"No! No one EVER built them like this! The architect was either an authentic genius or a certified whacko."
William Friedkin's Cruising is a bit like the apartment building in Ghostbusters. You look at it and wonder just what the hell the man who made it was thinking at the time. Friedkin, quoted in Time Out New York, asserts to this day that he was interested in the world of underground gay clubs purely "as a background for a murder mystery" but the finished film tells a different story. The detective character, played by Al Pacino, doesn't so much look into things as he looks at things, while all manner of lascivious activity swirls around him in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. And if the movie is truly just a "murder mystery," it's a pretty unconventional one, lacking a clear-cut solution or well-defined heroes and villains. Who was Friedkin designing this movie for? What are we supposed to take away from it? I will say this about it: Cruising looks and feels like few other movies in Hollywood history. I can't think of too many other Hollywood movies where there are more speaking parts for men dressed as women than for actual women.
The story begins when severed limbs start bobbing to the surface in the waters off of New York City. The NYPD suspects the killer is choosing his targets while cruising downtown S&M clubs so Pacino's Steve Burns, a uniformed cop who matches the victims' physical profile, is chosen to go undercover as bait in the West Village to lure out the murderer. While he's waiting to get picked up by the right guy, Pacino learns the codes of New York's gay leather underground: what it means, for instance, if you've got a red hanky in your left pocket versus a blue one in your right. Burns is supposedly searching for a killer, but he doesn't seem particularly motivated. He starts to lose himself in his role, maybe even enjoy it.
Friedkin gets lost too; he might have set out to make a murder mystery, just as Pacino's character might have set out to solve one, but they both get sidetracked by the lure of voyeurism. And there is plenty to see; the movie, and the people in it, are not shy about the details, even if Friedkin had to make extensive trims to these sequences in order to receive an R rating from the MPAA. The nuts and bolts of Burns' investigation get a lot less screentime than the people in these bars. They, rather than the ambiguous, incomplete murder mystery, is the true focus of the film.
Cruising was and still is best known for the controversy that swirled around its production. Gay protesters objected to the material and repeatedly disrupted the shoot. Generally I remain at least a little skeptical of anyone who protests a movie they haven't seen. But while I don't think anyone involved in the movie set out to make anything hateful, it's true that what they wound up with isn't particularly flattering either. At times, the movie seems a little embarrassed by itself, and even goes so far as to preemptively apologize for its representation of gay life by having Paul Sorvino's character tell Pacino's early in the film that the subculture he is about to enter is not in the homosexual "mainstream."
If nothing else, the protesters did have one interesting impact on the film: their extremely vocal protests on location succeeded in spoiling most of Cruising's natural sound, which meant a lot of its dialogue had to be rerecorded in post-production. The effect on the finished film is an interesting one. Intensely naturalistic scenes on the streets of New York City are conducted between men whose voices surrealistically float above the rest of the sound mix. The killer's voice is ADR-ed too either as a result of the protests or to preserve the mystery of his identity or maybe both. The result is dreamlike and unsettling, and greatly enhances the film's nightmarish qualities.
The thing that does seem to be missing from Cruising that probably would have alleviated both protesters' and audiences' complaints is an interest in its subjects that extends beyond watching them at their most sexual moments. The movie is voyeuristic, but it's not especially curious: it observes, but it doesn't necessarily teach us much about the world in which it is set or the character that it follows. What does Pacino's character want? What does he care about? We know that he's a cop his interests include laying in bed with his girlfriend and talking to his boss. Compare the Pacino character to the one played by James Stewart in Vertigo, another film about a detective who becomes consumed with desire for the thing he's supposed to be observing. Think of all the things you know about that man, who he is, what he's lost, what he wants and feels. Steve Burns is a complete blank slate. The choices he makes at the end of the film not to mention the actions Friedkin hints he may have taken are not motivated by his character because he essentially has no character.
Friedkin is no dummy, and I'm inclined to believe all of this was by design, perhaps as a way to encourage straight audiences to relate to Pacino's character and to see this world through his eyes. But this decision, like many others he makes about the film (including the explicitness of the violence, which exceeds even the explicitness of the sexuality) makes Cruising even more audience un-friendly. Friedkin provokes and confounds, pushing the viewer away, and pulling a little of what J. Hoberman of The Village Voice likes to call "kamikaze auteurism," gleefully and recklessly pursuing passion, marketability be damned. But most of Hoberman's kamikaze auteurs, guys like Darren Aronofsky (on The Fountain) or Richard Kelly (on Southland Tales), were directors of small, arthouse cult hits. Friedkin, on the other hand, was the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection two New Hollywood entertainments that managed to combine originality with accessibility. His leap into kamikaze auteurism is a full-on dive bomb, the work of an authentic genius or a certified whacko.