June 30, 2011

Queer Review: Cruising (1980)

Director: William Friedkin
Writer: William Friedkin. Based upon the novel by Gerald Walker.
Cast: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino

"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you." Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Originally protested by queer activists at the time of its release, Cruising wears it's homophobia blatantly on its leather sleeves. I believe people in general are sometimes too easily offended, but Cruising earns all of the animosity and criticism that has been directed at it over the years thanks to its blatant bigotry.

Straight cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is tapped to go undercover by the police chief (Paul Sorvino) to investigate a disturbing series of murders of gay men. Once undercover, he must learn to adopt to what is him a strange culture, while being separated from his girlfriend (Karen Allen).

The Queering
There is a certain kinship that Cruising shares with the pre-stonewall film The Detective. Both feature police officers performing homicide investigations into the murders of gay men and have villains who are the self loathing type of queer whose crimes are motivated by that repression. Both are also extremely problematic in their portrayal of gay characters. However, while The Detective can be excused as it was clearly attempting a sympathetic portrayal for the gay lifestyle and for its time period.

Cruising, however, represents a clear regression. Even taking the two time periods out of the equation, Cruising's portrayal of gay men is much more homophobic than what audiences were exposed to in The Detective. The ending itself is of particular concern, with its evocation of the gay recruiting myth and the suggestion that Steve Burns had become that which he had been fighting. Look into the abyss and the abyss looks back into you but what is the real abyss here? The amoral black hole created by the serial killers murderous rampage or his sexual orientation? The film does not make it clear and its ambiguous attitude is what dooms it.

From an aesthetic point of view, there is nothing particularly wrong with this film. There is also nothing that particularly stands out either. The plot is your standard serial killer being pursued by determined police, with the gay cruising angle thrown in simply to add some spice. There also also some nice cinematography featuring the grittier areas of NYC at night and a particularly beautiful shot with the sun setting as Burns enters his girlfriend's apartment.

The scenes of Al Pacino cruising in gay bars, looking for the killer are somewhat effective in there portrayal of gay leather bars. The filmmakers apparently took the time and effort to shot in actual gay bars and recruited the customers before filming took place to act as extras.

The lone upside to Cruising's release was that the protests it generated prompted Hollywood to reconsider its portrayals of gay characters. Seen in this light, it could be argued that many of the pro-gay films made and released in the 80's (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Victor/Victoria, My Beautiful Laundrette) owe their existence and success to Cruising.

Not for anyone really, other than those who wish to see the film that helped change Hollywood by providing an example of what not to do. The one star is only for the reforms that Cruising inspired, not for the film itself.

The Rating


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