Cruising is a bait-and-switch of a movie. It lures you in with its smell of leather and sweat and poppers, and sends you home with a hand job. The underground gay clubs that serve as the backdrop in the movie are there to shock and titillate, certainly for audiences of 1980 who hadn’t even heard of, nor even imagined these places existed at the time. The years since have made these scenes seem tame by modern viewers. Remove the carnal lust, handcuffs, and jockstraps, and you’ll find there’s really not much of a thriller here. The life-support of this movie are those S&M scenes.

Director William Friedkin isn’t a stranger to the gritty police procedural. This is after all the man responsible for one of the most iconic cop pictures of the 1970’s (The French Connection), if not all time. I was also surprised to learn that Cruising was not his first entry into the gay world. He had previously directed The Boys in the Band (1970) which is one of the founding films for the gay cinema movement. In Cruising he tries to marry these two worlds to uneven results.

The setup is the stuff of pulp fiction. A killer is stalking gay men in New York’s West Village. The complacent, homophobic NYPD is getting heat from the Mayor’s office to resolve the murders before the upcoming National Democratic Convention. Enter Beat Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino). Because of his near identical looks to recent victims, he’s the perfect man to go undercover and root out the killer. He’ll have to do the job weaponless and under complete anonymity. Not even his girlfriend (a terrific but completely underused Karen Allen) can know of his assignment. Officer Burns accepts the challenge in an all-to-brief scene because this will be his chance to earn his “Gold Shield.”

As Officer Burns descends into this leathery Hell, Friedkin throws absolutely everything on the screen to shock the viewer. Water Sports? Check. Fisting? Check. Gangbang? Check. It’s all here in its slow-motion color-coded hankie glory – jockstraps, uniform fetishes, simulated oral sex, real oral sex, whips, lips, nips, hips and pits. Everytime the movie breaks away from this world, it’s all too anxious to get right back into it. And it’s because of this that Cruising suffers its first major problem. It’s just too damned dependent upon this setting. Anything else that happens outside this world of hedonism absolutely pales in comparison and is just not that interesting.

But the second and even larger problem is how ambiguous the entire movie is. Many would probably find this to be the end-result of a real auteur. I find it to be sloppy and pretentious filmmaking. Friedkin uses the same three actors to play the role of murderer and victim for the killings that take place on screen. In each of the murder scenes, the same actors would switch roles. For what purpose? To suggest there’s more than one killer? If this is the case, how is it possible each killer would sing the same trademark nursery rhyme just before taking their next victim’s life? Or is Friedkin offering a pessimistic view on the cycle of violence – capture one killer and another will easily replace him.

Cruising ends with two big question marks. First, Steve Burn’s friend and neighbor, Ted Bailey (who’s sunshiny, “normal” persona serves as a counterbalance to the gay shenanigans we’ve witnessed on screen so far), is found brutally murdered after the gay killer has been caught. It’s suggested that a jealous Burns (Pacino) may have been the one to do it. But then it also leads the viewer to believe the real gay killer is still on the loose. And finally, what of that final shot of Burns looking at the audience through his reflection in the mirror? It’s with this final freeze frame that Cruising wants you to think this is a man gone to war, done battle, and barely made it out with his life. His mission into the gay underworld has damaged him so much he’ll never be able to completely return to his hetero-lifestyle. But Cruising doesn’t deserve to end on this kind of cogitative thought. It hasn’t earned it as scenes of character development are incredibly underplayed if non-existent altogether. But, if Cruising does get one thing right it’s a perfectly accurate time capsule of gay New York City clubs in a Pre-AIDS era.

P.S. I didn’t get a chance to mention how excellent the music was in the movie. The club scenes feature a ton of Post Punk bands including The Cripples, Germs, Mutiny and more. Well worth the digging to get your hands on this gem of a soundtrack.

1 comment:

Joaquin said...

Whips, lips, nips, hips and pits. What's going on this weekend?