“A World Unto Itself”: Al Pacino Is CRUISING For A Bruising In An Exemplary New Arrow Release…

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

In 1979, radiographer Paul Bateson was arraigned for one of several killings that had recently disfigured New York’s underground gay scene. Bateson’s previous claim to fame / notoriety was performing the cringe-inducing cerebral angiography in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). The director visited him on Riker’s Island and by his (disputed) account, was both alarmed and fascinated when Bateson told him that he’d been offered a reduced sentence if he copped for other murders, to make NYPD’s clear up ratio look better. This, plus a Gerald Walker novel based on the killings, became the inspiration for Friedkin’s Cruising (1980)…

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Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is an ambitious young cop looking for a short cut to his detective’s badge. Because he shares many physical characteristics with several gay men who’ve already fallen foul of a serial killer, Capt. Edelson (Paul Sorvino) asks if he’s willing to pose as psycho bait. Burns readily assents but is warned that the milieu he’ll be moving into is “a world unto itself… heavy metal… S/M”. Reborn as “John Forbes”, Burns goes deep undercover in the meat packing district (ooh er, Missus!), frequenting such legendary establishments as The Ramrod and The Mine Shaft (Friedkin filmed in the actual venues, populated – with the understandable exception of the principal actors – by regular patrons) to bone up on his hankie etiquette and get closer (increasingly dangerously so) to the killer and / or killers. Unable to talk about his secret posting, Burns / Forbes realises that his relationship with girlfriend Nancy (the always adorable Karen Allen) is suffering and Nancy soon notices how he’s changing. Is he developing a taste for the gay life? Or something much darker?

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Even before shooting began, Cruising divided opinion in and beyond the gay community. The aforementioned heavy leather S/M crowd got right behind it but there was a strain of more mainstream homosexual opinion which held that a decade after the Stonewall riots, the director of such sensationalist fare as The Exorcist might be about to unpick the tentative social progress that had been and was being made. As Friedkin himself concedes, water sports, fist-fucking and serial killing might well not constitute the community’s “best foot forward” in this regard. Attempts were made to disrupt the films shooting (much of the dialogue exchanges had to be subsequently re-looped) and there were civil disturbances at early screenings. Cruising was and remains controversial stuff, with each revival / re-release serving as a weather vane for where we are now, attitude wise…

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Having said that, I must confess that this is the first time I’ve watched Cruising since its theatrical release in the UK. I remember that in 1980 I was fairly impressed by its gritty edginess (though of course its orgiastic tableaux now look pretty tame compared to, e.g. the opening / closing scenes of Gaspar Noé’s 2002 effort Irreversible) and found myself irresistibly drawn into its mystery, only to be frustrated by the film’s increasingly wayward narrative en route to a “WTF?” denouement, leaving the theatre with the impression that Friedkin had… er, blown an intriguing premise. In addition, of course, there was the lurking suspicion that Cruising was, yes indeedy, homophobic.

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39 years later, viewed through the prism of the cinematic obsessions I’ve accreted in the past four decades, my initial impression was how much influence Cruising (itself a vaguely gialloesque proposition) has exerted over another, perhaps even more notorious offering, Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982), way over and above that of the other obvious precedent, Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill (1980). Of course Cruising wasn’t exactly fresh in my mind by the time I finally got to see Fulci’s much-banned giallo.

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Pacino’s attempts at dancing with amyl-fuelled gay abandon still look pretty risible (then again I think everybody – with the probable exception of Fred Astaire – looks pretty silly when they’re dancing)… and what exactly the fuck is it with the scenes in which a humungous black guy straight out of Tom Of Finland steps into interrogations, slaps suspects around then shimmies out the door?

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Friedkin makes fantastic use of Joe Spinell’s unforgettable physiognomy at various points and I’ve always cherished the entry that turns up in one suspect’s diary (“I feel my thoughts being born in my head. I can feel them taking shape. If only I could stop thinking. I can’t help but feel I’m on the verge of a discovery of some sort. Yesterday in the park, I saw an enormous dark shape. It seemed to hang suspended and dripping from the trees like a tar jelly. At its centre was a bright red glow”) because I love it when killers in these things have some kind of cracked mystical motivation. Still, not a patch on David Keith’s insane cosmological speculations in Donald Cammell’s White Of The Eye (1987, below).

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That demented diarist is only one of several candidates that Al’s got his eye on and I have to concede that I’m still as baffled as I was in 1980 regarding who exactly is killing whom… and why. Different suspects speak with the same creepy voice (and recite the same macabre nursery rhyme) as the hallucinated father of one of them. Is this a really lame attempt to forge some kind of link in the viewer’s mind between Cruising and Friedkin’s megahit The Exorcist (the director deploys subliminal footage to unsettling effect in both)? It doesn’t exactly help that a lot of the victims and possible killers look exactly like each other. Isn’t that what prejudiced people always say about minorities? Am I homophobic? Nah, just confused. I’ve spoken to gay friends and fellow pundits about Cruising and the general consensus seems to be that the film is problematic but probably not homophobic. But when Friedkin opines in one of the commentary tracks that “some of the cops were also degenerate”, you have to wonder.

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The impossibility of pinning down a single killer in Cruising leaves it open to the interpretation that even if you could put somebody away, there are always going to be more killings because “that’s what homsexuality is all about… deviance and premature death, innit?” Other possible interpretations emerge during the course of the supplementary materials on this disc. Apart from a trailer and two useful featurettes concentrating on the film’s genesis, production and controversial impact, you get a couple of commentary tracks. The archive one by Friedkin is a curiously unenlightening affair, for long stretches of which he merely describes what’s happening on screen. I really surprised myself by my positive response to the second, more recent track, in which BF’s comments are mediated by Mark Kermode…

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“Surprised myself” chiefly because I’ve never quite understood the esteem in which Kermode is rated as a critic. One of the biggest problems I have with him is his ongoing insistence that The Exorcist is, rather than some superior, turbo-charged variation on William Castle‘s formula of conveyor belt shocks, the best / most profound movie ever made. I mean… really, Mark? Come on…

DvW9_OMWwAAUoLa.jpg-large.jpegHere, however he relentlessly nags at Friedkin to explain himself and the unfolding explanation is one where the narrative dead ends down which this film cruises are more attributable to intent than ineptitude on the director’s part. By his contention, WF was loath to hand viewers an easy wrap-up (“like a hamburger in a paper bag”) for a complex situation. As he was articulating this position, it occurred to me that I’d been maintaining a double standard by kvetching about this aspect of Cruising while Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) remains a fixture on my all time Top 10 (quite possibly Top 5) films list. Friedkin even offers a plausible (albeit still a tad far fetched) explanation of the black guy in the cowboy hat and jockstrap.

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The main feature has never looked or sounded better than here, in a 4K restoration / 5.1 sound reworking. I still entertain nagging doubts about it but after consuming this edition I appreciate Cruising a lot more and understand it maybe a little better. Isn’t that precisely what these collector’s editions are supposed to do for us?

It was particularly helpful, while marshalling my thoughts (such as they are) on this film, to chat with @jonnylarkin from those Screaming Queenz. Here’s their SQ podcast on Cruising. Enjoy.

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