06 July 2017

Knife-edge Pride: William Friedkin's Cruising

We're currently lining up a couple of LGBT history-themed film screenings at Leeds Central Library: the emotive, encyclopaedic documentary, The Celluloid Closet, and the Quentin Crisp biopic, The Naked Civil Servant (which I haven't seen, although I'm halfway through the brilliant book). I'm hoping both will be popular. If I wanted to upset people, I'd show Cruising – a nightmare of a film that also happens to be one of my favourite gay-themed movies.

Everything about Cruising is difficult. The plotting is labyrinthine, the tone relentlessly sleazy, and there’s bound to be something about it that offends you, whether it’s the extremes of the subject matter or the social attitudes of its time, which, like everything else in the film, positively perspire off the screen.

It’s 1979 and, with The Exorcist and The French Connection under his belt, director William Friedkin can probably do whatever he wants – even considering the considerable flop of his 1977 action film, Sorcerer (which took on a certain George Lucas blockbuster at the box office and disappeared in the swish of a lightsaber). And what does Friedkin want? He wants to combine a shocking tale of sex and murder with an unflinching examination of urban gay subculture and police corruption. Unfortunately for him, that’s not what many other people at the time wanted: gay groups protested the filming; straight audiences protested the product; and Cruising ultimately ended up on many a critic’s “worst” list for 1980.

At least that’s how it essentially went down. In fact, the film was shot on authentic New York nightspot locations with the willing participation of the many leather-clad clubbers who effectively played themselves on the screen. A handful of name actors gave fully committed performances, along with a fair few up-and-comers who would go on to become familiar faces (including Ed O’Neill, James Remar and Powers Boothe). Seen today, Cruising is actually way ahead of its time, even outpacing the explicit 80s sex-thrillers that would follow it, such as Body Double and Crimes of Passion, neither of which can quite match its dirty mouth and not-sure-where-to-look excesses.

But it’s not just the extreme themes the movie deals with that will stick with you. As with the brilliantly overwrought Exorcist, Friedkin uses every trick at his disposal to unnerve you here, from subliminal pornographic inserts (pun intended) to the use of several different actors to play the murderer – one of whom has already been killed within the film. As a director and storyteller, he lies, cheats and bamboozles, but if you’re anything like me and love a nasty thriller with a lot going on, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Cruising.

Whether Al Pacino found a lot to enjoy in it is another matter. Although enthusiastic about the project at the time (and undoubtedly not a homophobic actor, having played gay magnificently in Dog Day Afternoon and Angels in America) rumours persist that he was unhappy with the final product, and refused to allow certain footage to be reinstated when the film received the special-edition treatment on DVD thirty years later. In any case, he certainly didn’t participate in any of the retrospective documentaries found on that release.

None of this, however, is reflected in his utterly fearless and largely convincing performance. Pacino (aged forty at the time but passing for ten years younger) plays Steve Burns, an NYPD officer tasked with infiltrating the all-male leather 'n' chains scene, posing as a gay man. As evidenced in the movie’s gruesome opening, body parts have been turning up in the Hudson River and the victims were all gay, sexually active, and look a bit like Al Pacino with a perm. Steve, then, is the perfect choice to go undercover and, if it comes to offering himself up as a potential victim, well, he’ll just have to go as far as he thinks necessary to entice the killer

It’s a pretty powerful premise with a provocative stance on police (and public) attitudes prevalent at the time. The notion of a deranged “punisher” operating untouched amidst a ghettoised and misunderstood sector of society is a disturbing one – but similarly troubling is the way this subculture itself is portrayed as primal, predatory and somehow unknowable. Furthering the ambiguity, while it’s possible to read Cruising as a cautionary tale of a straight man corrupted by a gay lifestyle, it’s equally viable to view it as a criticism of the way society grinds people into damaging personas. Ultimately, it’s possible to project a lot of different things onto Cruising, but beware – it’s a funhouse mirror of a film and you might not like what it reflects back.

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