Cult movie time: ‘Cruising’

My Saturday evening was sensible. I arrived home early, with noble intentions of going to bed, to prepare myself for a productive rehearsal today. Then I opened Youtube. One of the ‘recommended’ clips for me was the 1980 film ‘Cruising’.

I saw this several years ago in Amsterdam. Therefore my recollection of the film was slightly hazy. I clicked on the link.

This was an enormously controversial film upon its release, and it seems to be largely forgotten today. Directed by William Friedkin (of ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The boys in the band’¬† fame) it is set in New York in the late 1970s. A serial killer is on the loose, in the underworld of the gay leather scene. The murder victims are piling up. Al Pacino plays a straight cop, who goes undercover into this subculture, to catch the killer, and gets to play dress up while he does.

That’s the basic plot. The controversy at the time (gay groups protested the film on its release, and tried to disrupt its location filming) stemmed from the fact that – despite the film’s disclaimer – the film focused entirely on a more extreme subset of gay life. Filmed in the bars in New York, in the days right before the AIDS crisis, it portrayed the gay world as violent, dangerous, sleazy and murderous. The rampant promiscuity, drug abuse and violence shown, are what seemed to define the community, according to this film.

I can understand the criticism. At a time when gay people were finally organising, and fighting for acceptance and rights, it seemed unacceptable that one of the few films made about gay life was so sleazy and exploitative.

On the other hand, it was simply telling a story. Certain stories might not be to everyone’s tastes, but in my view, that’s not reason enough to censor them.

More controversial to me was the insinuation that after several months in the dark underbelly of the SM gay community, Al Pacino might have ‘caught the gay’. Even worse, being immersed in such a world might turn him into a serial killer too.

This was 1980 though. I wouldn’t ascribe homophobia to Friedkin. Ten years earlier he had directed ‘The boys in the band’ – a film about a gay dinner party among closeted New York queens. That film was one of the first to portray gay life as something other than solely tragic and pathetic. The characters may have been self-loathing, but they supported each other. Even more unusual none of them ended up dead.

I think in his own clumsy way Friedkin was just trying to tell a story with ‘Cruising’. I don’t think he was being bigoted or trying to be offensive.

I enjoyed the film. It is dark, but very atmospheric and creepy. Pacino gives a good performance (even though he was too old – even at the time – to play the part). I can’t imagine too many mainstream Hollywood actors wanted such a film on their CV. I suspect if a director like Pasolini had made a similar film, the outrage would have been a lot more muted, as it would have been viewed as ‘art’.

This film would not get made today – it is too gruesome, horrible and seedy. It is a film about, and of, its time.

It’s not for the squeamish, the faint of heart, or for those people who are prone to the vapours. With those warnings in place, I’d recommend it.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s