Cruising, William Friedkinís 1980 exploitation thriller about a serial killer stalking the leather bars and sex clubs of New York, is being revived in a newly struck 35mm print at the Roxie Cinema starting May 12 and continuing through the 18th. And no, itís not being advertised as exemplifying Hollywood at its most virulently homophobic. Rather the Roxie management has chosen to hail it as a film "conceived and born of a time too timid . . ." etc., see above.
Back in 1979 when Cruising went into production, hundreds of supposedly "timid" gays and lesbians erupted in widespread protests against its making. Will there be even so much as a peep out of their successors today? Donít bet on it. After decades of struggle, the gay and lesbian movement is stagnant -- and for all intents and purposes -- powerless. To judge from Out or The Advocate, the "coming out" of formerly closeted billionaires David Geffen and Sandy Gallin is more important that grass roots activists fighting the anti-gay initiatives of the radical right.
Add to that the fact that neo-conservatives have successfully hijacked the first amendment; using it as a club to silence progressive voices by labeling them either "politically correct" killjoys or (when that wonít work) "thought police" comparable to (you guessed it) the Nazis. Protest Cruising? Hell, people lining up around the block to buy tickets is more likely.
An entire era has passed since Cruising first appeared, and a new generation of gays and lesbians has come along. Many of them revel in turning up their noses at protests past. Growing up with AIDS as an everyday fact of life, theyíve also developed a queasily prurient interest in the "before time" -- associating it with unfettered personal freedom, and the alleged bliss of condom-free sex. Reviving Cruising for such ready-made consumers is consequently one honey of a "niche" marketing ploy. The filmís new "target" audience is too young to remember the activists of yore. And besides, all that marching and screaming is just so "five minutes ago," isnít it? But then itís always easy to return to the scene of the crime once you know that most of the witnesses are dead.
"I thought it was so accurate," gushes self-styled queer punk filmmaker Bruce LaBruce (Super 8 1/2) of Friedkinís film in a recent issue of Planet Homo -- striking the proper "badboy" pose. But as anyone who actually hung out in the West Village in the allegedly freewheeling 70ís knows, Cruising is about as "accurate" as Mondo Cane.
Based on the 1970 novel by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, the filmís plot is exceedingly slim. A straight cop (Al Pacino) is assigned by his superior (Paul Sorvino) to go undercover and investigate a series of grisly unsolved murders of gay men (the opening shot features a severed limb floating in New York Harbor). Fairly early in the film a suspect (Richard Cox) emerges, complete with a motive -- an overbearing father who couldnít face the truth about his sonís sexuality. But no sooner has this been established than things get murky. Hints are dropped that more than one killer may be involved. Cops initially introduced as straight start showing up in gay bars. And as the film lurches towards its finale, weíre given reason to believe that the hero -- about whom we know no more than the fact that he has a girlfriend (Karen Allen) -- may indeed be the killer.
Preposterous premiseFor anyone familiar with the history of New Yorkís West Village, Cruisingís premise is simply preposterous. Thanks to a series of laws introduced in the post World War II period under mayor Wagnerís administration, bars that catered to "sexual degenerates" were subject to fines and closure. As a result, the Mafia took them over. When the police threatened to close a bar, the mob paid them off. When payments werenít forthcoming, bars were raided. On one such raid in June of 1969, the patrons revolted. And so the "Stonewall" rebellion, credited with giving birth to the modern gay/lesbian rights movement, was born. For Cruising to assert that a West Village cop needed to go "undercover" to find out what was going on in West Village gay bars is ludicrous in the extreme. They knew perfectly well. They simply didnít care. Serial murders of gay men in the West Village were ignored until the early 1970ís, when gay activists began complaining to authorities. And even then action was minimal. The murder sprees of the 60ís (which inspired the novel) and the 70ís (which inspired the film) remain unsolved to this day.
But Friedkinís film is no more interested in historical truth than it is in the whys and wherefores of murder mystery storytelling. You donít have to get much past the first reel to see that. Cruising is nothing more than an exercise in slumming designed for straights anxious to know what "they" do in "their" after-hours leather bars and sex clubs. While thereís no mistaking the fact that Friedkinís army of extras didnít need anyone to yell "action" to get the orgy scenes started, the wily auteur makes sure to keep explicit doings just out of camera range to get an R rating. Aping the quick-cut editing style of Nicholas Roeg (Performance, Donít Look Now) Friedkin serves up a 102-minute peep show filled with more leering facial close-ups and sinister shadows than Freaks, White Zombie and Island of Lost Souls put together. But those 30ís era horror classics show infinitely more compassion towards their subjects than this quasi-"snuff" extravaganza, where murder is seen as the truest expression of gay sex. Donít expect a watch-cry of "Are we not men?" from Friedkinís grunting groping faceless mob. This is a horror film. And we are the monster.
On July 16, 1979, just before principal shooting began, columnist/activist Arthur Bell wrote in The Village Voice that Cruising "will negate years of positive moment work and may well send gays running back into the closets and precipitate heavy violence. . .I implore readers. . .to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhood."
He then went on to mention several Village locations Friedkin planned to use, with the clear suggestion that protests be staged there. To be sure, Bell wasnít operating entirely out of a sense of civic duty. He was a columnist with a readership to please and an axe to grind -- his book on the murder of a gay Boston upper-cruster, Kings Donít Mean a Thing, had been given a pass by Hollywood. But he was perfectly justified in questioning Friedkinís plans for Cruising. Dan White was still fresh in peopleís minds, and a new spate of serial killings was in progress in the West Village as production got under way.
The situation wasnít helped by the fact that while refusing to meet with the groups planning to protest, Friedkin found time for a tete-a-tet with Paul Bateson, an Exorcist bit player imprisoned for the murder of gay Variety film critic Addison Verrill.
No such thing as bad publicityWhile The French Connection and The Exorcist had made him an A-list auteur in the early 70ís, as that decade drew to a close flops like Sorcerer and The Brinks Job had left Friedkin hankering for a hit. Cruising, considered a hot property in Hollywood for many years (Paul Morrissey had even though of fashioning it as a vehicle for Joe Dallesandro) seemed the way to go. While Friedkinís 1970 adaptation of The Boys in the Band had pleased few, some in the gay community were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he made the point of announcing that he would pen the script himself to create a film quite different from Walkerís novel -- a homophobic hatchet job filled with self-loathing closet queens railing against the men that "turned" them into homosexuals. But as insiders quickly learned, Freidkin was planning something not so different from Walkerís book after all. In fact, rumor had it, Friedkin was think of ending the film with a scene in which the hero massacres a crowd of gay men.
Street protests took place whenever Cruisingís crew came to the West Village. Columns pro and con filled the papers on a daily basis. The filmís producer Jerry Weintraub was delighted by it all. This was the sort of publicity money couldnít buy. United Artists, on the other hand, went into high dudgeon, releasing a statement declaring that the company "has pursued a standard of excellence since 1929."
Many gays and lesbians felt ambivalent about the protest. Leatherfolk felt activists were demonizing them as bad for the image of gay liberation. Others had free speech complaints. But the heart of the anti-Cruising movement had less to do with any particular "image" than with who was creating it and why. Hollywood had the money and power to make and distribute whatever film they wanted. Out gays and lesbians did not. Consequently whining about the first amendment rights of William Friedkin, Jerry Weintraub and United Artists was beside the point. As Ronald Gold, head of the Gay Task Force leading the Cruising opposition noted: "We always find ourselves in the position of having to play civil libertarians to a bunch of bigots who want their constitutional right to express their hatred of us."
When Cruising was finally released in September of 1980, however, nearly everyone found themselves in agreement on one simple fact -- it was a lousy movie. It didnít have the massacre finale that some had feared, but it lacked suspense and the acting was terrible. Gays didnít need Friedkin to tell them about leather bars. Straights stayed away in droves. Opening to uniformly negative reviews, Cruising did five days of good business and then died a fast box-office death. "We gave it the best shot we could," one studio executive -- requesting anonymity -- told a reporter at the time. "The material just wasnít there." And that would have been that, if the filmís decade-and-a-half-long absence, coupled with a shift in the sexual and political climate, hadnít created the impression in the minds of the young and uninformed that there was something of value in this grotesque travesty.
"Iím quite willing to sit down with responsible members of the gay community and have them tell me just how a film like mine is going to provoke more violence against gays," Friedkin told gay activist and film scholar Vito Russo in a New York magazine interview he gave during the filmís shooting.
Two months after Cruisingís release a man armed with a sub-machine gun opened fire on patrons of the Ramrod -- a bar prominently featured in the film -- killing two and wounding twelve.
Friedkin had no comment.
Copyright © David Ehrenstein, 1995.
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