William Friedkin’s “Cruising” is 27 years old this year and it has finally been released on DVD. Let me say from the very beginning that if you have not seen it yet, then you must. The reasons why I say this will be discussed in this post. When the movie was released it was a dismal box office failure. I wonder if that had anything to do with the fact that for the first time, we saw poppers, pierced nipples, uninhibited sex, slings and the inside of New York leather bars. What we get on DVD is a restored, digitalized edition of what was once considered “politically insensitive trash”. It is remembered because teenaged boys discovered, by watching the movie, that there are other uses for Crisco than deep frying.
“Cruising” Was shot in New York City in 1980 and was wildly protested. It is a movie that suffers from a thin plot about urban “dread” and a slasher serial killer who stalked the city’s gay leather community. The police captain, played by Paul Sorvino, assigns rookie cop, Al Pacino, to walk the streets as undercover bait. He chose the rookie because he resembled three of the corpses which had been found bobbing in the river. Pacino recreates himself into a leather boy and begins to hang out in the meatpacking district of the city at bars such as the Ramrod and the Manhole where he finds himself drowning in an ocean of men. He tries to track down the killer and in the process experiences his own feelings of homophobia. As all of this is going on, the movie tends to become hazy and ambiguous.
When the movie came out, a mainstream slasher film set in the gay milieu and in one of the kinkiest aspects of the gay subculture was agonizing for the gay community and for the gay liberation movement. The gay movement of the time used the motto “We’re just like you” and the movie showed that they were indeed very different. The movie, from such a talented director like Freidkin, should have been spectacular and it was for the first hour. Unfortunately, the weakness of the plot then took over and any sense of energy is quickly depleted from the film. The kinky sexuality of the beginning of the film became replaced by little more than pedestrian gore.
We got half of a good film and the reason that half is so good is because it is honest and authentic. Friedkin shows us a New York City of sexual delights, mythical and magically sensuous. Central Park is a veritable smorgasbord of sexuality and the meatpacking district is loaded with adults finding and getting exactly the kind of sex they were looking for.
The movie totally infuriated the gay community at the time but now we see it as a fascinating glimpse of what gay life was, even if it was a Hollywood version of it. It is now a part of our history and a look at the way Hollywood treated us as a disenfranchised minority. Not many gay movies have the gumption or the audacity to show poppers in a leather bar and the film is executed with style and class and it is not nearly as offensive as some of the more recent films I have seen. It was not meant to represent the entire gay community but just one aspect of it. The movie was made way before its time and Al Pacino gives a brilliant performance.
Now with over 72,000 people dead fro AIDS in New York to date, it only stands to reason that many of the people that are in the club scenes are no longer alive. But in this movie, in the discos, in their flannel shirts and leather chaps, behind their mustached faces and mutton sideburns, they are smiling. They managed to find a place in the world where everything finally makes sense and this is what the movie is about if we ignore the serial killer aspect of it—it’s a movie about having fun. The days of “Cruising” and cruising are lost forever and at least we have the movie to remember them by.