By Bus Station John
As a DJ who's created a number of clubs celebrating the music, aesthetic and sexual freedom of the period during which Cruising was released, I've noticed that a significant number of the gay men in attendance -- the twenty- and thirtysomethings in particular -- seem excited and intrigued by the film's reissue on DVD. And why shouldn't they be?
The film offers today's youth much more than just a fleeting glimpse of the now long-gone gay NYC sexual underground enjoyed by their elders. In fact, Cruising works best as a travelogue of pre-Disneyfied gay Manhattan, a celluloid tour of the city's most notorious bars, back rooms and bushes, refreshingly populated by non-tweezery, pedicure-free, steroid-deficient and un-cyber-tainted denizens of the night. As the camera pans various tableaux of lusty men-on-the-make, the viewer finds himself literally cruising the screen...everybody's lookin' good!
Cruising also presents contemporary hipsters with the opportunity to see where their current fashion affectations originated. On display, in abundance, are those mustaches, hankies, key rings and aviator-style sunglasses that once served as sexual signifiers. (Today, they've been reduced to mere accessories for the trendy, gay and straight alike).
Finally, we're invited to marvel at the spectacle of a number of unintentionally camp highlights, not the least of which is Al Pacino's out-of-sync, over-the-top spaz dance as he frantically tries to assimilate into a writhing crowd of rock-disco aficionados. Also notable are a pair of uniform queens rather over-emphatically licking a nightstick, as well as an inexplicable scene of a giant jockstrap-clad black cowboy who seems to have wandered in off the set of Querelle.
But despite these attractions, as well as a current DVD-era attempt to rehabilitate the film's reputation nearly thirty years later (along with claims that it was "widely misinterpreted" by audiences of the day), Cruising remains as problematic now as when it was released before an infuriated gay public in 1980.
By that time, we were fed up. After decades of being portrayed by Hollywood as sick, suicidal and/or predatory, here was William Friedkin dragging, however unintentionally, defamatory stereotypes into the 1980s, ten years after Stonewall, with a movie focusing on gay S/M serial killer(s). And, adding insult to injury, he was filming it on our turf, Greenwich Village and the Meat-Packing District. Needless to say, the by-then long-liberated queens of New York weren't havin' it.
During the Q&A following a recent press screening of Cruising (at the Castro Theatre, of all places), Friedkin praised the writing of one Arthur Bell, a columnist for the Village Voice whose articles on a series of murders in the gay S/M demi-monde had partly inspired him to make the film. What Friedkin didn't mention was that it was Bell who loudly led the charge when gays hit the streets, not to cruise, but to protest. Bell in fact urged them to do whatever it took to disrupt the shooting of Cruising; actions ranged from cutting power cables and blowing whistles to "a thousand guys yelling at Al Pacino," as Friedkin recalled at the Castro, referring to a location scene where the star drifts down a dark alley.
To be fair, neither Pacino's cop nor any of the film's other characters were saddled with the usual stereotypical gay mannerisms. And perhaps to head off any criticism from middle-of-the-road gays, the script has a detective in an early scene describing the victims thus far as "not into mainstream gay life...[but] into heavy leather."
Yet later on, a cop character describes one leather bar regular as an example of "scared, weird little guys who don't know why they do what they do." And while local gays recruited as extras lend a fascinating authenticity to the bar scenes, these real people are in the end reduced to the most superficial level of participation, rendered as caricatures or props rather than actual human beings, aiding and abetting in the creation of a film that perpetuates distorted notions of the very lives they lead.
It's important to remember that only a few years prior to the film's undertaking, an incident confirmed society's willingness to believe the worst about homosexuals, and S/M practicioners in particular. In 1976, no less than 65 police commandos and two helicopters(!) descended upon an L.A. charity "slave auction" organized by the Leather Fraternity, making mass arrests for "trafficking in humans."
Emerging in just such a social climate was the first widely distributed mainstream Hollywood film with a full-on gay storyline, sensationally conflating a valid mode of sexual self-expression with serial-killer sickie-ness, featuring a plot replete with sadistically-explicit murder sequences which have the power to shock even today.
Yes, according to the filmmaker, Cruising was simply intended to be a thriller set in one particular milieu. But is it any wonder we reacted as we did? (It should be noted that legions of men and women have entered into leather life and/or have suffered family disapproval of their sexuality -- an issue for (one of) the film's killer(s) -- without degenerating into homicidal maniacs.)
One can't really talk about Cruising without mentioning Friedkin's The Boys in the Band (1970). Both had the same director, and both were met with criticism from the gay community. The distinction is that despite its mixed reception The Boys in the Band spoke many truths aloud to gay men of that era's generation and beyond, addressing both our internal and external struggles. Moreover, whatever flaws it has can be attributed to its openly gay author, Matt Crowley, as much as its director, who aimed the camera at a well-oiled veteran Broadway cast.
The responsibility for the problems with Cruising, on the other hand, resides squarely on the shoulders of William Friedkin. Despite his best intentions (he seemed like a nice guy at the Castro screening, and he's made some great and important films), it was through his lens that the truth about gay people became further distorted in the eyes of the mainstream. His perceptions and misperceptions of our subculture were shot through the goggles of a rather clueless, if well-meaning, straight tourist, not a "member of the tribe." His present claim that contemporary audiences are more sophisticated and therefore more receptive to Cruising doesn't mitigate the damage done to our community at the time. It actually comes across more like a retroactive condescension, trivializing the gut response of the thousands of people who protested the film's appearance across the country.
As surely as it was William Friedkin's prerogative to follow his creative muse and make Cruising, it was our community's prerogative to turn out en masse and call him on it. Ten years after Stonewall, the queens weren't buying it.
Why should we now?