Thursday, April 13, 2017

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT — Life in Tokyo

What at first glance may seem like nothing but a series of loud and brash car-racing action flicks, the Fast and the Furious series is in truth a little unparalleled in modern film history. Over the course of seven different movies the franchise has successfully reinvented itself- starting out as a fairly small-scale street racing franchise and slowly transforming into a series of action blockbusters played out on a gigantic scale, continually daring themselves to get bigger and bigger. This reinvention was a process, one led by the combination of the star power of Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, but what really makes the franchise stand out is its treatment of its central characters as an ethnically diverse “family” unit, a team made up of people serving different narrative purposes and functions, a group who love and care for each other like siblings. While Fast Five was the film which set the standard for the action franchise it has become, the third film, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, acts as the pinnacle of what a modern street-racing movie can be. Serving as a formal, stylistic, and thematic reinvigoration of the overall series, while also paying homage to the themes set up by the previous two pictures,Tokyo Drift pointed the series in the direction it eventually went down.

For the film, the producers chose Asian-American director Justin Lin, who had previously only directed one film, 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, about a group of Asian-American high school seniors who begin dipping into criminal activities. Where the first Fast entry was a Point Break-esque narrative with street racing and the second was a Miami-set buddy cop movie, Tokyo Drift is centered upon high school student Sean, played by Lucas Black. From the opening credits, Lin drops the viewer into a highly-stylized world full of color and movement, one in which street racing isn’t just a pastime, but a way of life. Colliding with a group of football players, their vibrant purple and yellow letterman jackets popping off the screen, Sean challenges Clay, a jock, to a street race. This is where Lin’s aesthetic shines through- taking place at a housing development, the bright colors of the cars zoom across the screen as the camera moves both adjacent to and against the movement, all the while Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” functions as the soundtrack. Eventually, after much destruction, both cars end up crashing, and Sean is sent to Tokyo to avoid facing criminal charges.

With Tokyo Drift, Justin Lin merges the high school criminal world setting of Better Luck Tomorrow with the street racing of the previous two Fast and the Furious entries. Entering into a high school in Tokyo, Sean is introduced by military brat Twinkie to Tokyo car racing, an underground world populated by young drivers. His first night, Sean races D.K., the “drift king”, in an act of arrogance, totaling driver Han Lue’s car and landing himself in even bigger trouble. Owing him money, Sean is taken under Han’s wing, and Han teaches him the art of “drifting”, a specific way of driving popular on twisting mountain ranges and in parking garages. Here, drifting is portrayed not just as a form of street racing but as an art unto itself. It’s something which must be studied carefully, practiced, and mastered. Lin heavily stylizes the act, the swift movement of the car romanticized through color and light. In one scene, one of the more gorgeous moments of the franchise, Sean’s romantic interest Neela takes him out drifting in the rural Japanese mountains. Throughout the whole scene, the color is deep blue, and the soundtrack is ethereal as the couple soar and twist their way through the winding roads. Tokyo Drift is the Fast entry with the single most car racing, as its sequels moved more towards action-oriented storytelling; good, then, that it works so well here, as the racing is constantly and consistently formally inventive and stylized.


Narratively, Lin’s decision to set the film within a high school allows for him to subvert certain previously-established narrative roles. The characters aren’t fully-grown adults but rather kids playing around within an adult world. D.K.’s uncle may be Yakuza, but D.K. is just a volatile and insecure young driver. Neela, the romantic interest, a girl without a family, is caught-up within the criminal world, but at the same time she’s a high school student in the center of a love triangle. Sean is positioned as the hero but is still just a kid escaping legal trouble by living with his father, whom he has a strained relationship with. The franchise’s addition of Han Leu, too, is one of its smartest- Han is effortlessly cool, philosophical, and in control. He doesn’t drift unless he has a specific reason to, and no petty rivalry is enough to convince him. Han is a character with a history, he’s come to Tokyo to escape his past, and to Han Tokyo represents the quasi-Wild West of the modern world; a place of lawless freedom, and unlimited profit.


Lin’s playing around with character and heightening of the intimacy and style of drifting is matched by his technical, formal proficiency. During the day, Tokyo is stripped of bright colors, save for the bright, flashy yellow, green, and orange paint of the sports cars. At night, however, Tokyo is turned into a living, breathing, romantic car-racing utopia, an urban underworld of neon-lit signs and fluorescent light bulbs. The film has a distinctly 2000’s feel throughout, with its camera movements and soundtrack featuring Kid Rock and the Teriyaki Boyz. Unlike any of the other films, the action is limited- where the other films would feature gunfights or action setpieces this film has street races and montages. Tokyo Drift’s most stunning sequence involves a car race through downtown Tokyo at night; D.K. chasing down Han as Sean attempts to catch up to them. Lin strips away the soundtrack for a single shot of the car widely drifting through a dense crowd in a brightly-lit square. It's peak action filmmaking, the camera staying stationary for the shot and then immediately cutting, moving with the action, bringing the viewer deeper into the scene. In this way, <I>Tokyo Drift</I> is the franchise’s answer to the auteur theory- strip away the well-known characters, heighten the accent of the main character, incorporate a diverse, interesting cast, and stylize the racing scenes- all the while placing the narrative within a setting the director is known for and comfortable with. Justin Lin’s ability to take what was a fairly lackluster franchise and reinvigorate it, making it all his own, is a stunning accomplishment.



"I wonder if you know, how they live in Tokyo."






Monday, April 3, 2017

GHOST IN THE SHELL: "A Puppet Without A Ghost"

“Don’t send a rabbit to kill a fox.”


My adoration for the first installment of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell knows few bounds. From my initial watch I was mesmerized at its ability to tell a narrative so efficiently in 80 minutes while pulling us into its digital world with such ease and charisma. Its CGI-laden sequel Innocence, while similarly commanding if as profoundly confounding doesn’t quite reach the heights set forth by the original. However with each viewing of these films they continue to perplex and astound in the amount of layers discovered within their labyrinth visual panoramas and the philosophical ramblings of artificial existentialism and the instinctive power of memory. They increasingly grow in their socio-political relevance and personal emotional value with each passing year.

What I find to be modern masterpieces in science fiction storytelling has now been adapted, reworked, and remixed into a Western amalgamation of an Asian property. Suited and contained to appeal to American audiences, much of what makes the original films significant and massively important works of art has either been downgraded or simplified to be easily consumable. This does not have to be a bad thing, though. Sometimes the hollowness of the visuals is what makes the craft function and in turn connects us to our protagonists better through the interactions of their environment. Sanders plays with the artificiality of imagery throughout the film, speaking through broken glass and reflections to convey a haunting grief, holograms the size of skyscrapers to communicate the dependency on product to enhance our bodies and minds, and human bodies built of ones and zeroes relaying information about the plot.

Scarlett Johansson, the subject of much controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell, is one of the more fascinating aspects about the film. Mechanically designed and executed, her performance continues to surprise me in ways I did not imagine walking out. With time the intricacies in her mannerisms are what really stick. What at first feels trite is now profound. The boorish way she struts out of a room may seem childish and forced in one point but now is the character’s way of assimilating herself in a human society that progressively finds itself not necessarily human, but consistently seeking to become that. Or at least regain what it once was to be human in a body that is artificial and sterilized from stimuli. Every gesture is rendered calculated and forced by nature. Johansson may seem out of place in a role like this, but by film’s end I couldn’t see anybody but her nailing it. Granted, while some of the catharsis of its final moments could have been enhanced and redefined with an Asian actress, it nonetheless remains striking under the hand of Johansson.

While the original films handled more weighty political themes, this adaptation zeroes in on the more psychological and emotional aspects of the story with the anti-capitalist ideas remaining in the background, acting as visual motifs and presences to be wary of. What we do have is a mystery thriller that tackles the insecurity of losing your identity in a multi-cultural landscape neglecting the singularity of heritage for the sake of achieving total commercialist exposure. The film plays out like a heart-rendering tug and pull about a rugged android equipped with a human brain understanding its own place in a universe on the brink of complete anatomical anonymity. Surrounding this is external corruption as Major uncovers a conspiracy revealing that her creators are certainly not who they seem or say they are. Her relationships to her surrogate mother Dr. Ouelet played beautifully by Juliette Binoche, close friend Batou, and the chief officer played by legend Takeshi Kitano are all tested as these revelations come to light. Some developments are heartbreaking, others violent; but it all reaches a shattering climax of self-discovery. An announcing of legacy and a passing of a former flesh. The oppressed become internally liberated and immortalized as martyrs in a society where nobody is who is they once were in one way or another.

The flawed beauty in Ghost in the Shell is that it truly is a gorgeously realized vision. Certainly one that was conceptualized heavily before production with an eye for the controversy that would befall it. Some of it may be warranted but I'm not judging over what could have been but rather what I have in front of me. What I see is a future misunderstood gem that will gain fans with time. Mesmerizing in some portions and confounding in others but always interesting to pick apart. Sanders' painstaking visuals and cues here contain some of most vivid depictions of artificiality in dystopic settings I have seen in a Hollywood blockbuster. If that doesn't do the trick then Clint Mansell's soundtrack does a solid job of bringing us in with Major and her plight. What is lacking in its slower, suitably methodical pacing and action sequences is found in the quietly sincere moments where I feel fully fastened into the abrasive atmosphere and tone Sanders goes for. It's as if the film wants you to take a deep breath in when Major jumps from the neon-lit skyscraper in the opening act and exhale when the film's closing embrace overtakes the screen in cathartic ecstasy.

Friday, March 17, 2017

5 Great Directors Who Could Totally Pull Off a Matrix Reboot

Ah yes, the 1999 classic film so obviously about queer identity and culture that eventually was co-opted by edgy libertarians and soon after the misogynistic alt-right. You're quite familiar with The Matrix and so are we. The tale of liberating oneself from the constraints of the artifice laid in front of us. It was considered the current generation's They Live in many respects, but it seems that as 1999 creeps away into the recesses of our memory, the twentieth anniversary of this cinematic masterpiece upcoming, it is perhaps time to find another sci-punk blockbuster to encapsulate our contemporary fears. We could, of course, pour money into a new franchise or even just one-off to become the next genre classic, but how can we count on that in the age of pre-existing characters and plotlines topping the box office in unwatchable schlock? What we need is an MCU imported director to really do the nuanced and unbelievably intricate world of The Matrix justice. There's a lot of canon to consider, carefully curated and written by two fantastic artists so we must be cautious in transposing it to our current times.

The question then arises: who could possibly take on this Herculean task? Who could create our generations punk masterpiece with the same level of crazy formalism and pop philosophy? We at BLACK CIRCLE have found five such masters of form who we believe could take on the task.

1. The Wachowski Sisters

Two of Warner Bros. craziest long-stayers, the Wachowski Sisters have spent the last twenty years making some of the finest science-fiction and action films we've seen. From the candy-colored, furiously fast Speed Racer to the tense-as-fuck neo-noir Bound to the revisionist YA saga-starter Jupiter Ascending, no one can say something like The Matrix is out of their range. There's been speculation on whether or not the Wachowskis can handle a property like The Matrix and it seems that perhaps the studio feels the same way. Is there any evidence that they could pull it off? Are there, perhaps, three currently existing films with their name on them in the Matrix saga? Would these films happen to be some of the most lasting trilogies in cinematic history? Would what they brought to this property still hold up and be heavily quoted, referenced, and even parodied today? No one can say for sure. 

2. Lilly Wachowski

A long-time director for Warner Brothers, Lilly Wachowski helped bring-to-life the newly emerged cult classic Speed Racer, whose following is as dedicated as one can get for a revisionist anime adaptation. If that's enough, another film she worked on, Jupiter Ascending has started to see a cult growing as well, with fans being attracted to its radical gender politics, pop economic theory, and revolutionary take on capitalism and commodification of body, all themes that would work perfectly in the world of The Matrix. The only downside of working with such a creative director would be her possible insistence on adding her own creative stamp to The Matrix trilogy, and we wouldn't want someone messing with another creator's work beyond recognition, would we? 



3. Lana Wachowski



If Lilly is unavailable, thankfully she has a sister! Lana Wachowski ended up working on some Matrix related content like helping to write vignettes for The Animatrix and overseeing the canon content of the Matrix comic-book collection. She also helped direct all those fine films that Lilly was doing for Warner Bros. during the 2000s. What would make Lana the perfect fit? Probably her familiarity with the canon. It's not like she and her sister conceived, wrote, directed, and produced the original trilogy or anything, but her work on the immense amount of extracinematic but still canonical material perhaps gives her the perfect insight on bringing The Matrix to life once again.



4. Lilly & Lana Wachowski



Here's a crazy idea (stick with me on this one), what if we combined 2 and 3 and had both Lilly and Lana work together? It's not unprecedented! They did work together on their debut film Bound along with their first script for the Richard Donner directed Assassins. Although this was back in the 90s, they also collaborated together on films like Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas right here in the 21st century. Perhaps the key to their success actually lies in the fact that both of them work so well together, but that's just a thought.





5. M. Night Shyamalan




It's a BLACK CIRCLE list. We're basically required to put him here. 

Warner Brothers, and any studios who read this, if M. Night takes your project thinking he's going to direct the next King Hu/Akira Kurosawa epic, of mysticist action and humanist philosophy, please don't fight with him. He knows what he's doing. He also probably watched whatever shitty anime you're asking him to adapt for the screen. 

Also, don't force him to put white people in it. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

New to Blu: RULES DON'T APPLY




Released to Blu-Ray February 28, 2017

"They don't make them like they used to" seems to have been the rallying cry of 2016, what with the nostalgia-porn tidal wave of films like La La Land and CafĂ© Society, both of which are ostensibly cynical takes on the idea of fawning over a bygone era. Perhaps it's the dire state of new blockbuster releases being homogenized, steady sludge being pumped into the cineplex or the seeming fading legacy of film to the rise of the next Golden Age of television that has forced creators to re-examine their beloved craft. Unfortunately for us, and anyone who managed to sit through La La Land can surely testify to this, the films that tend to examine film itself, especially in 2016, have the chance of somehow being bigger slogs than standard MCU fair, some even going as far as to implicitly praise the cultural gentrification of the past. 

Despite the intense wave of subverted takes on the pangs of memory, only two films from 2016 truly understood the nature of cinephilia intersecting with memory. On one hand, Robert Zemeckis's uncharacteristically great Allied, and Warren Beatty's silent comeback Rules Don't Apply. For someone who hasn't felt the need to make a film in eighteen years while having enough names in the address book to make any film he wanted, what's most striking about Rules Don't Apply is its seeming down-to-earthness. Perhaps the key to its brilliance in its critique of the then developing "New Hollywood" is the authorship, someone who was key in that development placing himself in the role of someone who would soon be lost to it. A startling development considering Beatty is himself about to be lost to the next generation of Hollywood, developing during this period of creative arrest. And while someone of the status and consequentially the ego of Beatty should realistically have posited this as another "They don't make them like they used to" rant, he instead opts for a sort of self-critique. The most flattering comparison I can muster is to Chaplin's A King in New York, where Beatty is perhaps suggesting, by embodying the fading Howard Hughes, that perhaps if his legacy is lost it's because the filmmakers of today don't need him anymore. 

It's during Beatty's introspective scenes that the film is most interesting, but absolutely during the Colins/Ehrenreich exchanges that the film becomes most entertaining. The introspection is surely the deepest part of the film, but it is appropriately regulated to the side. What really carries the film, aside from Deschanel's typically stellar photography, is Beatty's direction of these two incredible performances (Ehrenreich on his own is better than any actor nominated this year at the Oscars). There's an explicit critique of the treatment of young actresses during this period, the nefarious "Rules" mentioned in the title that relegate the value of young women in the industry based on age on physical appearance but its rendered mostly as a comic farce. Indeed, this clusterfuck of character arcs and stories and critiques all intersect each other in the oddest of places. We might be looking at a masterpiece had the runtime been allowed to soar as it should have, and perhaps in another cut it did. But all things considered, we're left with a truly beautiful film from one of Hollywood's most celebrated icons.

Haydn DePriest is a student at the University of Texas at Austin

Friday, March 3, 2017

LOGAN Delivers a Merely Competent Send-Off to One of the Greats



At its best, the stark deserts, silent road trips, and hints at death and suicide of Logan recall something like Taste of Cherry or Sunchaser. At its worst, on the other hand, it plays like a typical 2004 superhero outing without the promised aesthetic tendencies of the trailer. Unfortunately for us, the truly great scenes like the roadside nap or the final battle don’t redeem its conventionalist tendencies that seem to dominate the film. Trapped between academicism and its own faux-importance, whenever Logan isn’t in motion, it’s mostly unremarkable. 

Logan is the story of the titular Wolverine of the X-Men, now driving a limo along the US-Mexican border picking up clients and living with Caliban and the Professor in abandoned warehouse. He is tasked with carrying a young, artificial mutant created in a lab named Laura to a place called Eden somewhere in Canada and he does so in spite of all obstacles. The film’s strongest quality is its scale, not at how large it is but rather how small. Mangold brings down these monolithic figures of Xavier and Logan not just in size but decimates their total importance. It’s worth noting that in Jackman’s final X-Men outing, the Wolverine’s last act of redemption is to save one child from immediate danger. Out of the nine movies on the official timeline, Logan has endured over a century of world-saving and hardship only to have his final plan to settle down and live out eternally in solitude is ruined by the virtue of being a main character. But now there’s no one else to battle, no one else to call in as an assist. It’s just him, Charles, and Laura, playing out some sort of demented quasi-family dynamic, which is more of less confirmed in an unintentionally hilarious scene where Laura calls Logan “daddy”. In regards to its character structure, it’s probably one of the better send-offs the Wolverine could’ve gotten. 

But what is actually signified by Logan’s redemption? What is expressed? I’ve made effort to understand what it is everyone sees in the gritty, brutal violence of Logan. To understand what possibly lies beneath its admittedly entertaining slaughter and have come up empty. Nothing about Logan’s final strides to save Laura matter because they’re all unearned. The film is never about Laura, and ironically enough, the film seems to both condemn her captors for treating her like an object yet at the same time never fully realizes her pain. It’s always Logan’s pain. The relationship between Logan and Laura as surrogate father and daughter figures ultimately fails because it is never truly earned. Granted, the stakes in Logan matter far more than the brotherly circle jerk of Captain America: Civil War or anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has released to date (for those that don’t know, the X-Men movies are on a different line of cinematic continuity). But at the same time, it has the same basic failure of the MCU in that the importance is assumed rather than expressed. There are some great exchanges in Logan, especially one that takes place during a roadside nap, but they are not enough to make anything about it matter. It finds contentment in its own existence. 

For someone who really loves X-Men, who needs that cathartic send-off for their favorite character, Logan is competent enough to deliver that satisfaction, but it is not the "just a great movie period" its been championed, nor is the neo-western classic we've been waiting for. Logan is not Ethan Edwards. As a matter of face, despite its many merits, Logan doesn't feel like much of anything.

Haydn DePriest is a student at the University of Texas at Austin

The Certified Copies of BEFORE I FALL



Before I Fall is the story of an affluent white girl in high school inexplicably forced to relive the same day over and over again, every time eventually ending in Juliet, the young lesbian she and her friends regularly harass, confronting her at a party. If it sounds obvious, it's because the film is about as subtle as a brick to the face, or in other words, as subtle as it needs to be. Much like last year’s NerveBefore I Fall is essentially a Lifetime Original film wrapped up in aesthetic tumblr gifsets, passionate direction, and genuine thought and care about its themes, resulting in a charming bit of conceptual teenage drama. The concept, of course, being a young-adult riff on the classic Groundhog Day but opting to instead show each relived day with a total straight-face and to its completion. The film makes heavy reliance on its use of these reproductions and copies, showing us only four or five riffs on the same day, each one revealing more about the situations and anxieties Samantha finds herself consistently trapped in.

A photograph of a mirror where a person happens to be visible in the reflection is, by virtue, not truly a photograph of the person, but rather incidentally has captured their likeness. It is no more a photograph of the person than the light reflecting off the mirror is the person. As the film image is merely a representation of its subject, and the mirror is a reflection of its subject, the filmed mirror is a double-layer of abstraction of truth. And so it goes, for the first half-hour director Ry Russo-Young shows us her subject Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) reflected from mirrors, obscured through shower glass, and pressed against window-frames.  In a sense, it is Samantha’s true nature that is symbolically obscured by these abstractions. She is rendered metaphysically faceless, a blank slate. The metallic, blue palette only adds to the imagery of Samantha as a cold, reanimated corpse with lifeless eyes. Her existence is gauging her friends’ responses to conflict and reacting in an identical way. But now, after waking up and reliving the very same day every day she’s forced to react genuinely. She’s quickly able to discern that her actions will shape whether or not she can escape the loop, so she can no longer act in accordance with the status quo. Her environment has inexplicably turned against her, and only through her own action can she change her course.

As the runtime builds, she slowly starts to lose her depiction through mirrors & car windows, reflections & obstructions and instead falls into the direct. Watching her evolution as each day passes is fascinating. After realizing her predicament, her first impulse is to remove herself from the final confrontation with Juliet in hopes that this evasion might end her sentence. When she wakes up the next day, she reacts with anger and confusion and starts to show express her true feelings towards her friends and family, subsequently having a chance meeting with Juliet in the bathroom. It is only after these two progressions she finally “learns” what its about, and is depicted clearly in bright, white light, eventually completely fading into white. Martyred. Each copy she lives through reveals something more about the world she lives in. That her friends are shallow and carefree, that her boyfriend is coy but manipulative, that she’s lost something with her family in all of this. Only by seeing the same situation, again and again, deconstructing and analyzing it, she truly understands what happens each time. Recalling Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy. Without the existence of copies, the original is never truly understood.

There are issues, of course. Still the carried YA insistence that the current football jock boyfriend is somehow inferior to the obsessive, creepy, stalkerish nerd (a trend that Nerve at least managed to subvert). For something more coded and subtle, watch the way Samantha’s friend Lindsay, who regularly bullies Juliet for being queer, gazes at Samantha throughout the film. Whenever they lock eyes, Samantha is the first to break, and Lindsay maintains her gaze for seconds at a time before breaking back to whatever the subject of the conversation is. At the end of the film, when Lindsay, Samantha, and their two other friends all sit on a bench together, the two lock eyes once again for what feels like an eternity. Once again Samantha is the first to break and Lindsay looks her up and down and stares for another five seconds before breaking. Given that the film also suggests that Lindsay had a previous relationship with Juliet, the undertones have practically turned into overtones. 

It is a message film, point blank period, but like Nerve from last year, it’s a good message film, and possibly an important one. And if one were so inclined to look beneath the obscured views and reflections of Before I Fall, to see past all of the certified copies, there are non-obvious tendencies lurking beneath the obvious.


Haydn DePriest is a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Few Words on CRUISING

“Who’s here… I’m here… you’re here.”

Commitment is such a limiting push and pull of a system. Imagine restricting your naked intimacy to the one you love and care for and how slowly damaging that can ultimately end up being by the time you go the way of all flesh. Speaking from the brutal experience of parents undergoing multiple divorces, the idea of commitment never really stuck with me in a variety of ways. It is an overwrought statement but I’m certainly not sitting here and bashing the act of falling in love, though. Having these deep, sensual thoughts for a sole person is different than exposing your body and erotic sensibilities with the world around you. Love, in a basic sense, exists inherently and instinctively inside us as human beings. Commitment, though? Somewhat of a manufactured idea. Something that exists in a realm between the shared reality and the internal mind frame. A fantasy structured by Hollywood fairy tales and birthed by blatant traditionalism in religion and social culture. There is a beauty to the devoted monogamy but for me, the most impactful of confidential encounters came not with those I divided my life with but the ones I met fleetingly and shed my former self in. It is a menacing game but one I feel is as essential as it is liberating. 

Personally speaking, I have bunked with a man for over three years (half of it long-distance, mind you) and while I don’t regret a second of being with him and dispersing my time and energy to his wants and needs and desires, I carry on through my life sensing my own central insecurity of losing him for seeking my own carnal pleasure as well as not being able to soak in these external pleasures for myself. It is a selfish tightrope of emotional density and privilege that along with a crippling depression and mutilating bipolar disorder generates a rift between actuality and I. My fear of losing a drawn-out romance for the sake of being inexperienced. Pure and proper in the eyes of others, but unpracticed in my mentality nonetheless. All for the will of a normal social construct. It is undeniably simpler to let these sexual thoughts wither but it is also dangerous not to have them exist in the first place. While these impressions have come to define who I am as a person and has produced damage to the relationship I hold dear, it has also instigated awareness and tolerance for those who share similar wishes and at times, woes as I do. Most I know underplay the importance of sex in a relationship, but in truth, it is the tarnished foil that holds that affection together. Still, it could be not only what breaks people apart but also what can drive a person to go mad.

To reach something of a point, lying on this bed seeing the morbid liberated community in William Friedkin’s Cruising struck a massive cord with me. I’m aware, to go from waxing surface level expressions of sexual freedom and anti-matrimony propaganda to a Friedkin joint is a bit much, but bear with me. I almost passed away writing this personalized essay to you today. Not actively or even physically. Sure, I am being somewhat dramatic but most of my childhood was spent in a mental shelter. Discovering solace within the fabricated worlds and vibrant societies found in cinema and the games on my Super Nintendo. Much of my general awkwardness stemmed from not being able to connect with the neighborhood kids, but with the digital voices and waves of light on my television. The only thing truly connected was the controller to its port. Your own Carol Anne, if you will. It does not end there, though. Now comes the unpredictable circumstance of advancing from one country to another, adapting and progressing through a language and culture unknown to me. It’s similar to a video game, I thought. A society I must comprehend and a world I must explore and trek through to reach the “objective”. However, the reality is never that simple and I positively didn’t account for the boss at the end of the level. To go from one mindset in Kindergarten to another in grade school was almost traumatizing. The American children acted more content than I did. Their bringing up more peaceful, discipline less manic. I regretted every second I decided to hit the “PLAY” button. Being huddled under a hollow desk wiping tears with my Scooby Doo tee and begging for mother to rescue me while mumbling Spanish and the little English I knew is how I remember the first day of school. Probably the most notable detail I recall is the way my classmates stared at me; waiting for the cries to stop while internally cackling at my weakness. It only set in stone how the rest of my grade school years would transpire and it disturbs me to this day.

Now for the connective tissue to these personal memories. I mentioned watching the film Cruising above for a reason. Probably why you even clicked on this article; and I promised an answer. From its sinister opening moments, Friedkin understands that sex and pain are as universal as everything else around us. Both tangible properties maybe not just physically, but mentally as well. Shit, I would agree that discomfort and pleasure are closely linked. Somehow sharing likeness depending on the relationship between the aggressor and the receiver. Under the guise of a basic crime thriller, Friedkin builds that idea from scratch at a time when homosexuality and BDSM were misunderstood and stigmatized. However, if there is one thing he at least grasps, is how both straight masculinity and masculinity defined by LGBT attributes work into those taboo subjects and how beautifully they intertwine and dance together in a storyline like this. It is provocative for that period, personal, and downright chilling. The atmosphere he instills is comparable to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in that it’s dominated by gritty smoke, darkened alleys and corridors, and shadowed nihilism. It is a film where sound and image work in tandem in expressing a liberated sexuality whether it be from the repressed standpoint of the club patrons forced to relinquish their desire till nightfall or the steady machismo of Al Pacino’s “protagonist” investigating and absorbing these behaviors and cravings. 

Following a cold opening depicting a brutal murder and subsequently, an assaultive encounter involving two transgender women, Steve Burns, a slightly problematic and rather deadpan NYPD officer is assigned to go undercover as a gay man to shadow a hidden society defined by punk music and leather to expose a murderer preying on its patrons. Due to Burns’ appearance matching those of the victims, he is thrown off the force, into the front lines, and is desperately seeking to be chosen by the killer to return to a life of heteronormativity. “Cruising”, both slang for the act of acquiring a hookup and also the probing presence of police forces in urban neighborhoods are utilized to fascinating degrees in the film through its use of punctuated sounds and bold imagery. The stretching of leather, moans of indulgence and the clang of keys and whips colliding are as emphasized as every stab wound and disemboweled gasp. For every act of violence pulling apart the sexual freedoms that gays inherit there is a mechanical beauty to the way they are brought together in secret. Bridging the violent nature of an aggressor towards the kind that willfully submits and vice versa. Both ends of this social spectrum fall on either or. Friedkin attempts to connect the forced sense of masculinity of the NYPD with the sensitive, reclusive, but unabashedly accepting LGBT community as displayed within the film. 

In its final moments, Cruising reveals its true hand and play at the audience. In a film that subverts expectations in ways that many LGBT narratives do not, we reach a point where we lose track of how and why this seemingly prejudiced violence has been begetting. Over the course of the runtime, we follow Pacino’s investigation as he slyly observes the community around him, absorbing common traits and behaviors in order to truly fuse himself into the crowd. The otherworldly nature of the BDSM nightclub makes him stick out like a sore thumb. Only in instances such as the freewheeling dance sequence in the middle of the film does he feel as independent and unconstricted as those surrounding him. Is he discovering a newfound tolerance of a group eradicated of their reputation? The line between his preferred sexuality and the one he adopts in his probing quickly fades. The intimacy linking he and his girlfriend becomes strained and the stress and tension soon grows unbearable. A sort of “give + take” connection is generated in the moments between Paul Sorvino’s Captain Edelson and the valiant underdog where the exchange of information turns into carnal devotion, and escape is rendered not just unfeasible, but unjustifiable. It comes to be obvious that such a drastic shift in both environment and spirit is too excessive for Steve, and that it only feeds into a proto-masculine mindset and a deep-seated insecurity of eviscerating the attributes that made him a genuine man in the eyes of his co-workers, boss, and girlfriend. Steve Burns fears for his life but also in a manner is afraid of losing his own sense of pride.

Eventually, viewers accept a hasty if convenient conclusion in that we find a damaged homosexual with fleetingly haunted hallucinations of his demanding deceased father and move forward with that. The “killer” seems to be motivated by his own fear of disappointment to the point of being driven by his late father to butcher those like him. It is a simple copy paste solution for a murder mystery that it almost feels too neat. Friedkin, obviously, has more up his sleeve. This tragic red herring of an answer to the multiple murders doesn’t even sit right with the film itself. The final confrontation between Burns’ and the “murderer” is rapt with deceptive shadows and sorrowful silence that it almost begs for an alternative. Not surprising considering that the film had been tampered with by United Artists and had been reworked not only in the editing room but also in the script-writing process. Around forty minutes of the film had been cut, removing extended sequences of graphic sexual content and “mysterious twists and turns which the film no longer takes" as Friedkin stated in an interview with Venice magazine. The rebuttal for this meddling is something even more perverse and malevolent and Friedkin’s way of receiving one last laugh in the closing minutes. It bears the suggestion that the film now works on a different level than how the rest of it played out. A cyclical one. A possessed one. Can an insecurity manifest itself into something more demonic? Will a stilted view on masculinity birth something evil? Something hungering for blood rather than the usual obligation towards sex? Friedkin proposes the concept that to adopt the personality of a murderer you must have lived through the trauma yourself. Through the symbolic layering of clothes and materialistic accessory, we embrace the mind and body of a killer. What we were once is not what can become again unless triggered by memory and self-doubt. It is a damn shame we won’t see the complete cut and version of Cruising as Friedkin originally intended but the finished product contains enough evidence to advocate for this petrifying revelation. All through the perspective of the tinted shades of a clueless woman. Naive to the bodily and psychological changes her boyfriend undergoes to appropriate a deadly persona. Sometimes the truth is born out of a lie and understanding such is viewing it through the eyes they once called their own.

The ambiguity and openness of Cruising offers a multitude of ideas to ponder on in ways that surprised and baffled me. So much so I would hate to spoil or put a specific highlight on some of the more distinct details as I did in the last few paragraphs. Speaking in general terms, I wish for others to see what I saw both aesthetically and thematically and even chime in on the aspects they agree with or vehemently detest. I wrote this as a way to bring personal connection to an otherwise gaunt and spiritually hollow film. Not to take away its many surface-level pleasures, but a story like this required as much emotional input as I could. And for that, it certainly functioned as a claustrophobic and unsettling work. I am certainly not the one to go to when it comes to dissecting Friedkin’s oeuvre as a whole but films like this inspire me to explore more of the voice outside of his canonized classics. In a vibrant career where most of the late triumphs were muted and the immediate successes rare, it’s refreshing to see his more under-appreciated works bask in the spotlight now.

You could say that the immediate reaction to Cruising was less than stellar in that at the time a film like this that posed challenging themes on sexual identity in the LGBT spectrum was only set up to fail. The summer before its release, the production was hit with multiple protests by members of the New York gay community who believed the film to have a homophobic political message and that it reinforced stereotypes. Subsequently, local LGBT community banded together to disrupt filming and gay-owned businesses barred the filmmakers from their premises. Some even attempted to interfere with shooting by pointing mirrors from rooftops to ruin the lighting for scenes, blasting whistles and air horns nearby, and playing loud music to distort the sound. It reached a point where over one thousand protesters marched the streets of East Village demanding the city to withdraw the support towards the film. As a result of these interruptions, the movie's audio was massively overdubbed in order to remove the disturbances occurring off-camera. In part, these protests led to the critical and box-office failure of Cruising with an intake of only about $19.7 million. 

Even in the months following the release, the film was pervaded with controversy. However, now the trouble had crossed over into bloodshed. Two hate crimes, in particular, had found a connection to Cruising. One in influence and the other in mere “coincidence”. The former was an eyewitness account by Ron Nyswaner, an Academy Award winning screenwriter, who claims that he and boyfriend had evaded being attacked by a group of college men on the justification of the content in Cruising. The latter was a multiple casualty shooting located in a bar displayed prominently in the film. A man wandered in with a submachine gun and murdered two patrons and wounded a dozen others. Friedkin had declined to comment on both incidents.

Regardless of how it was received or the consequences that came with the release, Cruising to this day remains a provocative entry in Friedkin’s overall career on a sheer thematic level alone. Does it posit as an instigating pot-boiler towards the LGBT community or as Friedkin insists is there more to the narrative than that? What’s fascinating about this film is the complete lack of a true answer. Due to its mangled edits and reconstructions throughout the production, it is simple to take the film as either one or other without any real stake in director’s intent. You could ignore the symbolic value and examine it face value, eliminating any real context from Friedkin’s oeuvre. However, in that current social climate, could you blame such a harsh reaction in a time when the surreal threat of AIDS was only ascending? If I’m to look at Cruising in an objective manner, there are certainly several aspects I’d have liked to seen elaborated on such as the erotic relationship between Steve and Nancy along with how these interactions develop over the course of the investigation. This would truly drive home how soaking in an alien environment would manipulate a toxic mindset. For better? For worse? It’d have provided a simmering blend of empathy and caution towards Pacino’s character that the film doesn’t “quite” have. I cannot say it’s completely bankrupt of it but it’s nonetheless a minor qualm that set the film back for me. An extended cut in all likelihood would have truly fleshed out the inconsistencies and irregularities in this character and the plot progression as a whole. 

Ultimately, Cruising can be seen as Friedkin’s half-baked Psycho. Both corrupted tales of sexual repression and loss of identity in enclosed spaces. Whereas Norman’s ghosts haunt him at the Bates Motel, this murderer’s vice can be found at the local gay bar stalking its patrons. These specters could be next to you or they could even be you; however, they exist and do not want to be ignored. The most disconcerting facet of this film are the concealed dangers that rest beneath the surface. Sexual liberation chained by the unseen. An underground community forced to dig further down to achieve safety. The hidden become fearful of the hidden. Who is the actual murderer and can they ever be stopped? Indeed, Friedkin did direct The Exorcist, but Cruising may, in fact, be the ideal possession film.