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The Dangers of Swordplay: Cruising (1980)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 20, 2007 11:59pm | Post a Comment
A quick Google search reveals (well, confirms) that the snooty de rigueur critical terms ‘lyrical’ and ‘poetic’, which let you know that a film is serious art, rather than déclassé entertainment, pop up frequently with discussions of Claire Denis’ BEAU TRAVAIL, but only accidentally, if at all, with William Friedkin’s CRUISING.  (‘Poetic’ even shows up as a plot keyword in the former’s IMDB listing, whereas the latter gets words like ‘perversion’, ‘evil’ and ‘stabbed in the back’.)  Yet both films feature extended sequences of men with beautiful bodies, clustered together and moving in rhythm to music; both are concerned with men of uniform in their habitus, either diurnal or nocturnal, performing a ritual; and both argue for a certain degree of fluidity in male sexuality – however, degree is implicated by using highly different narrative styles.  The “poetic” homophilia of BEAU TRAVAIL is more a suggestion through the recognition of the beauty of male movement, so any of its purported gayness has plausible deniability (like obsessive wrestling fans rewatching old matches of Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka), whereas CRUISING quite literally and graphically depicts the lure of homosexuality for even the most macho of men, NYC cops.  If the object of audience identification, a straight cop, Steve Burns (Al Pacino), can catch it by breathing in the salty air of late 70s S&M clubs and dirty rags drenched in amyl nitrate, then you might, too.  I guess lyricism and poesis don’t spring to mind when our hero is starting to get turned on by a greasy depiction of fisting.

That homosexuality might be taught, or that it could lure someone in, remains a controversial idea among gay rights advocates.  Essentialism qua naturalism tends to be a more comforting thought, and not without some good reason.  Religious demagogues work up the fear of right-wing parents by suggesting that their children might catch the immoral queer “meme.”  Thus, the possibility that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality becomes a way of assuaging these bigoted fears, or at least as a scientistic defense.  But this has always been a fallacious debate.  Just because something’s natural doesn’t give it moral propriety.   If a murder-gene were found, society wouldn’t suddenly start calling murder moral.   And so it goes with homosexuality: regardless of whether Steve Burns starts off as latently gay, or begins to become more gay as he goes undercover in the gay S&M outre-mer to investigate a string of murders is unimportant, the moral questions raised by the film shouldn’t be any different.  Homosexuality is no more nor less moral for being biologically natural than heterosexuality.

Much like the possession in the EXORCIST, there is a demonic force at work in this film where there are multiple people doing the killings (4 onscreen and 1 offscreen), but with seemingly one unified consciousness (kind of like Bob in TWIN PEAKS).  As explained in a documentary accompanying the film on dvd, as well as a detailed study of the film and its production notes by Bill Krohn, Friedkin plays a Buñuelian trick by having different actors play the Killer and some of those same actors also playing the victim.  Bare with me:  The fellow whom Steve Burns targets as the Killer is named Stuart Richards (Richard Cox), who, as shown in a flashback sequence, could never meet up to the repressive superego demands of his dad, Jack (Leland Starnes), due in large part to the son’s sexual proclivities (his earning potential being represented by his graduate studies in theater, a stereotypically gay profession).  It’s important to note that Jack’s voice isn’t done by the actor who plays him, but by another (James Sutorius), who never appears in the film.  It is his voice, credited as the Voice of Jack, that also speaks for the Killer in the three murders we get to see as they happen.  The first onscreen murder is in an hotel room involving an unnamed character (Larry Atlas) killing a guy, Lucas (Arnaldo Santana), whom he has picked up at the S&M club, The Cockpit.  The second murder takes place in Central Park with the Killer now being played by Richard Cox and the victim by Larry Atlas (previously the Killer).  The third murder is that of Martino (Steve Inwood) in a peepshow.  The Killer here is played by two people: Santana (formerly the Victim, Lucas) in the hallway outside the peepshow and, once again, Cox inside.  Stuart Richards (Cox) is identified as the Killer in the peepshow due to his leaving a bloody fingerprint on a quarter that he inserts into the slot after stabbing his victim to death.  All murders are done with the same-styled steak knife, since what’s a better queer stand-in for the Surrealists’ vagina dentata than penetrating a body with a utensil made for cutting meat?  Of the other two murders, only one is attached to Stuart, that of his theater professor, which takes place before the movie begins.  The last murder is of Ted (Don Scardino), the nice neighbor of Steve’s, once he has gone undercover.  We see the bloody results, more stab-wounds, but it occurs after Stuart’s been captured.  The two possible suspects left are Ted’s jealous roommate/lover and Steve, who has since moved out an gone back to his straight life with his girl, Nancy (Karen Allen).  Steve was shown earlier fighting with the roommate in what could only be a jealous rage brought on by the latter’s telling the former to look elsewhere for casual sex.  Whether Steve ever had homosexual sex is left unanswered, but he was clearly wanting to.

In his commentary on the film, Friedkin stresses that he used the S&M subculture only as an interesting backdrop for a murder mystery, that it was to present the genre in a setting that had not been depicted in film before (much less a mainstream film).  That he and his production team went to great lengths to get a realistic portrayal of a minority’s subculture is evidenced by the eroticized scenes of the clubdwellers being some of the most effective depictions of gay sexuality in a mainstream movie.  Clearly, he was presenting it as a form of exotica, otherness aimed at commenting on what the majority considers normal more than an understanding of the other itself.  Since many gay objections to the film at the time centered on the movie’s supposed presentation of a minority camp as the majority of gay life, one can assume the strangeness of the backdrop wasn’t just for straight viewers.  A radical queer theorist might call his usage of S&M thoroughly bourgeois, but I don’t much see it as being necessarily immoral (again, there is no other mainstream film with such vivid portrayals of gay sexuality, with or without bondage – that has to count for something).

Where things get morally dicey is in the potential parallel that might be drawn between the parasitic nature of evil in the form of a inter-bodied voice and the fluid sexuality of Steve.  At its core, the film is perfectly ambiguous.  On one reading, as Steve gets increasingly drawn into the gay underworld, he gets increasingly violent.  He even says to his Captain (Edelson, played by Paul Sorvino) that he’s losing control, thinking things he shouldn’t be.  Whether that’s of repressed homosexual yearning or an inclination to murder, the movie leaves unresolved.  That the only normal – i.e., non-exotic – gay man, Ted is murdered, possibly by a “good cop” who went in too deep, does leave the impression that there’s something pernicious about this sexual subculture; it’s not merely simulated sadism for pleasure.  Robin Wood (“The Incoherent Text” in Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan ... and Beyond) makes the counterpoint that nothing about the film’s nihilistic diegesis shows any sort of positive value to sex, even of the hetero-variety.  The first discussion of sexuality in the film  is by two police officers, one of whom has just been left by his wife, to which the other replies, “they’re all scum.”  However, the two are then shown forcing two tranny-prostitutes to give them head – hardly an equivocal indictment of all sexual orientations.  Relatedly, as Steve’s sexual relation with Nancy begins to falter, he turns increasingly to the violent underworld, only to come back once Ted is dead, regardless of who actually did the deed.  The final shot of Steve looking into the bathroom mirror as Nancy puts on his S&M costume and then turning his gaze to her/the audience suggests a warning that the Voice of Jack has infected normal culture, just like Agent Cooper finally inviting Bob in.

On another reading (more or less, a take on Wood’s), the Voice of Jack is the voice of the Father, i.e., of repression, and that the violence comes from a reaction to having one’s self – in this case, sexual identity – subjugated.   Repress sex itself, and desire will begin to fetishize just about anything that’s handy.  During the Hays Code, in CASABLANCA, we saw Bogey looking outside of hotel room at a large cock ... I mean, clock, as Ingrid Bergman sat on a bed behind him.  Cut to 30 seconds later and he’s lighting a cigarette while her hair’s looking slightly tousled.  Did they have sex?  Thirty seconds gave the filmmakers plausible deniability for the censors, but a wink at the audience.  Or think of the two cowpokes in FORTY GUNS comparing the size of their pistols.  Again, plausible deniability.  It gets even more extreme when a Westerner views tentacle porn from Japan.  They can’t show genitalia, but they can show multiple rapes in a cartoon, so long as the tentacles aren’t actual penises?  Crazy shit.  So, in CRUISING, we get what is acceptable, the representation of violence, being fetishized into sexual play.  The threats of force used by cops on the gay community as shown, for example, by the treatment of the transvestites gets sexually sublimated as Precinct Night at the S&M bar, where Steve gets kicked out for ironically not dressing as a cop.  Under this reading, the final gaze of Steve’s is a warning against accepting the voice of oppression as one’s own, rather than having a redefinition of cultural norms.  The desire remains, but will it reach a healthy sexuality, or get displaced as a knife in the back?  The murderous reaction might be just as allegorical as the disembodied voice, but the violence it represents to an individual’s psychology is real enough to suggest the movie isn’t easily reduced to mere homophobia.

The two (at a minimum) irreconcilable readings are an indication of the film’s being what Wood calls an incoherent text.  It tries to address a repressed subject in the form mainstream filmmaking, which doesn’t yet have the proper discourse in place for exploring the subject.  That it addressed such a subversive subject at all already put it years ahead of mainstream 90s dross like PHILADELPHIA and LONGTIME COMPANION.

As someone who misses the sexually repressed days of Hollywood, where everything but sex was sexual, I find one of the strongest attributes to Friedkin’s film is that he managed to find a form of repressed sexuality, which impregnates every scene with double entendres.  As Steve is beginning to question his sexuality, he answers a fellow officer’s query of why he didn’t go with a potential suspect who was cruising him by saying, “I don’t know, I kind of choked.”  When Steve does follow the suspect up to a hotel room, other cops bust in to find Steve tied up like the first victim in the film.  One of the cops asks him, “did he show you his knife?”  Steve, disappointed, replies that they came in too early.  After bringing the suspect in for interrogation, a cop asks, “you were going to stick him?”  The suspect replies, “whadaya mean?”  I love stuff like that, and every inch of the film is filled with it.  Combine that with Friedkin’s strained fidelity to realism, where he includes every related story he heard into his narrative – including an interrogation procedure involving a large muscular black man in a jock-strap – and only SHOWGIRLS might come closer to recapturing the poetic and lyrical days of film noir.

Relevant Tags

Gay Rights (5), Dvd Criticism (26), Oppression (2), Robin Wood (4), Sublimate (1), Violence (12), William Friedkin (4), Homosexuality (2), Gays (71), Al Pacino (1), S&m (2)