Since it first arrived in theaters in 1980, William Friedkin's Cruising, a thriller about a cop (Al Pacino) searching undercover for a killer in the leather bars of NYC, has had a decidedly complicated relationship with the LGBTQ community. Before its February 15 screening as part of Retrospective: William Friedkin, Ohio-born, New York-based writer-director Brian O'Donnell reflects on the outrage that surrounded the movie's original release, the intent behind Friedkin's work, and how perceptions have changed over time. Brian's feature debut as writer-director, Akron, has won multiple awards on the festival circuit including the Best Feature prize at the 2015 Stonewall LGBT Fest. It's newly available on DVD and streaming at Wolfe Video, iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu, Microsoft Movies & TV and Vimeo.
I avoided watching Cruising for many years for a couple of reasons. The first out of LGBT solidarity, as it was well known that the gay community protested against it during its filming and boycotted it upon its theatrical release. But also because, as a young man in New York City in the process of coming out as gay myself, the last images I wanted to see were those of gay men being killed in their pursuit of relationships, sexual or otherwise. Even if Cruising was just a movie, I wasn't excited to see violence done to gay bodies.
In 1980 when Cruising was released there were 110 major motion pictures released, while in 2016 the same number of films were released by June. The world of media was so much smaller and gay representation was a fraction of what it is today. The gay liberation movement that exploded at Stonewall in 1969 was growing and organizing and unafraid to exert its strength. Cruising was targeted because it labeled gay men as either killers or victims and was set in the S&M subculture with no context. But it was also targeted to send a message to Hollywood that its history of homophobic representations would no longer be tolerated.
What is it like to watch Cruising now? In these days with so much more LGBT representation mainstream and otherwise, and more importantly with more LGBT filmmakers, audiences no longer see the world of Cruising as THE gay world, as representative of all gay men. Cruising is, again, just a movie. And it's a William Friedkin movie which means it's going to be provocative.
Cruising shares with Friedkin's earlier film The Boys in the Band the setting of a New York gay milieu and with his masterpiece The French Connection the fascinating details of a police procedural. Cruising fits nervously between the two. It shares with his classic, high-horror The Exorcist the concept of setting good and evil against each other in such a way that paranoia and fear arise from the premise that there may be no difference between the two after all. In Cruising you sense that Friedkin got a charge out of heightening the "deviant" nature of the gay subculture, creating a frission between gay desire and homicidal tendencies (Homocide?). He was well aware that his audience would be shocked by what they saw and he had fun playing it up. (In fact he had to recut the film dozens of times to get the approval of the censors).
It's also a great example of post-Vietnam War filmmaking: how do you portray the battle between good and evil when there appears in reality to be no absolute good? Or as one cop puts it bluntly at the start of the movie, "All people are scumbags".
Friedkin excelled at creating anxiety and many scenes have a jolting energy. Al Pacino gives a strong performance with his brand of feral intensity. His character begins as a mystery ("There's a lot you don't know about me") and just keeps getting more mysterious as the story develops. You get the sense that perhaps even he as the actor wasn't really sure what exactly was going on in his character's head; he races through the film with an exciting, confused anxiety. A classic scene, when he lets himself open up to the energies around him and dances wildly in a gay bar, has a filmic dizziness that actually feels a bit like fun.
Friedkin did research in the very bars where he shot scenes and hired regular patrons as extras, lending a gritty authenticity to scenes. But the story does feel like a straight man's idea of gay men. Gay desire is choreographed well for the camera but doesn't tap into innate, natural energy - it shows you that gay men have desire but never explores why. As an archival piece Cruising is a fascinating time capsule; it's a kick to see the real bars, video stores, and cruising grounds of Central Park. The sex was real, the clothing, hairstyles and behavioral codes were real - explained most famously in the hanky scene. Long before the days of dating and hook-up apps, the act of cruising was the common way for gay men to meet. There was a thrill in heading out into the mysterious night where the nervous energies of desire and libido could be stoked into passionate trysts. In making a thriller, Friedkin chose to refocus that nervous energy into danger. He enjoyed taking risks.