Sunday, July 20, 2014

1980 Week: Cruising

          No one in Hollywood ever sets out to make a dud. Take, for example, Cruising, the notorious William Friedkin thriller starring Al Pacino as a straight cop who infiltrates New York’s gay-nightclub scene while hunting a killer who is targeting homosexuals. It’s easy to imagine why Friedkin and Pacino, both of whom enjoy testing limits, saw the pulpy story as an opportunity to investigate a mysterious subculture. Concurrently, it’s useful to remember that the gender-politics climate of the late ’70s was still rotten with prejudice. Fearful the movie might propagate ugly stereotypes about predatory gays, activists staged noisy protests during filming in Manhattan, thereby creating a widespread perception that Cruising was antigay. These circumstances all but guaranteed a hostile reception from audiences and critics, rendering the filmmakers’ original intentions moot.
          But that was then. In trying to arrive at a modern understanding of Cruising, one must wrestle with the fact that the naysayers who attacked the film before and during its original release were both right and wrong. While Cruising absolutely features the “gay killer” trope, which had become a raw nerve after too many movies along the lines of Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), Cruising is too complex to earn a label as narrow as “antigay.” More than anything, Cruising is perverse. Predicated upon a deliberately unsolvable whodunnit, it is about a man who loses his personal and sexual identity while pretending to be someone else, set against the backdrop of a nightclub community populated by individuals who celebrate their truth and by individuals who disguise themselves.
          Like the best of Friedkin’s films—a category to which Cruising doesn’t necessarily belong—Cruising is designed to get under the viewer’s skin and distort perceptions. Just as The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) revel in moral ambiguity, Cruising revels in sexual ambiguity. In fact, the picture takes Friedkins penchant for incertitude to an infuriating extreme by including several moments even the director cannot (or will not) explain. The movie doesnt play fair, but clearly playing fair was never Friedkins intention.
          That leaves unanswered, of course, the burning question: Is Cruising a good movie? That all depends on the kind of experience the viewer wants. Those craving sensitive insights into gay culture will be left wanting, since Cruising focuses almost exclusively on the rough stuff—exhibitionism, leather, S&M, etc. As a mystery, the movie is a total bust.
          Yet buried within the frustrating rhythms of Cruising are moments of great intensity and surprise. Paul Sorvino brings genuine ache to his role as Pacinos supervisor, a homicide investigator who has seen too much misery in his life. Karen Allen lends sensitivity as the lead character’s long-suffering girlfriend. And Pacino attacks the starring role with his signature go-for-broke intensity. Whether he’s dancing in a nightclub while wearing a black tank top or wrestling with angst about the emotional places his assignment forces him to explore, he’s an open wound of ambition, confusion, and pathos. (Accentuating all of those tonalities and more is Jack Nitzsche’s eerie score, a mixture of pounding rhythms and ethereal waves.)
          Cruising doesn’t “work” in any conventional sense, and many people justifiably find it offensive, but it’s a singular piece of filmmaking. Its worst moments are irresponsible, its best moments are truly haunting—and not infrequently, it straddles both extremes at once.

Cruising: FREAKY

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