Nowhere to Run: William Friedkin’s “Cruising”
(Author’s note: This essay was written for a presentation of the film as part of Kent M. Wilhelm’s Criterion Consideration series at Syndicated Bar in Brooklyn.)
“Run, charge, run, buy, borrow, make, spend, run, squander, beg, run, run, run, waste, waste, waste!”
Donald (Frederick Combs), who is dogged by debt and dreams and a glittering gay life, lets this autoanalsysis and self-attack slither out of his mouth as the expensive gift box next to him and the beautiful empty bed he resigns himself to lay on seems to portend death. Not literally, but a kind of puttering out of all his gay life, the thing he’s crafted illustriously for himself, the ragged receipts hanging from these illusions like the fringe on a jacket he’d eye. He is running away from himself, and who knows what happens when it all catches up to you. He’s trying to live the American Dream as it was promised to him (well, sort of), because gay people sometimes will do anything to become a part of it, even delude themselves into believing its lie.
Was William Friedkin running, too? He adapted The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley’s play about gay men and their (self) lacerating tendencies, in 1970, a year after the Stonewall uprisings signaled a call to stop rushing towards the unfulfilling excess of gay life smuggled into straight socioeconomic life; and the play itself premiered Off-Broadway almost immediately before that explosive, all-too-cited historical event. Friedkin, literalizing Crowley’s single set drama and booze fueled games, shows us, briefly, of the characters’ outside worlds and then cages the boys up giving the pained and self-hating gays nowhere to run. And, in 2022, we’ve reached a time where audiences, especially gay ones, seem somewhat embarrassed to have ever felt such wrist slashing solipsism, much less produced art about it (particularly when it’s not righteously directed at the powers/systems that be). Which has left The Boys in the Band as an artifact from another time, either the object to prove that everyone (with an asterisk) is over it, or the moral referendum on the gay community’s arrested development. A recent revival and remake directed by Joe Mantello solidifies this bizarre binary of gay representation straddled between good and bad, past and present, stuck or running away.
Friedkin appeared to be intrigued by people running from things: his priest in The Exorcist (1973) fails in eliding the guilt regarding his mother that snakes after him in the possessed child’s voice; his remake of The Wages of Fear makes a spectacle of the weight of the past and its potential to literally explode the present and the future in Sorcerer; but it’s Cruising that feels like the ultimate entrapment — not just for masculinity, but for America itself.
Loosely based on a novel by New York Times Magazine writer and editor Gerald Walker, Cruising’s setup is simple, walking the line between blood soaked slasher movie and cloaked in darkness noir. Al Pacino stars as rookie cop Steve Burns who, at the request of his superior Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino), goes undercover in New York’s leather and BDSM subculture to investigate a series of savage murders of gay men. The deeper he gets into the world, the less stable his identity becomes, with the fractured selves at its core splintering the film’s form. But Cruising’s legacy is as divided as its protagonist, a kind of ultimate bad object for gay cinema. It’s the King of Bad Representation for the Fags, sweat-speckled black leather cap as crown, with a self-loathing killer of gays and/or gay killer, garden variety daddy issues, and a rubbernecking gaze into a queer underworld that many seeking mainstream acceptance didn’t like to admit existed (and certainly didn’t reflect normal gay people, no sir).
It is difficult to disentangle the trajectory of LGBTQ+ rights from a sense of national identity, if only because the last few decades of discourse, and even the tangible landscape of, around LGBTQ+ identity, national identity, and progressive politics has been collapsed and conflated, particularly in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the fight for marriage equality, the Obama years, and the Trump administration. Queer scholar Jasbir Puar writes, “The historical and contemporaneous production of an emergent normativity, homonormativity, ties the recognition of homosexual subjects, both legally and representationally, to the national and transnational political agendas of U.S. imperialism. Homonormativity can be read as a formation complicit with and invited into the biopolitical valorization of life in its inhabitation and reproduction of heteronormative norms.” Which is to say, the conception of the good homosexual, and the good country that protects him/them, develops a paradigm against which all other nations treat its homosexuals, therefore shaping the goodness with which we see that nation.
Friedkin’s men are terribly American, his work easily cemented into the New American Cinema of the ’70s. They’re the children of an experiment that toggled back and forth between success and failure, its power both de facto and yet, to itself, frequently precarious. They are men searching for the new, emerging from the pits of the past, be it second-generation child of immigrants (Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist), white trash living in paranoia (the sad souls of Bug), and the erratic men in places high enough that they should know better (To Live and Die in LA, Killer Joe, and The French Connection). In Friedkin’s eyes the story of America’s men, or the men of America, is one of self-immolation, that all that power and costuming doesn’t fight off who you really might be.
Friedkin, raised in Chicago as the child of Ukrainian immigrants and with a poisoned relationship with his father, settled in the earlier parts of his career in the comfort of adaptation, moving from Pinter (The Birthday Party in 1968) to The Boys in the Band in 1970 to The French Connection in 1971, and The Exorcist in 1973. Friedkin’s proclivity towards adaptation, especially during this period of New American Cinema, feels like the work of someone still sorting out their place in an uncertain world, as so much of the film of that era did. But if an Altman or a Bogdonavich were, if not optimistic, then at least not as pessimistic, Friedkin’s work aligns itself almost more with Robert Kolker’s so-called “lonely men” of the ’70s, captured by your Kubricks and Scorseses. The irony of the loneliness here then is in Friedkin’s ways of situating his characters within existing systems: gay communities, gangsters, the Catholic Church, cops.
Even if an approximation of gay rights (whatever that might mean and whatever shape it might take) was in its infancy, LGBTQ people were enough of a distinct politiczed set that Cruising’s producer Jerry Weintraub thought that, as Richard Goldstein writing for the Village Voice put it, “pissing off gay people was the best kind of publicity.” Among those pissed off was columnist Arthur Bell, whose fear that the film would be weaponized against the gay community is understandable, if ultimately unfounded. Bell wrote the summer of its filming in 1979, the film “promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen, the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight and a validation of Anita Bryant’s hate campaign.” The timing was especially bad: in 1977, Anita Bryant, whose legacy is now caked in cream, formed the group “Save Our Children” to “protest an ordinance in Florida that would have prevented discrimination against homosexuals.” In 1978, Harvey Milk, who had been elected as the third openly gay public official in San Francisco and was a trailblazer for the rights of LGBTQ people, was assassinated by Dan White, who, after employing the “twinkie defense”, would be convicted of voluntary manslaughter. And, with few exceptions, LGBTQ visibility in film and culture was still relatively low, and still luxuriating in tropes and stereotypes that were perceived as negative and harmful. Meanwhile, paranoia about sexual culture and sexuality (and its intersection with politics) bled into films like Klute (1971) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977).
But, at least according to the director, Friedkin was making the movie in good faith, or as good of a faith you can when making a movie about death in a maligned marginalized community. Friedkin visited places like the Anvil and the Mineshaft and critic and scholar Nathan Lee wrote in the Voice in 2007 that “Cruising‘s lasting legacy isn’t political but archival.” Here, the gay people on screen are not the ones the mainstream usually consumes (save for Steve’s playwright neighbor Ted, played by Don Scardino), and thus farther away from the promises of assimilation. Here, too, are the city’s real hardcore bars and clubs of the past, like the Hellfire Club and the Eagle’s Nest. And, if the filmmakers on the Blu-ray are to be believed, those extras are real (or real enough) patrons, an answer to the stultifying discourse on gay actors playing gay characters. Well, here they are, leather glued to their skin, licking at the smell of poppers in the air.
But this aversion to Cruising, then and now (though it has come to be reconsidered in recent years as a fascinating film maudit of sorts), is telling in its own way. It’s not reducible enough to be a problem of respectability politics (the New York Anti-Violence Project was formed in 1980 in response to very real anti-queer harm, including the March attack of “three men in Chelsea” by “white kids wielding bars”, according to Last Call by Elon Green), and critics have levied their defenses even at the time of release, notably John Rechy, the hustler and author of City of Night, who wrote, “Beyond the immediate context of what Cruising may or may not show, some questions should be asked: why does every homosexual film or book — unlike a heterosexual film or book — have to represent our entire world, each and everyone of us, when we have so many diverse and rich voices?”
Also a defender was scholar Robin Wood, who wrote of Cruising, “[The film] opens up (not necessarily from a positive viewpoint) issues [like], The oppression/exploitation of gays in our culture, The repression of bisexuality, The acknowledgment that gayness is not a thing apart — that everyone is potentially gay or has potential gay proclivities, The assault on patriarchy and the “Law of the Father,” with the heterosexual male as the ideologically privileged figure of our culture, and the critique of heterosexual relations under patriarchy (as based on inequality and domination, i.e., the subordination of women): the family, monogamy, romantic love.”
It’s a squirming resistance to the film which is interesting in its own right, and it’s worth considering because of what the film actually is. In its first moments, Cruising plays with the double meaning of its title: surveilling and scouring. Back to back, in low res, high contrast, black and white, the film opens on a crowd of men walking to a place called the Wolf’s Den and then, interrupted by Al Pacino’s title card, cuts to a man alone, under the cover of night, leaning against the wall in a small tunnel, looking past us. Throughout the film, Pacino’s eyes dart around, and when they stand still, they’re vacant, gazing into an abyss. It’s all about looking.
Looking at all that grime, at all that trash, at all that pre-Giuliani, deeply Koch-era urban decay, at everyone else looking. You can almost smell the sex. Possible johns gaze into the eye of the camera, the audience becoming at once subject and object of desire. When rebuffing someone looking for piss play, Pacino says, “I like to watch.”
If films routinely fetishize the act of looking, from Vertigo to the recent horror film X, Friedkin’s film puts the act in direct relation to state surveillance, and the police state in conversation with gayness itself. Pacino, whose gradual descent into the world of Friedkin’s version of gay life is characterized by a deepening unhingedness and a loss of his identity, maneuvers between looking at these men as the eyes of someone whose ambivalence about gayness and masculinity is roiling beneath, and, more crucially, as an arm of the law.
The film is defined by its mostly negative feelings towards the police: Edelman is slow to go after the killer in the first place because it’s a community he’s unconcerned with, police officers regularly abuse queer people and rape trans sex workers, and their interrogation methods obviously constitute police brutality. “They’re all scumbags!” a police officer says at the beginning of the film, his police car hovering like a sword of damocles over the patrons of gay bars in the Meatpacking District. “Look at these guys… Christ, what’s happening?”
It’s one particular image and the ordering of the bar sequences that unlock what Cruising might be, even as it shifts identities through its dark and curly haired dopplegangers, its seething disembodied voices (recorded partially to solve the problem of protesters ruining shooting days), and shattered plot points. Much of the ire towards the film is rooted in its supposed outsider gaze, contorting its vantage point so that it’s objectifying and dehumanizing, salacious and lewd, the humor of gay relational power dynamics in sex sapped from it; that it’s a zoo, the harness sporting and the hankey signaling a quaint curiosity you’re not allowed to feed or pet (not if they had it their way, though). The camera glides back and forth, a spectator whose motives and impulses change instantaneously.
But it’s exactly this extracommunal gaze at the beginning of the film that starts to build the film’s thesis: in the first sequence (and first kill, which posits looking for sex like a game of predator and prey in a slasher movie), it’s exactly this unreal heightened version of the world, that changes. The contempt melts away into a desire to immerse. People become less distinctive as Pacino becomes more integrated in the scene. The great fear is he’s becoming one of them, but “one of them” isn’t who you might think it is. From the first bar Burns goes to, which contains all the ogling of the uninitiated, the second bar night makes the men even more indistinguishable from one another, everyone in the powder blue of a cop uniform. While discussions of shooting the film totally in black and white were scrapped, James Contner’s icy palette at night reasserts the film’s perspective that the evening is where one is most watched, particularly by the state. “This is Precinct Night,” a bouncer tells Pacino before kicking him out. And then, the money shot, halfway through: a brightly lit Star Spangled Banner, glowing in black and white. In this bar sequence, the secret is out. The leather isn’t just a chic signifier of sexual proclivities, but an aesthetic with ideological implications.
In her essay “Fascinating Fascism”, essayist Susan Sontag writes, “If the message of fascism has been neutralized by an aesthetic view of life, its trappings have been sexualized. In pornographic literature, films, and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, the SS has become a referent of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. Boots, leather chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism.”
More than one person in the film sports these signifiers of sexuality and Fascism, both the probable suspects and the attendees going about their business. The aesthetics of fascism, eroticized to such a degree that they’ve become their own visual language within the film in addition to its real world analog, become the defining component of Cruising’s visual grammar. It’s not a mistake that these gays bars are dominated by white men. Or that its 1980 release was in the footsteps of Nazisploitation films like The Night Porter (1974), Salon Kitty (1976), and Isla, She Wolf of the SS. Or even in the shadow of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963).
So, accusations of Cruising’s homophobia are more complex than a simple yes it is, or no it isn’t. Friedkin’s nihilism leaks onto the film in a curious way, oily and slippery. If, like the film noir (anti)hero, Pacino’s identity is in flux in a socially and politically tumultuous landscape, his “descent” is not so much into gayness as it is into fascism. They’re (uh, problematically) conflated here: gays fetishize fascist aesthetics, America fetishizes the police, the police state fetishizes the tools fascism. None of these parties would ever admit what they’re into in this context. The possible myopia of Friedkin’s point of view notwithstanding, his immersion into the gay world is also an immersion into the police world, and the abusive tactics that Burns, if he’s to become a good cop, is supposed to put into a toolbox of his own. “What I’m doing is affecting me,” he tells his girlfriend (Karen Allen). His anxiety, and the destabilization it causes in his relationship, is not limited to the sentimental and condescending, “What if I’m gay?” More crucially, Pacino’s question becomes, “What if I’m a fascist cop?”
Cruising became a flashpoint for the gay rights movement in a curious way, yet its depiction of a state sanctioned violence against marginalized communities feels valuable even in its genre context. Its uncaring people in power failing to protect the lives of queers can now be read as having the whiff of prophecy: a year after the film’s release, and two years after the Voice covered the protests of the film, the New York Times would publish the following headline: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 homosexuals.”
There are more defenses of the movie now, and even a reply to Cruising’s preoccupation with looking, the complicated nature of representation and desire, and the cinema as an act of submission in the form of Yann Gonzalez’s masterpiece Knife + Heart. Gonzalez’s queer slasher and neo-giallo rewrites Cruising’s opening and midpoint spectacle, making it the French successor’s finale. Ryan Murphy, god forbid, is himself taking a stab at it in the current season of his horror anthology show, AHS: NYC, doing what he does best (?) and making subtext text.
For Cruising, its critique of a fascist state — confrontational and nasty — is linked to its perception of white gay men’s own complicity in its ascent. Sure, the delirium of a costume that exudes power and control (or the opposite) is an enthralling high, and whether it’s a black leather cap glistening with sweat or a new Hugo Boss suit to flag bourgeois status, these costumes to blend in often enough double as an attempted escape. A put on for power desired, only sometimes gained, seldom kept. But America’s always been this way. We see it every day. And in Cruising there’s nowhere to run.