Michael Langan looks back at Cruising (1980), the film from which Travis Mathews and James Franco re-imagine lost footage in Interior. Leather Bar.
I think I first saw the film Cruising (1980) when I was in my late teens, maybe 1986, I can’t quite remember. It was probably on late night Channel 4, the little red triangle in the corner of the screen warning of ‘adult content’ – which for me, and many others, shone as a small beacon signalling something off-the-wall, challenging, different – i.e. ‘foreign’ – and possibly (hopefully) queer. It was where I first encountered Jarman, Pasolini and Cocteau, amongst other things that you never see on TV these days. I remember being frightened and fascinated by Cruising in ways I didn’t really understand. I also became aware, over the days that followed, of a slow-burning anger and distress; a reaction, I think, to its particular depiction of gay male sexuality. Watching it again, nearly twenty years later, I can see that the film is more complex than I realised back then, though it’s still very much a product of its time and remains deeply problematic.
In some ways, Cruising is a typical 1970s serial killer thriller, so many of which play on mainstream fears of the Other and the violent consequences of shifts in social and cultural dynamics. They’re nearly always told from the point of view of those who feel they’re losing their grip on power, with the capture and/or death of the murderer at the end aiming (not always successfully) to re-establish the status quo. What sets Cruising apart from the others is its exclusively queer milieu.
In The Celluloid Closet, the film historian Vito Russo placed Cruising in the context of 1970s Hollywood movies that depicted gay men as perverted and predatory homicidal maniacs. Previously they’d been sissies who then became pathetically tragic figures incapable of emotional and physical fulfilment. What these earlier representations have in common is that they indicate a weak, ‘feminine’ identity that disrupts the natural order, whereas the gay serial killer is strong and powerful – i.e. ‘masculine’ – and the result of an emancipation that has given him a strength to be wary of.
The film is set in and around the S&M scene and the leather bars of New York’s meatpacking district. Its version of gay male sexuality is specifically hyper-masculine and violent (on the surface at least), with everyone involved donning a drag formed of pumped-up muscles, uniforms, fetish gear and ‘heavy leather’. The murders happen during (or after) sex, and the killer is all decked out in leather and denim, his eyes masked with large, mirrored Aviators. He preys on frequenters of legendary establishments like The Ramrod, The Eagle’s Nest and The Cockpit and no amount of heavy leather, or armoured flesh, can protect the victims from his blade. The deliberately penetrative nature of his method of killing is made explicitly clear early on, when the first stabbing is intercut with images from gay porn.
Steve Burns, a young cop with ambitions to join the detective squad, is picked to go undercover to catch the murderer because he fits the physical type of his victims. Al Pacino’s performance as Steve is noteworthy mainly by virtue of his star status, and he brings a nice mixture of vulnerability and machismo to the role. It’s not his finest hour and a half by any means, but you’ve got to take your studded leather cap off to him – it’s hard to imagine any actor of Pacino’s calibre agreeing to play such a role today.
As Steve spends time in this Other-world, his own sexuality and identity become blurred. He not only fits the killer’s type, he also grows to look increasingly like him and progresses from spectator to participant – in one scene we see him go off into the trees with a guy who’s cruised him and then we cut to Steve walking the streets next morning. Steve also develops a friendship with his gay neighbour, Ted, a frustrated playwright who lives across the hall. By way of contrast, Ted is a ‘nice’ gay boy – a gentler, softer, blonder and therefore more ‘mainstream’ kind of queer. As he and Steve become close there’s a hint that Ted has feelings for him.
One of the film’s interesting ambiguities is whether Steve’s undercover mission is unlocking something latent within him, or whether he has become corrupted. Either way, his reaction is a barely suppressed rage, directed sometimes at himself (as when he furiously pumps iron); or at his girlfriend Nancy (I kid you not), who he fucks aggressively while still wearing the studded leather cuffs that have become part of his queer costume; or at Ted’s jealous boyfriend Jeff, who he violently attacks for suggesting that Ted is attracted to him.
This is a world filled with violence from many quarters. The film shows police discrimination, brutality and harassment towards the gay community. Steve, who is himself beaten up during interrogation in order to maintain his cover, complains that he is not happy with their tactics and he comes close to breaking down, telling his boss that he doesn’t think he can handle any more. But when he says, “what I’m doing is affecting me”, it’s clear he’s not talking about questionable police tactics.
Friedkin’s most famous film is The Exorcist (1976) and there are some similarities between that classic horror movie and Cruising. The relationship between Steve and his immediate boss (played with a weary, baggy resignation by Paul Sorvino) is similar to that of the two priests in The Exorcist. The younger priest’s questioning and loss of faith in The Exorcist mirrors Steve’s loss of faith in the police and in his questioning of his sexuality. Likewise, the murderer is haunted by the ghost of his dead father who instructs him to kill, and, in a form of psychological possession, mimics his father’s voice.
Furthermore, and this is one of the film’s most problematic elements, it’s possible to see Steve becoming possessed by the demon of homosexuality, a demon that he doesn’t exorcise so much as keep caged within him. The doors and stairways leading down into each S&M bar are gateways to Hell. Towards the end of the film a man is shown walking towards one of the bars and, although we don’t see his face, he looks and is dressed like Steve. The clear message is that, just as the priest throws himself to his death when the demon passes into his body, Steve cannot be saved; he may not be undercover any more but he’s lost to the underworld. The final scene shows Steve shaving in his girlfriend’s bathroom, removing part of his new identity, but only on the surface. In a chilling moment Pacino shifts his gaze from his reflection in the mirror directly into the camera, and at us. It’s classic horror movie stuff and leaves you in no doubt that we should be afraid of this devil still amongst us.
Obviously, Cruising wasn’t the only representation of gay life I’d ever seen, so why did it make such an impression on my teenage self? What truly scared and angered me, apart from the fact that I was deeply closeted and so scared of any representation of gay life, was the creation of a version of gay male sexuality that is totally aggressive and violent. There is no tenderness, no intimacy in the relations between men, apart from Steve’s friendship with Ted, who is murdered because of it, very possibly by Steve himself. I was frightened and fascinated by the movie because that’s how I felt about myself. I also felt deeply alienated from the world of the movie, which meant I didn’t fit in anywhere.
It also confirmed my deepest fears about myself – that my sexuality was something that was dangerous and perverted – and I hadn’t yet come to recognise the advantages and excitement of being on the margins. It’s possible now to view Friedkin’s film as a radical revelation and documenting of a world that is fantastically transgressive and unapologetically queer, but it’s still complicated and not celebratory. The camera pans across and scrutinises men’s bodies, treating them as sexual objects in ways women routinely are, but men hardly ever. This becomes automatically homoerotic and embodies Steve’s own experience, drawn to watch and eventually join in, experiencing a mixture of discomfort and desire. Look. Don’t look.
The film plays not only on social fears of homosexuality but also on an individual, internalised fear of being queer, reflecting it all back to us in the killer’s mirrored shades that Steve also begins to wear. These are men unleashed and if you’re afraid of your sexuality and the implications of acting on your desires, well, you should be.
There’s another issue that I don’t think can be avoided. Released in 1980, just before the AIDS crisis hit the public domain, it’s hard not to watch Cruising now without thinking that there’s another, invisible killer, stalking those gay bars, one that would cause far more carnage than one man with a knife. In that sense Friedkin’s film becomes not just a document of a time past, but a symbolic roll call for a lost generation. Watching the film in the midst of that crisis, as I did, the narrative seemed very negative and condemnatory, confirmation that gay sex contained the unavoidable risk of death, and was also the queers’ inevitable punishment. Discomfort and desire was something I was experiencing every day as a response to the newspapers’ hysterical AIDS coverage and the government’s rhetoric, fearing what I desired and desiring what I feared. Thankfully, I don’t feel like that any more. Well, not so much anyway, but the glare of Pacino’s face in the mirror confronts and challenges me still.