Today's party-sized entry in My Year Of Flops is 1980's notorious Cruising, one of the most explosive, controversial American films of the last 30 years–a hardcore, sexually charged thriller widely derided as a nadir in Hollywood homophobia. I wholly expect it to incite but a tiny fraction of the outrage and vitriol that greeted my take on Freddy Got Fingered.
Cruising arrived at a tense, transitional time for gay culture. The drug and alcohol-fueled party that was gay sex in the '70s (as chronicled by the fine, imaginatively titled documentary Gay Sex In The '70s) was followed by a punishing hangover of STDs and shattered idealism. AIDS lurked just around the corner and with it a revitalized gay rights movement blessed with a messianic sense of purpose. The American public hadn't yet had its consciousness raised by an endless procession of earnest message movies about how gays are just like you and me, only with a more sophisticated understanding of musical theater and interior design. The world was yet to witness a similarly voluminous deluge of reality shows in which gay men function as magical elves put on earth to help hapless straight people eat better, dress better, and pick the perfect wine to accompany any seafood entrée.
AIDS and the full flowering of the gay rights movement pushed homosexuality out of the celluloid closet for good, but for much of the '70s and '80s, Serious movies about gay life were so rare and weighed down with noble intentions that each was received as a major referendum on homosexuality. The emergence of AIDS made every television show, movie, or TV movie about gays an Important Cultural Event first and a work of art or entertainment a distinct second. Message movies were filled with noble, asexual Gay Martyrs who suffered for the audience's sins and showed us all how to withstand discrimination with quiet dignity.
Cruising is the moody antithesis of the Gay Martyr movie. In the time-honored Friedkin tradition, it's a film wholly devoid of good intentions or moral uplift, a skuzzy wallow in the depths of human depravity in psychological thriller form. Friedkin set out to make a visceral murder mystery that just happened to take place in the underground gay S&M; clubs of New York, but he couldn't have been surprised when the film was perceived, even before it finished shooting, as a movie about what senior citizens still regularly refer to as "The Gays." Friedkin certainly didn't intend for the glowering, muscle-bound leather boys in the film to be representative of the rich and multi-faceted gay community. (Or maybe he did. I'm interviewing him today, so I can probably find out firsthand) But in the absence of more positive depictions of gays outside of, I dunno, Billy Crystal on Soap and the Redd Foxx vehicle Norman, Is That You?, it was certainly perceived that way.
Is it possible to remove politics from a movie as loaded and provocative as Cruising? I don't think so. The film accordingly carried way more political and social baggage than it would if it were released today.
Loosely adapted from Gerald Walker's novel, but updated for an era of leather bars and S&M; clubs, the film casts Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover as a leather aficionado in New York's sleaziest underground sex clubs to track down a serial killer targeting the community. But first Pacino must prove himself up to the task. When trying to ascertain Pacino's suitability for the job, superior Paul Sorvino indelicately asks him, "Ever had a man smoke your pole?" Oddly enough, I was asked the same question during my job interview with The A.V Club. I still don't know why.
Pacino stumblingly learns the ins and outs of cruising for sex with anonymous leather-clad bruisers. The great Powers Boothe has a strange cameo as a "hankie salesman" early on who matter-of-factly informs neophyte Pacino that he should wear his colored bandanna on one side to indicate that he is the market to receive a golden shower and/or blow job and another to show that he's eager to deliver the same. Apparently they don't cover that kind of thing at the Police Academy.
As Pacino plunges further and further into the subterranean realm of S&M;, Friedkin creates a dread-choked atmosphere heavy with tension and menace, where every anonymous hook-up is charged with intimations of violence and brutality as well as sad undertones of vulnerability and even tenderness. But then a 6'5" black man clad only in a Stetson, a necklace, and athletic supporter (an emissary, perhaps, of the NYPD's elite cowboy-hat-and-jockstrap division) will come out of nowhere to bitch-smack Pacino for some reason while he and a suspect are being hassled by cops and I find myself wondering "what kind of motherfuckery is this?"
Karen Allen is on hand to remind viewers that even though Pacino spends all his time hanging with the leather daddies over at the Ramrod, this is the '80s and he's all about the ladies. Or is he? In a clear bid to overturn stereotypes, Friedkin has the primary suspect write a thesis on the roots of musical theater in between trips to the leather bars. Oh, those gays, always writing 'bout show tunes during the day and viciously murdering rough trade at night. To help offset the idea that all homosexuals are scowling sadists or masochists, Friedkin gives Pacino an affable, mild-mannered sidekicks played by Don Scardino whose sitcom perkiness doesn't exactly jibe with the brooding intensity of the rest of the film.
Like many of Friedkin's films, especially Bug, Cruising flirts continuously with high camp. It doesn't help that the film is littered with purplish dialogue like, "I know this dude, too. Seen him on the Deuce. He gives the best beatings, like, six ways to Sunday." During moments like that, the film seems less like a missive from the front lines of sexual transgression than a bad pulp paperback come to life.
If nothing else, Cruising is a masterpiece of sound design. Jack Nietzshe's score is viscerally disturbing and Friedkin exploits the ominous clanging and jangle of zippers and buttons for maximum creepiness. In part because gay activists sabotaged Cruising's sound on location, much of the film is post-dubbed and though this can be a little distancing for a film that prides itself on verisimilitude, it can also be quite haunting, as when the same eerily disconnected voice comes out of several people's mouths.
The film's character arc traces the psychological damage that working deep undercover has on Pacino's psyche, but since we never get to know Pacino before the investigation, his psychological descent doesn't really register; he begins and ends the film a frustrating enigma. Part of that ambiguity is intentional: Friedkin clearly wants the audience to suspect that Pacino himself might be a murderer, so his character remains frustratingly cryptic. The specter of AIDS casts a ghostly, funereal pall over the film. It's sobering to imagine how many of the film's extras–recruited from real S&M; bars and directed to act as naturally as a hard-R rating would allow–wouldn't survive the decade Cruising ushered in on such a singularly dark note.
Cruising explores seamy places Hollywood fears to tread, delving deep into an ominous world redolent of sweat, fear, Vaseline, and floors sticky with dried cum. In a strange way, Cruising has come full circle and become a part of gay history, a creepily affecting time capsule of a subculture the mainstream otherwise ignored completely. Today, it's compelling primarily as a sociological document of a dirty, dangerous New York where sex and death seem inextricably interlinked even before AIDS. In its shameless excavation and exploitation of the killer-queen archetype–the homosexual so riddled with self-loathing and guilt that they feel an insatiable urge to kill and punish others–the film is bad politics and dodgy, flawed filmmaking, but it's weirdly resonant and thoroughly haunting all the same.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco