Al Pacino in Cruising

In Defence Of William Friedkin’s ‘Cruising’

I have watched Cruising six times in the last two weeks, with and without commentary. I have read the book and watched every interview I could find of director William Friedkin discussing this film. As well as checking out TV Spots, newspaper articles, retrospectives and film reviews. I have stayed up until 5 am writing what would be considered a ridiculous amount of notes, and despite my tired eyes and my fast heartbeat from too much black tea, I have loved every minute of this exploration. Cruising came into my life back when you could rent VHS. I remember the VHS copy I obtained was worn out, it had tracked in certain spots, and you couldn’t really see anything on the screen. But I still loved it. When Arrow Video announced Cruising was available for pre-order, I don’t think any online business had gotten my money faster. When it finally came in the mail, I devoured the Blu-ray. I watched it over and over again, including the two commentaries, which made me love the film even more. And after watching and reading interviews with Friedkin regarding Cruising, it just inspired me to write about this raw film.

Upon doing my research, I kept coming across article upon article of pure hatred for this film. I read essays that delved into these ideas, which really push an agenda or assume everything in the film is symbolic for its alleged hatred for the gay community. And I am not one to tell people how to feel about a film, as every individual’s perception and scope is unique. However, do I believe some of the theories of specific symbolism are reaching, just a little? Absolutely. By writing this essay I am not trying to be clever. I am not trying to tell people that they don’t have the right to be offended by the film. I am not here to lecture groups of people on anything regarding the themes or context of the film. I just want people to have an open mind as to why Cruising matters.

The CUPPI Murders of the 1970s were a big influence on Cruising. Several men in the gay community were murdered, their body parts found in plastic bags in the Hudson River. There was a lot of attention surrounding this, even more so when theatre critic Addison Verrill was found murdered in his apartment. Radiographer Paul Bateson was arrested for his murder. After his arrest, Bateson was given a plea deal, where if he confessed to the multiple unsolved murders, he would get a shorter sentence. Newspapers obviously reported on this, and William Friedkin happened to recognise Paul Bateson. He was in fact one of the X-Ray technicians in his film The Exorcist. Friedkin managed to organise a meeting with Bateson when he was situated at Rikers Island. Bateson had told Friedkin about the potential plea deal as well as the fact that he doesn’t remember killing anyone else and how he felt the police were trying to get him to take the fall for the rest of the murders.

However, there was one slight problem. The body bags that had been discovered were allegedly in plastic bags that had wording on them that pointed to the NYUMC Neuropsychiatric Unit. This just happened to be where he had been working at the time of the murders. From learning all of this information, Friedkin was now a little more interested to take on an adaptation of the book Cruising which he has previously passed on. Not only was Friedkin influenced by Bateson, but also by Randy Jurgenson, a friend of his who was also a cop. Like Pacino’s character in Cruising, he also went undercover to try and solve a series of murders surrounding the gay community.

As I previously mentioned, there are a large number of articles written about Cruising which convey people’s hatred and disdain for the film. And again, it is their right to feel this way. Friedkin had never deliberately sought out to make a film to offend, to take sides or to convey the notion that if you are gay you will commit murder. There is a quote from Friedkin which conveys his reasoning very eloquently and directly. “I made a film about a story that was unusual, original and I was very interested in, and that because of my connections in that world I was able to depict it as honestly as possible. But the film does not take a side against anybody. Probably the people that come out looking bad are the cops. I did not make the film, contrary to a very small handful of critics, as a kind of put-down of the gay lifestyle. Which I never felt and I don’t feel to this day.” He has also stated in numerous interviews that the gay S&M scene was a unique backdrop for a murder mystery to be told. Nothing more. Sometimes films can be as simple as that, regarding why they exist to begin with.

Al Pacino in Cruising

Friedkin isn’t a director to shy away from difficult themes. He tries to gather as much information as possible on the film’s context before shooting. He wasn’t just someone who made a film and thought “Yep that will do.” He actually went to gay leather bars to understand what they were like, and even joined in on their themed nights. When he shot the scenes in the bar, he didn’t give direction, he just wanted people to do what was natural to them. But these scenes have come under scrutiny and that calls into question: Is the film too real? Fuck yes. But remember you are watching a William Friedkin film. You are not watching a watered-down superhero film or a drama that is pure Oscar bait. You are watching an honest, raw portrayal of themes, characters, arcs and settings all melting into one another. And that can be a hard pill for anyone to swallow. Films like Cruising need to exist. We need to see raw human emotion. We need to see uncomfortable themes. Did Friedkin direct Cruising to antagonise and make people feel uncomfortable? No, he used real-life experiences and put them in a film, and sometimes seeing the truth on-screen can be overwhelming for some viewers. But that shouldn’t be a reason to discredit a director or demand the film to not exist or to be banned.

Films often reflect the times they are currently in. And sometimes those films hit every note perfectly, whether it’s the movie as a whole or the timing of its release. Cruising did manage to reflect its era, but the timing may have been slightly off. Had it been made earlier, perhaps it would have been seen as a film that is ahead of its time. If it had been made a few years after its initial release, it may have been deemed even more insensitive than it already was. Cruising was released in February 1980, around the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Uneducated people were spouting false information that the gay community was the source of the disease, not bothering to check the fact you can catch it from dirty needles and blood transfusions. The gay community had a lot of weight on their shoulders with this, as well as the murders surrounding them. So I can understand why some believe that the timing of Cruising’s release was off. Friedkin himself has stated that the timing of the film’s release may not have been the best foot forward for the community. 

But Friedkin is a director that wants his films to be portrayed as honestly as possible. Cruising is no exception to that rule. Sonny Grasso and Randy Jurgenson were real-life cops and even starred as police officers in the film. Some of the dialogue was taken from real-life experiences. But one of the most honest elements about the film is the aesthetic and setting. The aesthetic brings forth layers upon layers of grime, sweat, brutality and what solidifies these elements is the honesty of it all. Each setting in the film was a true setting, not a single sound stage was used. Even the morgue. Cruising is as real as it gets.

We know the history behind the film, whether it was true stories or the controversy that surrounds it. But let’s really discuss just how wonderful Cruising is. A cop by the name of Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is sent undercover to try and solve a series of deaths surrounding the S&M bars in the gay community. During this time, being in a world that is new, foreign and to an extent slightly uncomfortable for him, the investigation starts to take its toll on him. He tells his girlfriend(Karen Allen) and his police chief (Paul Sorvino), that the work he is doing is starting to affect him. One of the big questions that come up with audiences now is Steve Burns coming to terms with his own sexuality and realising he may not be straight? However, there is no clear cut answer in the film, and I think if there was Friedkin would have made it clear, as he is no stranger to being brutally honest. Friedkin has openly said that the film raises more questions than it gives answers, and I think that’s the beauty of Cruising. Pacino plays this character with a sense of innocence, naivety as well as slightly looking like a deer in headlights when he experiences the leather bar for the first time. Starting his journey undercover with that initial response, and seeing the way his character is under stress and turmoil until the final act, was a perfect transition. And that transition is more effective the more you watch it.

This was a very different role for Pacino to have played at this point. Even now when people are seeing it for the first time, they are so used to his roles in The Godfather, Scarface and Heat. And while he does still possess some of his ‘Pacino-isms’ to an extent in Cruising, he’s playing a very different character to what we are used to. Upon first viewing, it can be a little bit jarring. At first, I was guilty of laughing at him dancing in the leather bars, and his overall reaction to it, because I didn’t know any better. Instead of giving an actor a hard time for being in a role that strays from their normal route, maybe we should change our way of thinking and alter our scope just a little bit to understand why it works. There are plenty of films I hate out there, but I can respect what specific actors were trying to do with the characters they were playing.

Cruising has become one of my favourite films of all time. It makes me happy that I can live in a world where films like Cruising and directors like William Friedkin exist. Cruising may be grimy, raw and considered B-Grade, but Friedkin brings a level of sophistication to the film. As a viewer, I see the passion honesty and experience through this film; and that excites me. When you can see someone’s labour of love, time, dedication and knowledge be conveyed through the film as a whole, you cannot help but love the film more. I may be one of the few film buffs out there that love Cruising above all the other films in Friedkin’s back catalogue. I kept looking for films that had that same feel as Cruising and the truth is, it stands alone. And for that reason, I love it more with each viewing.

Cruising exists in a film world run by extreme decadence in film making. But Cruising is a piece of cinema history that is stripped back, bare and brutally honest in its approach and execution. We are surrounded by films that give the illusion of honesty and become critically acclaimed and well-loved. And that is completely fine. However let’s not negatively target a film because it may not align with your opinions, or way of thinking. Films are inclusive, but not every movie can be for everybody. We live in a world where we attempt to destroy what we don’t understand. Censorship and being overzealous when it comes to cancelling culture has always been an issue. However, it is far more prevalent today. Our problems shouldn’t be with films. We should be looking into our incapability of turning off a film if we don’t like it. I love Cruising and unapologetically so. I won’t change my mind just because people are offended or deem it problematic. I see an honest story, with a very interesting history and brilliant performances. And I will happily die on that hill with my yellow bandana.

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