I believe that the best way to watch a movie, and actually to observe any work of art, is to try to approach it without any prior thoughts. Simply let the images follow one another in succession and develop an impression from them, instead of comparing the movie to what you've read about it, or heard about it before. In fact, it's best to try to forget everything that you have heard about a film while watching it. This allows you to be as fair as possible with the finished work, even though it's not entirely possible to do in some cases.
I explain this because it's indeed nearly impossible not to have any preconceived notions about the film Cruising, which was critically reviled and protested by the gay rights movement upon its release in 1980, and which is currently being critically reassessed, including a showing this year at Cannes. On the other hand, since all I have ever heard about the film was either very negative or very positive, it was possible to watch the film from a somewhat neutral position.
It's perhaps an indication that we're living in reactionary times that a film which was taken as regressive and conservative in 1980 seems so completely radical today. What's startling about Cruising is how non-judgmental it is about the gay leather subculture; it's like a travelogue of sorts- Let's Learn About Fisting! When Al Pacino, as an undercover cop, immerses himself in the gay S & M scene, you can almost smell the leather and sweat. It's a revelation.
Cruising begins by continuing the trend I've noted in other early 80s films of portraying New York City as a semi-apocalyptic hellscape. In the first scene, a severed arm rises from New York Harbor, a nice image of the repressed emerging from the subconscious/underworld. Soon we see two police officers driving through a section of the city that looks like a nature preserve for hookers and hustlers. One of them, played by the late, great Joe Spinell, says to his partner, ''You used to be able to play stickball on these streets. Now look at these guys. Christ, what's happening?'' Clearly, this is the New York that we're always hearing about Benito Giuliani having ''cleaned up''.
However, the cops also quickly establish themselves as figures of declining patriarchal authority (Spinell's wife has left him and both cops agree that he'll ''get that bitch'') and the scene ends with the cops sexually assaulting two cross-dressers, suggesting that the underworld is vulnerable to being victimized by so-called ''straight'' society. This is followed by a sequence in which a stranger picks up another man at one of the gay bars, takes him home, has sex with him, and brutally murders him, implying a continuum between repressed homosexual urges, homophobia, and violence which is a theme throughout the film.
The storyline involves the police efforts to catch a serial killer who is targeting gay men in the S/M subculture. Al Pacino, as police officer Steve Burns, is sent undercover to attract the killer, ostensibly by cruising the gay leather scene. His sexuality is questioned from the start; he tells his girlfriend Nancy, played by Karen Allen, ''There's a lot about me you don't know.'' Indeed. Within a few scenes, he's rented an apartment and established himself as a regular at the actual NYC leather bars of the time.
This is where the film gets confusing; everything seems to happen too quickly. When we watched the movie, Claire joked ''What? Did he just decide 'fuck it; I'm gay'?'' Pacino's performance here is lousy; his internal struggle is the focus of the film but we can't tell if he's struggling or not. He immerses himself completely in the leather underworld, and it's fairly clear that he's picking up men on a regular basis, but we can't tell if his sexuality is coming into question or if he's just upset about there being a killer on the loose.
The leather underworld itself- and its worth noting that every club shown seems to be located underground at the end of a long staircase- is a brilliantly realized chthonian night world. Taut muscles strain against tight blue jeans, globoid buttocks pop against one another, bodies mesh together like perverse cherubs in a pornographic rococo; it is gloriously obscene. It seems like the most masculine place on earth, and perhaps Pacino's relative ease in this world is supposed to indicate that he has moved smoothly from one world that lacks the feminine principle, the precinct, to another, the leather bar. In an amusing scene, Burns is kicked out of a S/M club with a police officer and soldier theme for not seeming enough like a cop!
In fact, his absorption into this world alienates him from the other cops, who he realizes are too anti-gay to really help the victims, and his girlfriend who he is seen fucking desperately before temporarily breaking up with. I think it would be incorrect to read the film as suggesting that homosexual behavior is ''contagious'' as some critics have; instead, I think the film not only argues against an essentialist reading of sexuality, but even more radically, suggests that gay sex is simply preferable for men, more fun somehow. Burns tells Nancy ''Don't let me lose you,'' before they break up, but the implication is that she loses him; that once you go gay, there's good reason to stay.
Needless to say, establishing a gay underworld and then portraying it as innately preferable to straight society, implying that bisexuality is universal in men, and making patrons of anonymous gay sex highly sympathetic characters, is something that could have only been done after Stonewall and before HIV. But it's also something that likely couldn't be done now. Hollywood and even independent cinema no longer take these chances. Another startling aspect of the film is how devoid of homophobia huge swaths of it are. Aside from two scenes with the police, we largely see a neutral zone in which gay men cruise bars and parks without encountering the gay bashing outsiders that have become commonplace in ''gay films''.
Apparently, the film actually was shorn of about 40 minutes to please the MPAA. This may well explain why it seems fragmented and thin in places. Sections are confusing. One minute Pacino can tell no one about his undercover role and the next minute, the entire police force seems to know. It's never clear exactly why the killer is stalking gay men, although it's implied that he might be trying to win the love of a father who rejected him for being gay. Perhaps most notoriously, and an intentional move on William Friedkin's part, a body turns up after the killer is caught and it's suggested that Pacino's character might have killed him, although we can never tell for sure.
The last scene is brilliant, however; Pacino has returned to his girlfriend after living in the underworld, and we see him in her apartment shaving. He stares into the mirror after cutting his face, while in the living room, she is trying on the leather gear that he has bizarrely left lying around. We end with a superimposed shot of the harbor; the repressed always returns in some form.
In terms of film making, Friedkin's unobtrusive documentary style, typical of the time, serves the material well. However, we can't assume that the missing scenes would make the logical gaps more coherent. Some parts simply don't make sense, and again, Pacino's portrayal is brave, but lousy. On the other hand, the film creates another world and fleshes it out completely. It is the most homoerotic Hollywood film I've ever seen. To have attempted that in 1979-1980 seems incredible.
As for the political content, I'm not at all convinced that the film is anti-gay. Cruising shows homophobia as violent and destructive, and even murderous. Moreover, I don't buy the argument that ''cutting people up on film'' allows the audience to ''identify with the killer''. The victims and potential victims in this film are wholly sympathetic- we are forced to see what damage homophobia can do. Unlike a typical slasher film, we're not shown any obnoxious behavior that might ''justify'' it when the victims ''get it''. Instead, the outsiders of 1970s society are put in peril to elicit our sympathy.
Lastly, I think it's ambiguous, but not very likely that Pacino becomes a murderer at the end of the film. What's most radical about Cruising, even today, is that it suggests that homosexuality is a ready option for men; that is, it argues against the essentialist view of homosexuality. The fact that the late 70s ''gay lib'' movement saw this as reactionary, in fact saw it as implying that one could ''catch'' homosexuality, speaks more to a political strategy of the time than anything else. It's a terrifying implication for many people that sexuality is so fluid that we would be simply incorrect, and even a bit stupid, to live in those tiny little boxes marked ''sexual identity''. But, of course, the night world cannot be contained; only held at bay temporarily.