on October 8, 2007
Back in 1980, this William Friedkin shocker caused such a controversy that it seemed that everyone condemned it. The gay community was in an uproar over "Cruising"'s frank display of male sexuality and what amounted for many to be the generalization of a "lurid" gay lifestyle depicted in the film. The religous community followed with their own uproar over many of the same issues (albeit for different reasons). The movie was further slammed by critics and audiences alike, who either found the film to be homphobic, dull, nasty, and/or overly sensational. Personally, I think that critics, in particular, were disappointed because they found "Cruising" to be a major step down from William Friedkin's previous hits ("The Exorcist" and "The French Connection"). However, after viewing the recently released DVD of the deluxe edition, I have to say that "Cruising" is not nearly as bad as it's reputation might suggest. First of all, as a gay man who was recently out and about in 1980, I don't think that the gay culture of the time is misrepresented here. Friedkin made the film shortly before the spectre of AIDS descended upon the community, and there was a wide open, hedonistic sexuality that seemed to be prevalent in every aspect of gay life. The homosexuality depicted in "Cruising" was in context with the reality of the times, regardless of what revisionists may proclaim. I remember being very disturbed, at the time, by the hypocrisy of gay leaders who wanted to deny the overt sexuality that was a fact of our existence.
Second of all, I don't find "Cruising" to be a dull film. While I don't find it to be erotic, or exciting in the tradition of other detective films of the time--there are no car chases ala "The French Connection"--I do think that it is an effective psychological thriller detailing one man's very dark journey into unknown territory, encompassing both his environment and his very heart and soul. Al Pacino is surprisingly good as Steve Burns, a plucky, green young cop selected by his superior officer (Paul Sorvino) to go undercover and track down a serial killer of gay men frequenting S&M clubs, parks, and sex shops. After his performances in the Godfather films, "Dog Day Afternoon", and "Serpico", among others, it's interesting to note that Pacino was able to bring the depth of believable naivete to his character; it makes the character's transformation all the more shocking. Paul Sorvino also delivers a first-rate performance as Pacino's boss, a longtime cop who always seems to be withholding something (information, concern, money). A pre-"Indiana Jones" Karen Allen is also on hand as Pacino's girlfriend, although her scene of primary impact is reserved for the final seconds of the film.
The quality of the deluxe edition is pristine, with the gorgeously restored cinematography suggesting that the film is of more recent vintage than 1980. Yet, the clothes, hairstyles, scenes of New York street life--all suggest a New York of another time, not so long ago, yet long gone, in so many ways.
I don't have any major problems with "Cruising", certainly not the ambiguous ending nor the fact that not all the loose ends are neatly tied up for the viewer. I actually prefer it that way, and it makes for a more interesting experience that is open to interpretation. And it's interesting that about half the people on the screen actually look like Pacino and there are scenes where you think that you're watching Pacino, only to discover that it's somebody else. And vice versa. And sometimes you're never 100% certain who you're watching. I think it's an interesting idea because it forces the viewer to come to his own conclusions, it doesn't offer easy answers. The same goes for the film's suggestion that there may be multiple killers--again, the viewer is forced (like the police at the end of the film) to draw his or her own conclusions. "Cruising" is, in may ways, a demanding film with characters that many may find disagreeable or downright unlikeable. I like "Cruising" because it does make you think and because it offers no apologies, no easy way out.