Tuesday, 5 March 2013
The Crime movie genre has some bona-fide classics that are easy to be recognized by anyone. These include your Film Noirs, Heats and Godfathers. But some of the more interesting films of the genre are treasured by some, and leave others completely cold. None more so, than French Connection director William Friedkin's 1980 joint Cruising. I'm even not that sure myself what to make of the film that seems more content in describing the New York gay leather clubs and subculture than it is of having a familiar plot or character arc. The film is certainly one of the most experimental in Friedkin's career, and thus warrants a closer look, however one wants to do it.
So... Revisited or Chew? Even this soon after creating the categories I'm at a bit of a loss on how to treat this movie. Chewisited! There may be spoilers.
The Face Value
Gerald Walker's novel Cruising was a hot property at Hollywood in the late 70's. The novel was based on a true story of a serial killer lurking homosexuals in the underground gay leather-culture circles. Oliver Stone was very eager to direct the book. The French Connection producer Philip D'Antoni was adamant that Friedkin should direct it. After the financial flop of Friedkin's film Sorcerer he agreed to look into it, and when there were a number of brutal unsolved murders in New York, he decided to do it. In a bit of a rare move for the director, he also took over the scripting duties. Thus he made sure Walker's story would not be twisted into a cutesy Hollywood story of good vs. evil and a happy ending to tie the bow.
For Friedkin's demand of reality, many of the film's gay club scenes were shot in actual leather bars, with the patrons being brought out as extras. As a weird coincidence, an actor in a minor role of The Exorcist was also imprisoned for actually murdering the gay film critic Addison Verrill. Naturally, Friedkin went to him for research of the mind of a gay serial killer. Later on, the actor also confessed to the murders Walker was describing in his novel, although the truth in these confessions is questionable. Never let it be said, however, that William Friedkin doesn't work for the authenticity of the milieu of his films.
We follow everynight ordeals at gay bars for a while. After a steamy night out, man takes a new friend to his apartment. During sex, the stranger brutally kills him. Elsewhere, in a gay porn theatre, the stranger also stabs a random movie-goer. Body parts show up in the Hudson river and the police are clueless on the identity of the killer. Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) figures the best way to get information to capture the killer is to send a man undercover. The young, eager officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) accepts to complete this mission, and settles to live in Greenwich Village under a new identity. At nights he goes to leather bars to observe the situation and ask about customers.
At first Burns thinks the job will be easy like a walk in the park. While he can't share work details with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen), he remains close. But as he starts to go deeper and deeper undercover, the job also starts to strain the relationship. Burns becomes obsessed, but even his superiors are uncertain whether its for the capture of the serial killer, or if Burns has just been sucked in the gay subculture.
As mentioned the film mostly deals with describing the New York gay leather clubs and subculture in the sleazy, pre-Giuliani times. Characters and events are less important and the film hasn't got a satisfying conclusion that would explain the mystery. The movie goes deliberately in circles, and the viewer is either caught up with it or not.
Pacino's Burns is an odd character, since we get so little information about him, and even those nuggets often seem to be contradictory. He doesn't seem to have problems being used as a bait. Many of the serial killer's victims look very similar to him, they are dark-haired young men with large eyes. Burns doesn't seem to mind this or have even the slightest hint of fear or care for himself. The film does hint he's willing to go deeper undercover than would ever be required for his job. And make no mistake, this is no euphemism. I mean gay sex here. Many times he's only shown to be interrupted by a chance.
For the most part of the film Burns seems to be playing a role or hiding under a facade. When he first enters the film, he's laughing (perhaps a bit nervously) at Captain Edelson's enquiries of his sexuality and seems to be most at ease here. After a few nights at gay night clubs Burns channels his frustrations to his sexual performance with Nancy. Later on, their sexual relationship seems to go dry. The end hints that he doesn't see her as sexually desirable any more, yet they both choose to play along with the parts they're supposed to.
That final scene arises more questions than it answers. Are those pieces of clothing Nancy is inspecting the same ones the killer used? Was Burns the serail killer all along? Or did he kill his friend and neighbor Ted's (Don Scardiano) violent lover Gregory (James Remar)? Perhaps Ted too?
I wouldn't try to fit the film's motif into such a tight little package. Those items Nancy examines are to be seen more symbolic. Throughout the film, we have seen that Burns has a bit of a violent streak. In the beginning he expresses it through sex. In the middle, he's disgusted on how violently his fellow officers treat captured rent boys. But towards the end, he shoots one suspect dead when he's attacking him with a knife. He has also made a lot of other moral compromises throughout the film, such as breaking into the suspect's house. This shooting is the final deed that pushes him entirely into the dark side. In the beginning he was comparable to the serial killer's victims. Naive, looking for a thrill, trying to keep his urges at bay until he needs them. But giving in to the violence, S&M sex and a grey moral code, he has made himself more like the killer himself. Nancy has a couple of nasty surprises in store for her.
The other side
The film takes itself and its subject quite seriously. The actual murder scenes are brutal, slow, painful shots of violence, not for the weak of stomach. The dangerousness of sex is emphasized. Friedkin does walk a fine line between damning the S&M culture entirely, although to me he doesn't cross it. Plenty of homosexual critics have analyzed otherwise so I'm not sure. Maybe the film IS offensive. The film has two clear comedic parts that have emphasis on how the film views the underground world.
The first is when Burns makes an attempt to learn the code used by rent boys in gay bars. He asks the salesman (a cameo by Powers Boothe) about them, and learns just the multitude of sex acts people are looking to do in those kinds of bars. If he had paid any attention to the salesman's speech, he would've gotten that yellow scarf in a back pocket means you're into water sports. But he goes to a bar wearing such a napkin, and understandably gets into a fight with a golden shower enthusiast.
This is Pacino as Burns still attempting to make the underground scene work for him, more than other ways. He figures any scarf will get him close enough to speak with bar prowlers and doesn't realize that the hanky itself is more or less a promise in these parts. There's no courting period. Or maybe he would secretly like to pee on gay people, or to just watch such an act happening and just can't manage to come to terms with this sudden urge. I wouldn't rule out that possibility, either.
The method actor Pacino always plays the best loose cops, since in interrogation scenes he often relies in surprising and confusing his opponent. Rather oddly, here his tactic seems to have a bulky black police come by dressed only in a thong and a cowboy hat to slap both him and the suspects around. This part takes the suspect, as well as the viewer of the movie, completely off-guard. Friedkin does have Burns's trait of not being afraid at any point of anything, not even making himself completely ridiculous. Yet at the same time, although it shouldn't this over-the-top comedy scene totally works.
"WHO THE HELL IS THAT GUY!?"
During the time of its release, gay rights activists publicly panned the film and protested its release. This forced the studio to put a disclaimer in front of the film that announces that the leather bars are only a small portion of the gay culture and not all homosexuals are into S&M and rent boys. Still, the film's reputation to this day is of a homophobic relic, even if it's not entirely the case.
Critics panned the film widely and it was even nominated in the first annual Razzie awards for worst pictures. Friedkin was also nominated as the Worst Director, but so were Brian De Palma for Dressed to Kill and even Stanley Kubrick for The Shining. More than 30 years of hindsight really reveal what a sham those awards also are, even if luckily none of the prestigious nominees won.
Thanks in part for the controversy leg-up, the film was a modest success at the box office. However, it was by no means as big a hit as the studio expected from director of The Exorcist and The French Connection. One should also remember Friedkin came from the expensive flop of Sorcerer and was quickly fading into obscurity. For most of the 80's and 90's he would struggle for work. But when he did manage to fim a movie, it was always at least interesting. After all, also his biggest masterpiece, To Live And Die In L.A. was yet to come.