Sunday, September 09, 2007


William Friedkin's controversial 1980 film Cruising is getting released on DVD. It is also showing in theatres in limited engagement. I caught hold of one such screening today. (It was pretty lonely, there were only three-four people in the theatre.) Specially given its widespread notoriety and the presence of an A-list star, I was surprised that I hadn't even heard of it until recently. The details about the controversy surrounding the original release of the film are very well described in this article from village voice. Basically the gay community was up in arms against the film for its portrayal of the underground gay subculture of extreme sex specially in the way the film promoted, or so they thought, the idea that it was a part of the mainstream gay life in new york. Also the serial killer on the prowl narrative engendered suspicion that the film was trying to draw parallels between "transgressive" sexuality and murder.

Now after having seen the film I personally don't think any of these claims of homophobia against the film are justified in any way. It may be unjustifiably maligned and overlooked but it is also no masterpiece which is a shame because the original idea is potentially quite explosive. With a bit of intelligence and sensitivity on the part of the writer-director it could have easily entered into the territory of classic urban-horror genre, exemplified by Taxi Driver. With a bit of effort it could also have said a lot of interesting and meaningful things about gender panic and masculine identity. It does hover around all these subjects but never really goes deeper.

The basic plot follows the standard police-procedural, serial-killer narrative. A serial killer is on the loose in the new york city gay community. To hunt down the killer Al Pacino, who resembles the killer's victims, is sent as an undercover cop who pretends to be looking for sex in bars and cruising locations. With time as he spends his time in the infernal bars his own psyche starts to disintegrate. In the end he finds out who the killer is but then it is perhaps too late. The film ends on a surprising, ambiguous and deeply troubling note.

The charges of homophobia are not that difficult to dismiss. In fact the film is quite perceptive in identifying the collective sexual panic and resulting state sponsored violence and persecution of the gay community. There is also a very subtle performance by Al Pacino showing his own confusion about gender identity as he ventures out in the world which he has never been to before. There is also a subplot in which he befriends his young sensitive gay neighbour, an aspiring playwright who serves as a counterpoint to his vacuous and inert girlfriend.

The problems with the film are not political but artistic. It is definitely far from being a failure even in that area, but it sure doesn't deliver on the initial premise. The flaws become clearer when one starts comparing it with Taxi Driver. Unlike that film here the point of view is always detached and distanced. As a result whole thing looks objective and "authentic" which it surely is not. It also leaves very little room for Al Pacino to improvise and portray his own confusion and panic. He keeps saying, "it's affecting me" but we never see or feel how. As a result the final revelation isn't as disturbing as it could probably have been. It could also have avoided problems with the gay people if it had limited itself to the subjective point of view of the protagonist. Surely Taxi Driver had far more homophobic rants! (One scene as a reminder, one of my favourites too.)

Even with all these flaws the film is still very interesting to watch. Grim, unpleasant, depressing and deeply unsettling and troubling like few mainstream hollywood movies are. There is a lot of interesting commentary on the internet about the film though most of them discuss politics more than the film itself. Two nice articles here and here.

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