Wednesday, February 27, 2013

CRUISING (1980) - William Friedkin

Is there a scene more frightening in all of Friedkin's filmography than the one in Cruising where Pacino does a herky-jerky amyl nitrate-fueled leather bar dance to the tune of Willy DeVille's "Heat of the Moment"? The split-pea soup scenes in The Exorcist? Popeye Doyle nearly running down a baby carriage during the French Connection car chase? The truck full of nitroglycerin teetering on a suspension bridge during a South American rainstorm in Sorcerer? No, it's the Pacino Dance. It will chill you to the bone.

Cruising is a highly unsettling film on many levels, the least unsettling aspect being the series of unsolved late '70s S&M club knife murders on which the film is built. By serial killer movie standards, they are rather tame, watered-down Psycho shower stabbings set in seedier locations. I have a feeling that, after The Exorcist, these scenes in Cruising may have been the ones that interested him the least. Friedkin's film is most unsettling when it goes undercover--the titular "cruising" scenes where Pacino idly trolls the underground leather clubs, offering himself up as fresh meat in order to catch the killer. The ambiguous way Friedkin shoots them (Is Pacino's cop disgusted? Is he turned on? Or is he just undercover?) gives them an undeniably eerie chill, a great effect for a psychological thriller about losing one's identity. That said, it may not be so great for advancing a positive image of the gay lifestyle in late '70s New York.

I like a little ambiguity in my '70s flicks (especially my '70s thrillers). But there's ambiguity by design, and there's irresponsible storytelling by accident. Cruising seems to ride both lines. When Pacino begins to crack midway through the film, tries to beg off his undercover assignment from the captain (Paul Sorvino) with cries "I can't do it anymore, it's affecting me, it's changing me," we're not sure if it's due to a moral quandary with police methods, acute homosexual panic, or a newly discovered attraction to homicide. This willful ambiguity on Friedkin's part allows for the easy conflation of two different questions about Pacino's character: "Is he really gay?" and "Is he really a murderer?" Obviously, the mix and match nature of these questions is bound to be upsetting to gay audiences, especially when the film's non-answer (and Pacino's final look into the camera/mirror) seems to be: "What's the difference? It's bad either way." Add to that the fact that a real killer--the AIDS epidemic--was about to hit the community hard a year later, and you've got a recipe for riot.

Touchy politics aside, Cruising is a better film than I remembered. The soundtrack is great with Jack Nitzsche's minimalist spine-tingling pluckings accompanied by hardcore punk performances by the likes of The Germs. You've got James Remar, Ed O'Neill, Karen Allen, Joe Spinell and Powers Boothe in early supporting roles. And Pacino...well, he looks a little lost, especially when he's dancing...but this is still '70s Pacino (not '90s, not 2000's) so the confusion is likely by design. Cruising also includes one of the best WTF moments in all of Friedkin's movies, the one where a jock strap and cowboy hat sporting Tiny Lister lookalike is released into an interrogation room to bitch-smack a perp (then Pacino) one time before exiting, buttocks-bared.

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