Notes on “Cruising”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

It’s possible that writer-director William Friedkin allowed “Cruising” to go so far, to be so extreme, in part because he felt that his experience directing the 1970 “The Boys in the Band,” often acknowledged as the first movie to treat gays sympathetically, provided him a degree of cover. He was wrong: “Cruising” was controversial from the get-go. Although I dislike the term “homophobic,” it aptly describes the attitudes on display in “Cruising”: The movie treats gays the way “Alien” treats xenomorphs. The frankness of its homophobia is what makes it compelling: Friedkin dives right into his ambivalence (which amounts to a kind of fascination), hits the bottom of the pool, and keeps pushing. He revels in his discomfort and does all he can to push it onto the audience. He pushes it onto star Al Pacino, too: Playing a cop who goes undercover in the studs-and-leather gay scene, the actor seems cowed and uncertain; he’s roosterpecked. Friedkin’s manner of shooting Pacino highlights the actor’s physical oddity — his big head and bigger rump, his Mephistophelean facial features. We’re rarely not aware of his shortness. When Pacino dons a muscle shirt and tight jeans and struts into a bondage cellar, you feel the put-on more than the machismo. (The movie consistently blurs disguise, performance, and identity.) And Pacino is cunning in the way he occasionally slips into the little-boy affectations of the young Michael Corleone and Bobby from “The Panic in Needle Park,” flashing his puppy eyes and using an altar boy’s voice, like he’s apologizing. Are these Pacino’s inventions or the results of Friedkin’s efforts to keep the actor unbalanced? I’m not sure. (Friedkin claims Pacino was terrified of the role and the outraged reactions of the gay community. I believe him.) Off-putting at first, Pacino’s performance gradually becomes engrossing. The movie probably wouldn’t work without it. Boldly, Friedkin equates the penetration of gay sex with the corporeal damage inflicted by piercing weapons in a manner sometimes attributed — often not very convincingly — to supposedly gay Renaissance artists. But where penetration is an understated element of Mantegna’s “St. Sebastian,” there’s no subtlety in Friedkin’s approach: His metaphors are as explicit and as brutal as his kill scenes. This association of gay sex with death, and the related suggestion of gay behavior patterns spreading to the straight populace, drives the film’s paranoia, and in hindsight lends it the force of prophecy. In 1980 most people hadn’t heard of AIDS or considered anal sex. The most impressive aspect of Friedkin’s direction is its ambiguity. The movie’s metaphors may be blunt, but it’s often sophisticatedly hazy at the narrative and thematic levels. Themes are stated and inverted. Characters show up on one side of the gay-straight divide, then turn up later on the opposite side. In particular, Friedkin gets a kick out of the way in which cops, with their intimations of order and their fetishistic uniforms, blur the line separating the conventional from the outré. This absence of fixedness has a larger meaning: We’re being asked to contemplate — with horror — the permeability of our inhibitions.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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