“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.