“Cruising” (1980) dir. William Friedkin

One of the most controversial films ever released by a major Hollywood studio (in this case, United Artists), “Cruising” was definitely the wrong film at the wrong time. Released in 1980, the film is about a detective, played by Al Pacino, who goes undercover into the gay leather S&M subculture to find a killer who is stalking and killing people who are part of the scene. As the film progresses, Pacino’s character becomes more distraught and disturbed by what he’s finding. Pacino’s character is not only discovering things about himself he doesn’t want to admit, but he may also be losing his sanity in the process.

OK, based on the above description, my plot description reads like some retro gay-panic cautionary tale penned by someone like Jerry Falwell. Given the fact that in 1980, there were very few films with positive gay role models, it’s easy to see why gay people were outraged by this film.

However, after over 30 years of a much more diverse representation of the homosexual community in media, the complexities of this film are more apparent and it can now be viewed a lot more objectively.  I don’t believe this film is saying that anyone who hangs around homosexuals will suddenly become gay and insane.  “Cruising” is a character study of one man, who was probably not stable to begin with, being overwhelmed by what he’s supposed to investigate.  If you watch carefully, Pacino provides many clues to his character’s internal demons early on, without explicitly calling them out.  That is the work of a fine actor.

“Cruising” contains one of Al Pacino’s best acting performances and it was right before “Scarface” turned him into one of cinema’s most overbaked hams.  This is not to say Pacino delivered a bad performance in “Scarface” or in other films since then.   It’s just that this is one of the last times Pacino didn’t chew the scenery.  From what I understand, Pacino has refused to discuss this film at all.

Director William Friedkin has never been one to shy away from troubling material or to leave audiences feeling uneasy when they leave the theater. Even his most popular films “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” don’t have tidy conclusions. “Cruising” is no different. While it’s understandable why someone may not like “Cruising,” the film shouldn’t be dismissed as the homophobic (or homophilic) garbage the critics of the time alleged.  The film is brilliantly directed and edited.  The sound design alone (where you can hear leather and chains throughout the entire film) is enough to be very unnerving.  There’s also an overwhelming sense of dread that permeates the film.  Had it been released in the mid-1980s or beyond, everyone would say the film was a metaphor for AIDS.

The film also contains some excellent supporting performances from Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Joe Spinnell, Don Scardino, Powers Boothe, and Mike Starr.  It also has one of the first punk soundtracks on a major studio film, featuring songs by Mink DeVille, the Germs, and Rough Trade.  Jack Nitzsche does another fine and effectively creepy score.

If you’re curious about “Cruising,” be warned that the film contains some very disturbing graphic violence.  In addition, the film does very explicitly show the gay leather S&M underworld of the late 1970s.  It barely squeaked by with an R-rating in the permissive late 1970s and I’m sure it would have a hard time now.

“Cruising” also inspired James Franco’s recent film called “Interior. Leather Bar.”  Co-directed by Franco and Travis Mathews, the film attempts to chronicle the explicit footage that was cut of “Cruising” and has been subsequently lost.  It’s telling that a major Hollywood star being involved in a film like this gets no more than a shrug these days.  Especially when he’s the lead in an upcoming hyper-expensive Disney fantasy film.

Probably the most bizarre footnote is that Steven Spielberg was attached to direct “Cruising” at one point in the early 1970s.

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