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On William Friedkin's Cruising, 35 Years On

02/23/2015 05:53 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

In the days when obscure movies could only be found by buying expensive foreign DVD copies on Amazon, or sourcing badly burned bootleg copies at flea markets, I discovered William Freidkin's 1980 film Cruising.

It starred Al Pacino as a undercover cop who goes into New York's (apparently) dangerous and seedy gay underworld -- taken from a script written by Friedkin himself. The film had a storyline outlined on Wikipedia that can only be described as salacious and lurid. The narrative naturally beguiled my 16-year-old closeted self, and added to my own internet cruising for doses of gay culture before regularly deleting the browsing history.

With all of Wikipedia's mentions of leather, gay sex and the seedy underground, I knew I had to source a copy of it somewhere -- and a surreptitious Amazon buy with my mom's Visa card did the trick. (She thought the purchase was to track down a school book for English, otherwise unavailable in Australia.)

I was lucky one afternoon when I caught the postman and was able to sneak out the film from its box and replace it with a well-thumbed poetry book. I flew down to my bedroom with the copy of Cruising to read the back cover about the excess of poppers, handkerchiefs and hirsute bodies that would adorn this controversial film.

For those unfamiliar with Cruising, there is an immense amount of notoriety (and campness) that circulates around even up until today. At the time of its release, the film gave a dangerously negative and fiercely homophobic representation of gay men, portraying us as murderous, anti-social and filled with self-destructive impulses.

It also offered up a rare glimpse of what Hollywood thought of gay male sex in the late 1970s. In darkened, harnessed and popper-fuelled sexual exchanges, gay men were seen to live out their sexual impulses, as they dressed in too much leather and would hide out in meatpacking warehouses and dark underground basements.

Cruising sees Al Pacino's everyman character Steve Burns enlisted by the lead detective of a murder case to go undercover into New York's gay leather sex scene after a string of killings take place on gay men in the leather scene. While cruising through the bars and warehouses, Pacino (naturally) experiences a crisis of his masculinity as his attempt to emulate the lifestyle of a gay man. This leads to self-doubt and an identity crisis, which sees him almost lose his girlfriend and his (straight) self-knowledge. (Poor Pacino!)

What made this film so controversial at the time was its pathologization of gay men -- especially given the murderer at the centre is apparently a closeted homosexual. The film engages in the often-used cinematic and literary trope of the closet (where the murderer hides his gay leather/murderous dark identity inside a dilapidated white cupboard).

The larger gay community is treated with distance and curiosity by Friedkin, mostly represented as an anti-social, violent and unstable cohort far more interested in sex and drugs and booze than in pride marches and communal camaraderie.

35 years on, as damning as Cruising remains as an artefact of the "celluloid closet" there is a camp pleasure to be gained from watching it. Although at 16 I was hungry to see more frank representations of sex and gay male culture on the big screen, watching Cruising was a demoralizing -- though laughable -- experience.

The film's camp quality is mostly derived from its bizarre negotiation of Al Pacino's character's straightness and masculinity within the gay leather scene. Evidently what interested Friedkin -- since on top of directing the movie he also wrote its abysmal screenplay -- was the idea of manliness and its articulation in the heterosexual and homosexual spheres respectively.

In a fantastically absurd scene by today's standards, Al Pacino (playing the undercover queer) and his faux-homosexual lover are dragged into the local precinct to be grilled about the string of murderers that have been taking place. The police mistake the sting Pacino has set-up between himself and the boy he took home with him, after a walkie-talkie fails and they take the muffled noises from inside an apartment as Pacino about to be murdered.

With Pacino in on the act, the cops play out (good cop/bad cop) before we see a naked muscular black man donning a cowboy hat straddle in and smack Pacino right in the face, throwing him to the floor. Because neither are confessing to any involvement in the murders, the police must bring in the heavy guns to bully a confession out.

The obvious tact being that Pacino is to be assaulted in the question room to drive out a confession from his terrified gay male companion. As the black assailant side steps out (with his ass cheeks hanging firmly in a jockstrap) the scene becomes even more ridiculous when Pacino, recovering from his punch, then verbally attacks the body-builder and flings his cowboy hat out of the window.

Friedkin's interest in staging such a contrived (sagging) scene might be easily explained by the claim that this was standard police practice in the 1980s. But you might interpret this moment (as I know do) as Friedkin's attempt to lift the film's grim and homophobic energy in the guise of this ridiculous and bizarre fracas.

Many at the time of its release condemned the film for its inherent homophobia, including the gay community as Cruising told the world that gay men are killers, are killed or can only be characterized by their obsession in sex and hedonism. 35 years on, we can reassess the film's bizarre and pathological representation of gay men as it remains an antiquated artefact of Hollwood's own "celluloid closet".

Thanks to the pleasures of camp readings, we can also savour Pacino's bad performance as an undercover cop with masculinity problems, while revelling in the knowledge that Friedkin's decision to make this film singlehandedly killed his career.