5 Stinky Thoughts on Cruising

StinkyLulu offers the following "5 Stinky Thoughts on..." as my contribution to the Trashy Movie Celebration Blog-a-thon instigated by The Bleeding Tree:

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Thought #1: Bad Cruising, bad!
Cruising (1980) still seems to hold the power to hurt people's feelings. The film, which -- arguably -- doomed William Friedkin's career is mostly acknowledged today as the really bad movie around which a then little-known underground film critic named Vito Russo organized a set of protests (forerunner to the Basic Instinct protests of the early 90s) that instigated a generation's interest in queer cinematic representation. Indeed, along with CBS's 1967 "documentary" The Homosexuals and BI, Cruising's nearly the ür-text of modern queer media activism. Nevertheless, Cruising's got a veritable smorgasboard of queer delights: a deliriously confused "whodunnit" narrative; Pacino in all his 70s studness; gay predator/s feasting on gay victim/s; a psychoanalytic explanation of the killer's motives that's the stuff of ex-gay therapeutic fantasy; howler dialogue ("Hips or lips?"); lurid, forbidding, hypersexualized homo imagery; a great period soundtrack; even a minor-celebrity-cameo fisting scene. All told, the movie's just a big hot gay mess of macho homo panic. And, golly, if StinkyLulu doesn't just lurv it... Every filthy bit of it.

Thought #2: Passing As Gay
Cruising's narrative depends upon a simple fact of gay ghetto subculture: not so much that gay is good, but more that -- at least here -- gay is the norm. Further, gay macho imagery runs as electric current throughout Cruising, upending conventional banalities about gay effeminacy every stomp of the way. This makes for a still enthralling scenario at the center of the film's narrative conceit: in order for Pacino's character to "pass" as gay, he must not only become a closeted heterosexual but he must also amplify his performance of his own masculinity. Pacino's Burns -- the tough guy straight cop in real life -- often fails in his attempts to pass as macho, as tough, as manly enough to be believably gay. In a particularly evocative scene, almost precious in its simplicity, Pacino's Detective Burns is refused entry to a club on "precinct" night because he doesn't look enough like a cop. And then there's the sequence when Pacino's Burns worries he's not attractive enough...

Thought #3: Feelin' The Disco Freedom
With little doubt, StinkyLulu's most very favorite scene in Cruising is at a key beat in Pacino's characterization of Steve Burns. Pacino's Burns hasn't been able to find his gay groove, which is getting in the way of his truly going undercover. His attempts to flirt are dumb and clumsy. He peeves one guy as he's ignored by another. He slowly begins to realize he's being outmanned by these homos. They're taller. They're more muscular. They're hotter. They're not all that into little Pacino/Steve. Then one guy asks Pacino's Burns to dance, and Pacino allows himself to be led to the dance floor. And then it's a lyric from a Sandra Bernhard monologue: "Then the guy pulls out a little bottle and shoves it underneath your nose. They're poppers - you've never smelled them before and you're starting to get kind of nervous and dizzy and sexy and hot and sweaty and into the rhythm and you walk out to the dance floor but inside your head it keeps echoing "But I'm straight! I'm straight, man! I'm straight!"" And with a straight/white guy arm jagging set of moves, Pacino/Steve Burns all-of-a-sudden finds his gay groove while feelin' the disco freedom and he joins the tribe cruising the gay ghetto. It's an almost radical depiction of the fluidity of sexual identity. Plus it's just a hoot.

Thought #4: The Men of Cruising
As many things as Cruising gets wrong (those tranny prostitutes are just beyond even genderf*ck plausibility), the flick's got some footage in it that's almost an ethnographic portrait of urban gay sex in the 70s, more frank than anything this side of a Joe Gage or Christopher Rage film. Friedkin's team used real leather bars/clubs as locations, paying selected clientele to hang out and be extras. The extra gig rated $50 a day ($125 in 2007 dollars) -- more if they appeared nude, semi-nude or while "simulating" sexual acts -- plus free poppers and (if the rumors were/are to be believed) a free flow of drugs and booze. Indeed, being cast as one of the "Men of Cruising" became a choice day job for those living in the gay sexual underground. And for others, like those interviewed in an extraordinary article in the February 1980 issue of Mandate, appearing as extras in Cruising represented an opportunity to be out, proud and sexually free -- "to represent" their "lifestyle" to a mainstream audience. The crowd scenes in Cruising are a thrilling, tawdry and vivid portrait of a sexual subculture at a particularly sophisticated yet innocent historical moment, now long gone...

Thought #5: A Brilliant Homo-Panic Passion Play.
At its most basic, Cruising's not so much a murder-mystery as it is a brilliant homo-panic passion play. Here's a careerist macho cop who, slugging for a promotion, agrees to an assignment that requires him to take a huge swan dive into the gay leather scene. And the question of whether or not Al Pacino's character becomes "tainted" by his full-body immersion into gayness emerges as a bigger deal than "who's the killer?" By most reports, the orignal screenplay scripted a sexual identity crisis for Steve Burns, a character arc that Pacino sought to deemphasize. The final screenplay obscures this through sheer incoherence. But, in the film's final resolution, Friedkin reintroduces the idea that Pacino's Burns might just have "gone native" in a particularly appalling way when Steve's fiancée unearths some leather accessories from his closet just as Friedkin cuts to a gruesome crime scene, wherein Steve's only gay friend is found brutally murdered. In this moment, the film opens a question: did Steve go over to the "other" side? Did he become gay? Did he become the killer? This notion of the "taint of gayness" -- that a mere brush with male homosexual behavior threatens to "turn" male heterosexuals gay OR instigates an instinctual panic justifying murder of the tainting homo -- evokes the most vicious, essentialist, homophobic rantings and ravings. This entrenched American sensibility operates as the heterosexist corollary to the racist "one drop" rule, and Cruising's spectacular cinematic incoherence stands as perhaps its most effective portrait...

So, lovely reader, do you have any Cruising thoughts? Do tell...
And be sure to check out the action at the Trashy Movie Celebration!



I've never seen this (avoided due to its piece in Celluloid Closet but this was really interesting to read. thanks

Neil said...

Thank you for sharing this. I thought this was a fascinating perspective on this movie, which I've been meaning to revisit anyway... although I hear tell there's a director's cut making its way onto DVD in our near future, so I may hold off for that.