Based on a 1970 novel by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, the movie's narrative involves a series of brutal homicides in the Big Apple's gay S&M/leather scene, and a police officer named Burns (Al Pacino) who goes undercover to investigate the monstrous crimes. The film itself establishes that this particular life-style is not "in the mainstream of gay life" but rather a subset, a so-called "world unto itself."
Despite this ready distinction spelled out in the film's screenplay, New York City's gay community at the time was very worried about how it would be presented in Friedkin's film. The Village Voice feared Friedkin would create "the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen," and admonished activists to scuttle the filmmaking in any way they could. Protesters wielded mirrors to interfere with lighting; and even fired air horns during exterior shooting to render sequences unusable. Several hundred gay rights activists marched in the East Village, hoping to convince Mayor Koch to sever ties to Friedkin and his production.
While some forces in the community mobilized to stop Friedkin, others supported his work. Forever the documentarian, Friedkin insisted that his film depict the specifics of the leather/S&M scene accurately, and he wrangled support from such fetish bars as Mine Shaft, The Cockpit, and Anvil. He was able to shoot lengthy sequences at those real locations, and film real patrons as "extras." The people -- and the behavior -- you see dramatized in the film is thus reasonably authentic. Nothing is staged or phony -- not costumes; not the crowds, not even "Police Night" -- and that fact alone injects Cruising with a high degree of "you are there" immediacy.
You may not always want to watch what goes on in these bars; but you won't be easily able to turn away from the male-on-male bacchanalia either. Friedkin has assured that fact with his trademark attention to detail and fine understanding of film grammar. For "Cruising" is not merely the title of the film, it's the act that we - as viewers (or tourists...) -- are asked to undertake in engaging the narrative.
Friedkin makes this link between us and the leather bar patrons virtually unavoidable by staging a number of first-person-subjective P.O.V. shots in which the "cruisers" walk by us -- slow down -- gaze at the camera, and size us up. It's actually rather intimidating, truth be told, but the point is established visually about what these patrons desire; what they seek; and how they covet it. One of the reasons I go to see films (or queue films, these days...) is to experience some aspect of the world that is alien to me. On these grounds, Cruising certainly satisfies, even if there is some deeply uncomfortable (and predatory...) aspect about the rampant sexuality on display here. It leads one to consider male sexuality; and especially male sexuality in the total absence of female sexuality. I discussed these subjective P.O.V. shots with Kathryn, wondering if they were overdone and exaggerated, and asked her if she thought that men looked at women this way too -- this brazenly -- and she said yes. Absolutely. All the time.
Another way that Cruising lives up to the title is by exposing the viewers to "the regulars" of this urban leather scene. Watch the movie closely -- very closely -- and you will begin to detect familiar faces amidst the pack. The regulars. The people who appear more than once, in more than one guise, and in more than one location. As critic Bob Stephens wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle: "Cruising is not only a hunt within a hunt, but a film that is obsessed with entrances and exits. It's a movie with a vast undercurrent of restlessness, of people looking for a satiating experience, looking anywhere, everywhere. Men constantly go in and out of erotic clubs, tunnels in the park, rented rooms, private booths in porn shops and, in the officer's case, the inadequate refuge of his girlfriend's apartment."
He's right, and the important thing for the movie is that it is the same group of men doing that seeking (Burns included). Sometimes they are revealed in flash cuts, or sometimes depicted in long shots; or often even in shadows during impenetrable night. Yet after a time, your eyes seek out these familiar men, wondering if they are suspects or simply innocents...but recognizing them nonetheless. Friedkin, in populating his crowd scenes with a series of familiar faces, has truly taken his audience cruising with him. In other words, he's training our eyes to work in the same fashion as these men's eyes work. Amidst the blaring punk rock, the leather gear and the predatory looks, our eyes covet a safe harbor. We are hunting. That's the very thing that the killer trades on; the risky hunt, the search for something dangerous...but with somebody who is safe.
The result of Friedkin's impressive and rigorous charting of this world is, in the words of critic Nathan Lee, "a film that is a heady, horny flashback to the last gasp of full-blown sexual abandon, and easily the most graphic depiction of gay sex ever seen in a mainstream movie. Filmed in such legendary bars as the Ramrod, Anvil, Mine Shaft, and Eagle's Nest (the latter two eventually barred Friedkin from the premises), Cruising is a lurid fever dream of popper fumes, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore disco frottage, and Crisco-coated forearms."
After that colorful and graphic description, you will likely know whether this film is your cup of tea or not, right? Yet in fairness, Cruising is more than that. It is also a fascinating mystery, a thriller in the "undercover cop" milieu, and an Orphean journey into a Dionyson underworld of wild sexual ritual that is both exceptionally drawn and very, very tense. In part, this sense of anxiety arises because the film has landed Steve Burns (Al Pacino) in a strange world where he is alone and without help of any kind. As the screenplay puts it: he's "up a creek without a paddle" and has nowhere to turn.
In an early scene, Burns is called into the police chief's (Paul Sorvino's) office and asked some very slap-in-the-face questions, some very personal questions. "Have you ever had your cock sucked by another man?" "Ever been porked?" Why Burns readily takes this particular undercover assignment (an open-ended assignment in the leather community that could essentially last forever...) is another question all together, and the answer to that mystery is one that the film only teases; but never fully articulates.
For instance, Burns warns his girlfriend (Karen Allen) "there's a lot about me you don't know," an indicator that - perhaps - just perhaps - Burns may already be inclined towards the very lifestyle he's been assigned to investigate. In fact, a case could be made that there are two killers at work simultaneously in Cruising: the one that Pacino is hunting (a murderous man who has deep-seated "father issues" and who stabs his homosexual victims...), and also the one who is dumping severed body parts in the East River. The film establishes early on that these murderers have a very different m.o., but a harried metropolitan police department (anticipating the Democratic National Convention...) is too busy, too overwhelmed, to differentiate between them. Many critics who first screened the film in 1980 did not even realize that there is a high probability of two killers at work; and lumped all the film's murders under one umbrella; under one culprit (just like the police). I submit, however, that there are two murderers at work in the film; and at work in the S&M community.
My evidence? First, the film establishes at some length how Burns resembles many of the men being murdered (like he is trying to stamp out himself and his unacceptable urges...). In fact, the very reason Burns gets this assignment in the first place is because of his distinct physical resemblance to the victims. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Burns gay friend, an aspiring playwright portrayed by Don Scardino (a gay man who is not a sadomasochist by the way...) is found brutally murdered at the film's climax. Ask yourself after watching the film: who killed him and why? And why exactly did a worked-up Burns go to Scardino's apartment and get into an entirely unnecessarily scuffle with his volatile partner (James Remar)? In asking these questions, one begins to peel back the deeper, more subtle levels of the enigmatic narrative; the story within a story.
Watch Cruising closely, and you will see one particularly crucial shot repeated. It's a long exterior shot, set at night, that consists of a man in a leather jacket (who could be Pacino - or who might not be...) making his way into a leather bar. The first time the shot appears, this man goes into a bar alone and his entrance occurs immediately following a shot of corrupt policeman forcing sexual favors from two gay street walkers. There is an explicit connection between the two shots. Friedkin pans from the patrol car where the crime is taking place, to a shot of that mystery man walking into the bar. The second time (and final time) the shot occurs, it is very near the end of the film; after the murderer has been caught; the crimes solved. But make no mistake: it's the same man; going back to the same bar. Why show him again?
This is perhaps the most important shot in the film, even if we do not know who precisely that figure is. If he's Pacino/Burns, then we must assume Burns is the second killer, and that his "cruising" of the sadomasochistic scene began long before his involvement in the official case. On the other hand if this figure is the second killer - and a stranger to us - then he is still free - and free to kill - after the investigation has been officially closed.
More than likely, this figure's specific identity is unimportant. Rather he serves as a symbol; a symbol of the danger that lurks when repression, fear, and self-hatred become inseparable mingled with rampant sexual desire. Friedkin and his team could not have known it at the time, but danger of another form (not homicidal) certainly became manifest around this very sub-culture just a few short years after Cruising, when AIDS decimated the community. It is unearthly and strange and very scary how this film seems to foreshadow that tragedy; how it seems to knowingly portray a dark, sad, cynical and empty world on the verge of annihilation. For make no mistake, there is no real love or sense of connection here. Something else is being sought...
Critics have been harsh. "This is a thoroughly unpleasant film," wrote critic James Kendrick for the Q Network Entertainment Portal. "For anyone of any sexual orientation who takes pride in fidelity, the scenes that take place in S&M bars bearing such enticing names as "The Cockpit" and "Ramrod" are positively repulsive. One can see why some of the mainstream gay critics in 1980 were horrified that a large segment of the population would see this film and incorrectly assume that all homosexuals behave in this manner."
Honestly, he's correct in one sense. Cruising can be quite unpleasant and ugly at times. The unfettered, raw male sexuality here...isn't pretty. But as Kendrick himself also notes, this "leather" lifestyle did exist and does exist. And Friedkin's work shouldn't be reviewed on the basis of how people misperceived the movie. Cruising is never homophobic, and in fact takes special care not to appear anti-gay at all. "I didn't come onto this job to shitcan guys just because they are gay," Burns notes at one point. Also, there's the notation I made mention of earlier, when Sorvino establishes this is clearly not "the mainstream" of gay culture. Artists can't be held accountable for how people receive their art; only for their intention in creating the art, I submit.
In creating his "art" in this fashion, Friedkin was making a point, no doubt. He was accurately depicting this world (down to the music in the clubs), and if it is judged ugly by those dwelling outside of it -- so be it. He was observing; and letting us decide what to make of it. He leaves us to decide the "why" of it. This even-handed approach goes right to the core of the film. Is Burns just a good cop investigating a crime? Or is there an underneath here?
Cruising has been interpreted in many ways, which speaks volumes about Friedkin's skill at creating a meaningful work of art. Some critics believe that it attempts to forge a connection, a link, between gays and homicidal behavior (an interpretation I reject); some people believe it is about the repressed gay desire lurking inside a straight man (certainly a possibility; especially given the presence of the subplot with Allen); and some see it as merely a layered murder mystery set in the world of leather bars. I tend to see a more global argument here about where our society was in 1980. I believe Friedkin is actually commenting on how fearful the straight world is of open displays of homosexuality. Look at the headlines in the film which blare "Homo Killer on the Prowl," or the hatred for gays demonstrated by the corrupt cops. The story of a homosexual boy rejected by his father and who turns to murder...is a tragedy about society's lack of acceptance; not homosexuality's intrinsic acceptability or unacceptability. I think Friedkin was saying that a society that excludes, shuns and denigrates people can create in the occasional invidividual a self-hatred and self-loathing so powerful it can turn dangerous.
See the movie and decide for yourself...