Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Friday, December 11, 2009

CRUISING Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

This is a film that has been obscured by controversy. A cause celeb when released in 1980, the film was rarely discussed on its own terms. Looking at it now, almost 30 years later, it boggles the mind how a film like Cruising could even get made especially with the backing of a major studio and starring one of the '70s biggest stars. It's about as dark a depiction of mankind as any you will ever see.

New York City circa 1980 as presented by director William Friedkin is completely sick. At it's best it is cruel and corrupt. At its worst, deviant and deranged. No matter how much anyone complains of the modern anti-septic NYC with its commercialized Times Square(aka "Mickey's Asshole"), it is an improvement over the conditions seen in this movie. Perhaps the city was more inviting in real life, but as seen through Friedkin's scum smeared lens, the NYC of CRUISING is a nightmare world, a contemporary Sodom or Gomorra where the cops Protect and Serve themselves amid an orgy of sex, drugs and murder.

Al Pacino plays a straight cop named Steve Burns who is sent into the pre-AIDS gay "underworld" of New York's leather bars and sex clubs to act as bait for a Jack the Ripper-like murderer preying on gay men. It seems that all of the victims resemble his physical type. Which must mean that they all had nice perms.

Burns lives with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen) whom he keeps in the dark while he goes out at night and literally "cruises" the club scene. Burns is the classic voyeur, window shopping without buying. This is one of the central tensions of the film-will he or won't he? Friedkin keeps us in the dark-setting up tantalizing situations and focusing on Burns' enigmatic reactions to very blunt sexual advances before fading the scenes to black. The film unfolds in an elliptical, suggestive manner that keeps the narrative ambiguous. In fact, everything that happens in the film remains ambiguous throughout. There may be more than one killer, he may be gay or homophobic or both, Burns may have engaged in homosexual sex-or not, and finally, Burns may have committed a murder.Or not.

Friedkin makes no attempt to clear these matters up. Indeed the film is meant to be as blurry as possible. Even our ostensible protagonist-Steve Burns-is a mystery. Ambition is one thing, but a promotion in the NYPD is just not worth being sodomized in a hotel room.

At the very least, Burns seems "Bi-Curious" throughout and personally disturbed by it. His heterosexual relationship with Nancy is strained as much by his secretive work as his sexual confusion. The film's one heterosexual lovemaking scene depicts Burns violently "making love" to Nancy as though he had something to prove.

Even stranger is the film's odd shifting of POV. It begins as an omniscient narrative chronicling the activities of the killer, his victims, and the police. It then shifts into a more conventional single protagonist structure. Specifically it makes use of the "undercover cop" subgenre of crime films which hinge upon the cop identifying with his prey to the point of becoming a doppelganger to him. Burns stares into a lot of mirrors in the film, gazing at himself gazing back. But slowly, and slyly, Friedkin pulls away from him. This is a masterstroke. Burns becomes enigmatic-and even sinister in the final third of the film. He is seen as a stalker from the POV of the most likely suspect who suddenly becomes the focal character. This final shift pulls the rug out from under the viewer's feet. Burns may have been mysterious but this guy is clearly deranged, hallucinating conversations with his dead father. From this point on, we don't identify with anyone since our identification figure-Burns-has been removed. But the feeling isn't the same as it was when Janet Leigh was murdered in Psycho for example. In that film, the original protagonist was murdered not transformed. Here, Burns remains onscreen and yet he seems inexplicable. We are as uncertain about him as we are about the killer. Friedkin uses the soundtrack subliminally to keep the audience in a state of uncertainty. Music and sounds from Burns' experiences in the clubs start to bleed into his life during the day, often under other music and sounds creating a very avant garde aural collision. This feeling of uncertainty builds throughout culminating with a tense confrontation in a well lit but very threatening Central Park. At this point we are not sure about anything. By the time the end credits roll, you'll feel as though you missed something-a shapeshifting story that remains tantalizingly out of reach.

Much of the criticism of Cruising has centered on it's supposedly negative portrayal of homosexuality. The scenes in the sex clubs present open drug use, sexual promiscuity and acts such as "fisting" which are not often seen on the classical silver screen. At least not the one of Tracy and Hepburn or Astaire and Rogers. But since Friedkin is so ambiguous, the film could be saying anything. An argument could be made ( as it has been made) that it endorses the idea that homosexuality leads to psychosis and murder but one could also be made that it presents the NYPD as Nazis. Several scenes show the police using violent interrogation techniques that go way beyond water-boarding-including the positively surreal image of a large black officer wearing nothing but a cowboy hat, boots and underwear and who is brought in to pound on suspects.

Part of the problem lies in Friedkin's approach to filmmaking. He is unique among his contemporaries for exhibiting an almost complete lack of humanity in his work. Even De Palma at his most mechanical seems to care for his characters. Friedkin makes the kind of films that a pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers might make given the chance. But this is not really a liability. It remains the reason why a film like The Exorcist is still frightening. There is something in the blankness of the author's voice that makes Friedkin's films positively chilly experiences. Cruising is a kind of apotheosis in this direction. It takes all the experimentation with form that the director was toying with in earlier films and uses them all for a single goal: the creation of an almost blank narrative where anything is possible and all things could be inferred. Cruising remains fascinating because it doesn't just ask but rather demands that the viewer fill in the blanks themselves. It is the complete opposite of the goal of most Hollywood films: the creation of as much synthesis as possible and expressions of mass emotion. Cruising intends only to get a reaction out of its audience. What that reaction is says as much about Cruising as it does about you.

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