconcile the difference will only breed resentment, confusion, and violence.



Drew Fitzpatrick for Fringe Underground:

Friedkin got his start making documentaries, and his best films utilize an almost clinically detached style in order to tell stories that would otherwise be too melodramatic (or, in the case of The Exorcist, silly and exploitative). It’s a style of filmmaking that has almost entirely fallen from favor in the last 10 years, with the notion of holding a shot for more than a few moments becoming anathema. And still, Steve Burns is an oddly vacant protagonist for a William Friedkin film; both The French Connection‘s Popeye Doyle and The Exorcist‘s Damien Karras were passionate, deeply conflicted men, and Friedkin seemed to delight in squeezing their emotions through his documentary technique. Steve Burns is very nearly a vacuum, and although this is necessary in order to make his character into a prism through which we can view ourselves, it also serves to distance an audience that wants to get close to him. Friedkin asks an audience to project, when they usually just want to identify. Many critics probably expected to have Burns positioned as a stand-in for Homer’s Virgil, guiding us through the hell of the nocturnal gay underworld. But Burns is not our guide; we follow him and see the story unfold (mostly) through his eyes, but the character remains as emotionally distant as one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s anti-heroes.


There is a viciousness to the murder scenes that—outside of horror films—was rarely seen in American films of the time. Once again, it is the almost clinical coldness that Friedkin adapted as a shooting style in nearly all his 70s work that makes the sudden outbursts of violence all the more shocking. The first stabbing at the St. James hotel comes at the climax of one of the most unnaturally filmed scenes of human intimacy ever presented to American audiences, and probably confirmed the fears of everyone who had been expecting to find a homophobic treatise. The sound design immediately puts the audience on edge (leather rubbing against leather, lonely, foreboding footsteps, and creaking mattress springs) and, when combined with the static shooting style, the entire scene plays out like an alien ritual. When the proceedings take a deadly turn, the victim seems to have half-expected it to happen, acknowledging his soon-to-be-fulfilled role as “prey.” If one is unaware of the director’s intent, this could easily be misread as ‘I knew this was coming because I live an abhorrent lifestyle,’ which would be compounded by the killers uttering of “You made me do that” as he plunges his knife (the function of a knife as an obvious phallic symbol) into the hog-tied man’s back.



Melissa Anderson recounts the Cannes screening for Time Out New York:

Friedkin ambled out to the stage in Dockers and a windbreaker, cracking wise about his film maudit. “We ran Cruising for an audience of ‘tastemakers’ in New York City,” the director recalled. “People were yelling and screaming—it was like the Rite of Spring!”


My superb colleague (and one of my three stellar roommates at the festival) Dennis Lim astutely calls Cruising “the Zodiac of its day.” Gruesome murders remain unsolved; even Friedkin admitted last night, “I don’t know who the hell the killer is.” Cruising still divides critics today; when I told one NYC-based critic that I couldn’t wait to see the film, she looked at me askance and said, “So you buy the revisionist history?” (Many gay groups were outraged by the film at the time; some even disrupted shooting.) Another critic simply dismissed it to me as “a piece of shit. Sorcerer is the Friedkin film that should be revived.”


While I’m not sure I’d call myself a revisionist, I can’t help but marvel at Cruising. Am I simply nostalgic?


Anderson more seriously ponders the movie for Film Comment (Sept/Oct 2007):

Menacing. Seductive. Contagious. Aren’t these some of the most operative terms for the chaotic, unfettered essence of sexuality itself? Pacino’s cop simultaneously digs and is terrified by the bars he must frequent to catch the killer. “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole,” reads the disclaimer at the very beginning of Cruising, surely added in response to the gay protests. But what a world it is. Only the New Queer Cinema landmark Poison, with its outlaw homo protagonists, comes even close to rivaling the film’s display of sex as rough, ritualized, reckless.


In his brilliant assessment of Cruising in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond, Robin Wood grapples with the “confusion” and “knot of contradictions” that abound in Friedkin’s film, ultimately declaring it a far more radical movie than those who labeled it “anti-gay” would ever have you believe. Having dutifully spent my lavender dollars in the Nineties on tickets to gay indies, many of them banal and sexless, I’ve decided I’d rather be confused-and aroused.


But can’t Cruising also bee seen as a pre-AIDS artifact that actively advances the homosexual agenda? Filmmaker Todd Downing, 34, whose 2001 short, Jeffrey’s Hollywood Screen Trick, spoofs the insipid gay rom-coms that were ubiquitous in the Nineties, thinks so. “This ostensibly straight man played by Parino gets sucked into an underworld and is undeniably intrigued and turned on by it,” he says. “He can’t get enough of it and is so obsessed that it puts strains on his relationships at work and at home. And the scenes in the bar couldn’t have been more lovingly photographed: slow pans across men cruising and having sex, all in lighting that couldn’t be more flattering. It makes the leather scene look incredibly seductive.” Perhaps one person’s toxic stereotype is another’s turn-on. Downing, like me, is a queer Gen-Xer. I don’t think we’re idealizing a cultural and political moment (not to mention a pre-Stella McCartney Meatpacking District) that we never participated in so much as we’re responding to radical representations of queer sexuality financed by Hollywood. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal wear their colored bandanas around their necks in Brokeback Mountain; high-altitude fucks aren’t the same as sex while high on amyl nitrate. But in deference to one who did participate, I leave the last word to Hubbard: “If I had known that our protests against Cruising would lead to Will & Grace, I never would’ve done it.”



Bill Krohn for Rouge:

If genre is one of the adhesives that hold a Friedkin film together, the universal solvent that is always threatening to pull it apart is montage. Trained as a documentarian, Friedkin is a montage director not only in his action sequences, but also when it comes to larger structures. Every shot, scene and sequence in a Friedkin film is a module which can potentially be displaced, eliminated, added or even duplicated (like the ‘Killer returns to the Cockpit’ shot) as part of the process by which the film is being created, and this is also true at the script stage, where it is easiest to see the process at work.


As a result, a Friedkin film is a collage rather than the execution of a sketch or plan whose unity gives a priori unity to the work, as would be the case with Fritz Lang, to name a classical director Friedkin admires and to some degree emulates. Individual Friedkin films may conform more or less to this description depending on the circumstances of their production, but in the freest ones – and Cruising is the freest film Friedkin ever made – the creation of meaning through montage is foregrounded as it is in the work of only a few American directors, most notably Joe Dante, who pays tribute to Cruising in the peepshow murder at the beginning of The Howling (1981).


Eric Kohn introduces an interview with Friedkin for the NY Press:

For 30 years, William Friedkin has claimed that Cruising isn’t controversial. Those who took issue with the release of film in 1980 for interpreting Manhattan’s gay community as a breeding ground for killers and miscreants eventually wrote the film off as exploitation and forgot about it. He knows that watching a brawny Al Pacino adorn himself in leather as an undercover cop tracking a homosexual murderer carries nightmarish impact. But Friedkin insists that certain gay groups’ decision to assail the plot for being homophobic is akin to protistitutes complaining about a movie based on Jack the Ripper. If Cruising succeeds as an outlandish thriller and carnivalesque showcase of underworld grime—which it does—Friedkin’s hesitancy to discuss it in ideological terms sustains the moral ambiguity.


Of course, this is a guy best known for reinventing the horror and action genres (with The Exorcist and The French Connection, respectively), so his support for a literal reading of the film almost makes sense. But Friedkin himself is tough to crack. He cites esoteric playwright Harold Pinter, whose surrealist The Birthday Party was adapted by the director for his first project in 1968, as his greatest mentor. He joked “I wrote this shit” before a Cannes audience last May when the new print of Cruising premiered. And he claims to be less bothered by Senator Larry Craig’s bathroom antics than President Clinton’s behavior in the Oval Office. Whether defiantly brilliant or brilliantly defiant, Friedkin remains a gifted storyteller.



Alex Simon also interviews Friedkin for his blog The Hollywood Interview:

Your screenplay for Cruising was actually inspired by several different sources, correct?

I was offered the book Cruising by Gerald Walker to direct as a film, by Phil D’Antoni, who had produced The French Connection. I read the book and didn’t think much of it. It was sort of interesting but I wasn’t compelled to make it into a film at that time. Then Phil went out and got Steven Spielberg interested in making the film. And the two of them tried to get it set up for quite some time, and weren’t able to. And D’Antoni is a great producer, really tenacious. We were turned down on The French Connection by every studio twice until Fox made it. But they finally gave up on Cruising. Three or four years later, Jerry Weintraub brought it to me, and said “I heard you were interested in this, which is why I bought it. I want to do it with you.” I said ‘Jerry, I wasn’t interested in it. In fact, I turned it down with Phil.’ He said “Read it again. I think it would be a hell of a film.” Jerry’s a very persuasive guy, but I still wasn’t interested. Then several things happened: there were a series of unsolved killings in New York in the leather bars on the lower west side. The mysterious deaths that were taking place in the gay community, that later turned out to be AIDS, but really didn’t have a name then. And the fact that my friend Randy Jurgensen, of the New York police department, had been assigned to go undercover into some of the bars, because he resembled some of the victims. Then, the Arthur Bell articles about the unsolved killings. He wrote them for the Village Voice as sort of cautionary tales. It was great reportage. Then, there was a fellow who had a bit part in The Exorcist, in the NYU medical center during the arteriogram sequence, which was performed by an actual doctor and his assistant in the film. The assistant was later accused of a couple of the murders in the bars. I saw his picture in the papers and I got in touch with his lawyer, who arranged for me to meet with him at Rikers Island Penitentiary. I asked him what happened, and he told me. He also told me the police had offered him a better deal if he confessed to eight or nine of the murders, whether he’d done them or not. And I put that line in the film, because I found it so horrifying. I found out that he got out of prison three years ago, which means he got 25 years for what I took to be multiple murders. All of these things came together for what I took to be a kind of perfect storm, and I called Jerry back and said ‘I think I know what to do with Cruising


How you came to shoot in the actual bars is also an interesting story.

Most of the real estate where the bars were located was owned by the mafia at that time. I knew one of the guys who ran everything from 42nd street to the lower west side. So I went to him, and he referred me to the guys who were running them. I met the managers, the bartenders, and a great many people who frequented the bars. I went back a number of times. They knew I was doing research for the film, and they’re the ones you see in those scenes. There are no screen extras guild members. These guys were paid as extras, but they were just there, doing their thing.


I have to admit, the first couple times I saw Cruising, I really hated it, both because much of it was over my head, and also the ambiguity of the story and the structure really threw me, much the same reaction as I had to To Live and Die in L.A. upon my first viewing. Nearly all of your films, going back to The French Connection, are both morally and structurally ambiguous. Why do you like to tell stories that way?

Because that’s the way life is. Most of the murders that occur are unsolved, for various reasons. It’s hard to convict someone due to the constitutional rights people have and the rules of evidence, that’s one thing. The other thing I’d say is that a lot of the guys who investigated these crimes are not the brightest pennies you’ll find at the bank. But I’m attracted to unsolved murders as a subject, and it started with my interest in the Jack the Ripper case. There were five murders, four of them right out in the streets of the East End of London. They took place in 1888, and it’s unsolved to this day. It’s an open file at Scotland Yard. There are so many suspects and rumors about this, and other killings throughout history, I’ve always been intrigued by it, and I’m not sure why. I’ve got interests in police matters anyway because of the thin line between good and evil that’s in everyone.



Trenton Straube for Slate:

Cruising is at times a violent, brutal picture. In the opening scene, ominous synth chords portend the discovery of a severed limb floating in the East River. Moments later, punk rock washes over a crowded bar as an ill-fated hookup transpires against a backdrop of sweating, mustachioed men—a scandalous netherworld Friedkin paints with a dark palette of black leather and Levi’s blue. And with its depiction of countercultural, homo hedonism, Cruising was understandably not the first impression a burgeoning gay rights movement wanted to project to mainstream America. Nor did the movie offer a comforting welcome to anyone apprehensive about coming out.


“Today we have other movies, other representations, other media to help counter negative images,” says Damon Romine, GLAAD’s entertainment media director. “We know now that not all gay men are bad guys.” We also now know that some gay men are bad guys. We can explore the idea, as Cruising does, that sexual confusion can push a disturbed person over the edge. Friedkin believes this was the motivation for some of the real-life murders the film was based on: “A lot of dirty, sick people questioned their own sexuality and found a lot of question marks—and took it out on gay people,” he told me recently.


Such an exploration is incongruous with the upbeat “gay” entertainment (Will & Grace, Queer Eye, etc.) we’re consistently fed today. Even gay thugs and murderers—Vito Spatafore on The Sopranos, or Bree’s son Andrew on Desperate Housewives—are somehow likable these days. Cruising, on the other hand, never serves up any witty brunch banter or fabulous shopping sprees. It also avoids the emotional heartbreak of a Brokeback Mountain or just about any AIDS drama. The leather men in Friedkin’s movie don’t complain that they’re victims of a prejudiced society, but they also make no apologies for their “lifestyle.” It’s strange that such a portrayal so offended gay activists at the time. But it’s reassuring to see that that community seems to have learned something over the last generation. When the Larry Craig story broke, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force quickly worked to steer the discussion toward the hypocrisy of the family values set. Closeted, self-loathing men still pose a danger to the gay community. But the ones in William Friedkin’s movie aren’t the ones we need to worry about.


  • bandanajack

    i’m in good company…

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