Directed by William Friedkin
Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen
“Obligatory” isn’t quite the right word for this week’s entry; “historically significant” is likely a better fit. Cruising comes from William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist. While the plot ostensibly involves a serial killer targeting members of the 1980’s gay bondage subculture community, the film becomes luridly fascinated with the extremes on display during that time.
As such, Cruising, for all its flaws, is one of the only pieces of visual fiction set in NYC’s underground WHILE it was in its heyday.
June is Pride month, so I wanted to do a theme regarding sexual minorities. As mentioned before, however, classic films regarding trans people can be problematic. Therefore, I decided to lean in, making this month’s theme…
While I was poking around for May’s murder theme, this movie popping up in my Max queue, then, later, on a few different “essential LGBT+ cinema” lists. Once I saw the pedigree behind it, I became curious as to why I’d never even heard of it. The answer was quickly apparent: critics at the time found it artistically muddled, audiences found it too graphic, and gay people found it offensive.
So why, then, did it keep coming up in my research? Cruising, viewed today with significant historical distance from the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, does some things SHOCKINGLY right–especially regarding gender identity and sex workers’ rights. Some in queer communities have reevaluated the film, praising the film’s successes while still pointing out its flaws.
Fascinated by the debate, I had to see Cruising for myself.
New York, 1980: The sex-club heyday is in full swing, and the gay underground scene is nothing but leather (or lack of it). Within one such club is a man dressed in aviators, a police cap, and slick curly hair. He’s on the prowl, but looking for literal prey instead of action.
The graphic, sexual nature of his victims’ corpses has caught the attention of Captain Edelson. One of Edelson’s ambitious young officers, Steve Burns, looks like the killer’s type, so he offers Burns a risky opportunity–go undercover and get marked as a victim, then get promoted to Sergeant at a record young age.
Burns takes him up on the offer, warning his girlfriend that he might come back from the mission changed. While Burns is initially shy about getting his feet (among other body parts) wet, the manically charged atmosphere of the clubs seeps into his soul, changing his appetites away from sex entirely. The longer the mission continues, the more Burns begins to understand the killer’s state of mind. Ironically, Burns hopes that he can become a victim before be becomes a victimizer.
Like others who’ve critically reappraised the film, I found the specific world that the movie captured enthralling. Al Pacino’s character neatly provides an audience surrogate as he learns the ins and outs of the club scene. Watching the film decades removed from its release, I found Cruising to be less homophobic than I had anticipated. While certainly not egalitarian, I think the movie features less gay panic than its contemporaries because Reagan-era conservatism and AIDS hysteria hadn’t quite hit yet. As such, the movie presents a sincere navigation through New York’s gay-club culture, giving the audience a fairly unbiased survey (at least, at first…)
The movie also contains three sensitively-handled subplots concerning characters experiencing nuanced cultural issues. Firstly, before the opening murder even reaches Captain Edlestein’s desk, the man has to deal with two transgender sex workers who’ve reported assaults from police officers. Edlestein surprisingly believes them, but explains the realities of the situation. Throughout the movie, Edlestein gathers evidence and becomes convinced there is a police gang that’s promoting this abuse. To even acknowledge human rights and consent boundaries for sex workers (much less trans members) was unheard of at the time, but Cruising goes even farther, laying bare the police abuse and brutality of the day.
Speaking of police brutality, Pacino’s character brings in a suspect for questioning, and then is horrified by the treatment the suspect receives. The evidence quickly makes clear that the suspect isn’t the killer. That doesn’t matter, however, because the NYPD beats him half to death using bizarre methods so that, should this suspect complain, no one would believe him. Incidents like this were common in real-life 1970s New York, and Cruising took statements from many LGBTQ+ police victims at the time. More importantly, Pacino’s character protests this violence to his captain, saying that it’s “wrong to beat up a guy just because he’s gay.”
Finally, Cruising contains a character too pure for its world. While undercover, Burns meets a genial neighbor who shows him around the area. Said neighbor, however, is in an abusive relationship with a controlling, jealous partner. Though being an abuser and being gay has no correlation, many LGBTQ+ people of the time fell victim to predatory relationships. Because many gay people were (and still are) ostracized from their loved ones and communities, abusers had an extra source of fear to weaponize against their victims. This is, sadly, explored realistically through the neighbor character, adding yet another wieght to Burns’ heart.
These subplots, woven together, portray a moving appeal to audiences regarding the struggles this community was facing at the time…
…and then said, “See? That’s why these people are crazy!” The more Pacino’s character submerses himself in the culture, the more violent he notices himself becoming. Even though Burns isn’t gay, it doesn’t matter. Just being around the scene is enough to corrupt him. The whole proceeding, though perhaps unintentionally, gives off the vibe of “gay=violent or gay=depraved.” This ambivalence within the movie undercuts so many of the points Cruising was trying to make.
Another way Cruising undercuts its message is when it pulls its punches regarding its main character. Despite the edgy imagery I’ve included, I found the movie paradoxically prudish. Pacino’s character rarely has to get his hands dirty and never actually performs any same-sex acts. Cruising won’t even let its audience fill in the blanks regarding Burns’ undercover work. Any time Burns toes the line, the movie explicitly makes clear that he never touches anyone. Then, for good measure, we get an explicit sex scene with his girlfriend.
I understand that the movie’s of its time. Were the audience to think Pacino was gay in real life, his career could have been tarnished. Therefore, the movie can only go so far. Strangely, the only other movie I can think of that has this “look, but don’t touch” problem is The Hunger Games. In that film, Katniss Everdeen needs to survive a Battle Royale against other teens, yet the film can’t make her a cold-blooded killer, lest the audience stops rooting for her. Instead, she conveniently finds herself in situations that absolve her of guilt. Cruising is much the same, which leads back to my earlier criticism: If culture is contagious, why is Pacino’s character immune to everything but violence?
The membership for this one is pretty exclusive. I could see a queer studies or collegiate-level American history class exploring this movie, but I’m not sure if anyone else would enjoy it. While there are good things about Cruising, and the sub-culture it depicts was an important part of LGBTQ+ history, there are better stories about these minorities being told.