Stormy leather

Two takes on William Friedkin's Cruising, showing at the Castro

Cruising for a Bruising By Jason Shamai

FILM William Friedkin, like it or not, has contributed so much to mainstream queer cinema that it's remarkable his name primarily calls up images of projectile vomiting and Gene Hackman running a lot. The Boys in the Band (1970) and the more high-profile Cruising (1980) are bookends to a decade of comparatively unencumbered gay sex that is legendary to gay men of my generation (I was alive for a gloriously unencumbered two months of it), yet there was almost no mainstream representation of gay men in pop culture between the two films that didn't involve guest spots on Match Game or The Hollywood Squares.

Last year's excellent Friedkin offering, Bug, spent its first 15 minutes or so, gratuitously but innocuously, within a lesbian community. And let's not forget Father Dyer's gayer-than-gay proclamation in The Exorcist (1973) that "My idea of heaven is a solid white nightclub with me as a headliner for all eternity, and they love me." Friedkin's representations of queer people are hardly consistent in their degrees of sophistication, but the venom he's inspired in so many activists is certainly excessive and arguably not worth the energy. If he can be accused of exploitation, what he's exploiting is of no mere passing fascination to him. For some reason the man, whether or not he's welcome, has clearly thrown in his lot with the queers.

Cruising — let's just get it out of the way — is a pretty terrible movie in most of the major categories: dialogue, acting, and plot all add up to a big fat blecch, and the restored version playing at the Castro Theatre beginning Sept. 7 in anticipation of the DVD release does nothing to remedy the narrative inertia. The murder mystery it purports to be — regarding an undercover cop's pursuit of a serial killer in the West Village's leather-clad S-M scene — is a murky and parenthetical excuse for a series of Boschian tableaux of boot licking, fist fucking, and ass ramming. But beyond a frustrating mess of implications about the scene's negative influence on Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino), Friedkin isn't guilty of much beyond overexuberance.

The initial vitriolic reaction to Cruising, it seems, had more to do with its depiction, embellished a touch, of a significant chunk of the gay world with its legs up in the air. The flatteringly concentrated sexual activity in the bar scenes may be less of an issue nowadays because of the growing number of politically engaged queer people, unconcerned with assimilation and happy to sign off on anything that makes jittery straight people uncomfortable. But does this say enough about the movie's sexual proclivities? There isn't much talk about Cruising as a pageant of eroticized violence or as a film eager in its bloodiness for the titillated approval of its viewers. Were Friedkin's murder scenes — overt visual associations of anal and violent penetration, blood sprayed across the screen in a porn booth — intended as an extension of his conception of S-M play? Would it be wrong for him to do so, or for the audience to be duly turned on?

I've always taken for granted that Cruising's two major scenes of police harassment were your garden-variety (though highly effective) critiques of injustice, a risk-minimizing way of approaching an unfamiliar culture. But now I'm wondering if these scenes were intended as an indictment of the police at all (was the unnecessarily long, squirm-inducing raid on an all-black bar in The French Connection intended as an indictment?) or if they were simply elaborate fetish scenarios, artistic expansions of the imagery and dynamics already well integrated into the S-M scene? Mr. Friedkin, are you trying to get us off? ------------------- -------------------

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