There is a large, loud question right at the center of
“Cruising,” and because the movie lacks the courage to answer it, what could
have been a powerful film dissipates its force and leaves us feeling merely
confused and annoyed. The question is: How does the hero of this film, an
undercover New York policeman, ultimately really feel about the world of
homosexual sadomasochistic sex he is assigned to infiltrate?
he touched by the sexual underground in an important way? Is his own sexuality
involved? Is he intrigued by the aura of violence? The movie won’t say. And its
failure to commit itself would be less annoying if it weren’t for the fact that
the whole thrust of the movie is toward setting up those questions –which the
ending then leaves deliberately and confusingly unanswered.
is, of course, a film with a controversial history. It’s about a series of
violent New York murders in which the victims all frequent clandestine Manhattan
nightclubs in which gay men gather to dance, drink and make pairings while
enveloped in an S&M atmosphere of leather, boots, whips and chains. Clubs
like that thrive in all the big cities, and their promise of danger is usually
when director William Friedkin announced plans to set a movie in that milieu,
and to film it as much as possible on location, the New York gay community rose
up in protest. “Cruising,” they said, would present a distorted view of gay
life. It would imply the small subculture of S&M was more prevalent than it
is, and that, if gays were “into” violence, attacks on them would somehow be
validity of these arguments is questionable and I plan to discuss them in
another article. For the purposes of this review, however, let it be said that
the dramatic power of “Cruising” seems to have been very negatively affected by
the protests against the movie. There’s evidence here that key elements of Al
Pacino’s central role were altered or compromised so that Pacino’s own
involvement in the events of the plot is deliberately left unclear. Since the
movie is about his involvement – much more than it’s “about” the challenge of
solving the killings – what we’re left with is a movie without the courage to
plays Steve Burns, a young patrolman who's assigned to go undercover, enter the
waterfront world of S&M bars, and try to attract the man who has been
stabbing young men to death. Why Is he chosen? Because he matches a rough
physical description of the victims. Who is the Pacino character, and what's he
like? The movie never really tells us: We learn so little about this guy we
almost suspect that important scenes have been left out. He does have a
girlfriend, we learn, and his work in the gay bars seems to affect his
relationship with her . . . but why? How?
don't know, because he evades her questions with monosyllables. Is he bisexual
himself? Again, we can't say, and the movie is so annoyingly unclear about
whether he actually engages in sex with the men he meets in the bars that it's
a cop-out. Whether he does or doesn't have gay sex Is central to this story'
and the movie makes that obvious, and yet Friedkin looks the other way at
crucial moments. Is he afraid to offend anybody? Then why choose this subject?
murder investigation itself Is complicated enough on the surface. but careful
thought after the movie will reveal that the plot structure is basically a
mess. That isn't supposed to matter, I think, because the movie is really
supposed to be about Pacino's progressive involvement with the S&M
subculture. And there is some implied evidence that by the end of the movie
Pacino is moving toward a gay orientation and does not find S&M all that
unspeakably out of the question.
the movie fudges on that too, though, we're finally left in a state of
exasperation. And the movie's final scene-Pacino's girlfriend puts on his
leathers and clanks toward him as the screen fades to black-is a complete red
a movie that's well visualized, that does a riveting job of exploring an
authentic subculture, that has a fairly high level of genuine suspense from
beginning to end. . and that then seems to make a conscious decision not to
declare itself on its central subject. What does Friedkin finally think his
movie is about?