Aret Frost’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Art frees us from all our sentiments, even good ones and justifies its amorality by returning to ethics what it had borrowed.” – Eric Rohmer
It’s impossible for me to discuss to this film without dealing with the shadow cast by the controversy over its depiction of a homosexual subculture. While watching early scenes in the West Village bar called The Cock Pit full of detached lateral tracking shots surveying aggressive displays of homosexuality, I wondered whether films have a responsibility to represent certain minority groups in a, well, broadly representational way. The argument against this film is that the seedy, violent manner homosexuality is depicted will reinforce certain stereotypes in America about gay lifestyles. However, this argument overlooks Friedkin’s artistic plan - he engages with preconceptions, accurate or not, about certain pockets of gay S&M culture only to deconstruct the schematic ways in which some straight people understand the expression of gay sexuality. If the film were to depict a gay S&M culture in a completely rosy, tasteful way through the eyes of a uncomfortable straight-identifying man, the film would not only be disingenuous, but also pandering to a certain sanctimonious side of us that physiologically rewards our ability to discern Good from Bad.
Friedkin repeatedly plays against the initial revulsion that straight audiences feel toward the overwhelming discomfort the film elicits during the early scenes in the Cock Pit and the first murder scene. One way Friedkin accomplishes this dissonance is by showing the rules of the S&M subculture, emphasizing that patrons of the Cock Pit are all consenting adults seeking pleasure just like every person who seeks erotic pleasure. A great example of this occurs during two scenes that Friedkin cuts together – the first scene involves a vendor explaining to Steve Burns (Al Pacino) which color bandanas correspond to which sexual acts that a person in the Cock Pit is seeking; in the next scene a man in the Cock Pit asks Burns whether he likes waterworks, which confuses Burns. The man angrily points out that Burns has a yellow bandana in his back pocket, indicating that he wants to take or receive a golden shower, prompting Burns to say that he “just likes to watch.” As Bill Krohn’s incredible essay on CRUISING and its production explains, the scene in which Burns is rebuked for having the yellow bandana in his back pocket was initially placed prior to the scene in which the vendor explains what each bandana signals. While the initial sequencing implies that Burns seeks out information on the bandanas after making an honest mistake, the final film’s sequencing indicates that Burns is incompetent at going undercover and deserves to be berated for inviting sexual advances that he had no intention of following through on.
But there’s something else going on with regard to Burns’ incompetence. Friedkin gives us the sense that Burns plays passive spectator because various factors including fear and his sense of straight identity are preventing from fully immersing himself in this milieu. Much of the tension in the film stems from the ambiguity regarding whether Burns takes the assignment to fulfill some kind of power or sex-related fantasy or whether he just wants to perform his job to the best of his abilities. Throughout most of the film, Burns is pretty bad at his job as evinced by the bandana scenes and a scene later on in which a moderator or employee in the Cock Pit tells Burns to leave on cop dress-up night because Burns seems like an actual cop, which he is. As Tony Huang explains the film has two primary containers: The thriller container and the interiority container, which is focused on conveying Burns’ inner life in the way that, say, Bresson conveyed the inner life of his impassive models. The primary question of the thriller thread is “Who is the Killer?” while the simple question for the interiority thread is “Is Burns gay?” By the end of the film, it is clear that Friedkin is not at all interested in definitively answering either of these questions. The frustration of the thriller plot thread expresses the extreme duress and ambiguity of manhunts, while the opacity of the interior thread gets at the idea of sexuality as a fluid means of expression, unrelated to gender.
Friedkin has the thriller and interiority threads play off of each other, emphasizing the centrality of performance to both police work and sexuality. To accomplish this, Friedkin establishes the idea that the patrons of the Cock Pit are flesh and blood humans who have full lives outside of the performative realm of their West Village haunt. Following the initial shock of our introduction to the Cock Pit and sex/murder scene, Friedkin introduces us to people outside of the S&M context when Burns picks up two men, one of whom is murdered while the other is arrested and interrogated. Additionally, Friedkin gives us purposefully disparate scenes in which we see a Columbia student/Cock Pit patron (Stuart) talking with his roommate along with scenes in which Burns hangs out with his Ted, gay neighbor. Whether you think these films work likely has to do with whether you think they are examples of schematic humanizing or contrasts between the self-expression of gay men in everyday contexts and within the walls of the CockPit (I’m in the latter camp mostly). Apparently, Friedkin had to cut out some scenes between Burns and Ted, which might be a good thing because those scenes might have left the impression that Friedkin was trying to get off the hook for the griminess of the gay bar scenes by including an innocuous, cheery gay man in the film.
One might take exception to the way Friedkin plays into the troubled gay man trope by employing flashbacks in which Stuart’s dad shames Stuart for being gay. However, by the film’s end, the narrative of Stuart being the serial killer who was driven to murder by the torment inflicted upon him by daddy issues and frustrated sexuality is left all but defused. You can see Friedkin’s playful sense of misdirection by the fact that he had two different people play the killer and that the voice actor for the killer is the same guy who plays Stuart’s dad. Some might characterize this approach to the killer’s performance as endemic of the film’s incoherence, but I see it more as just Friedkin messing with the audience and using the killer’s identity as a red herring to mask the film’s main concerns. With regards to the film’s thriller thread, Friedkin’s emphasis is on the extreme complexity and ambiguity of decision-making in the police’s manhunt. This manifests itself in the film’s style when Friedkin goes for procedural abstraction during scenes in which the investigating unit is doing everything it can to get a conviction.
The scene in which Friedkin’s treatment of the manhunt tips into overtly comedic surrealism involves a stakeout in which cops monitor a hook-up between Burns and a suspect. What makes this operation ridiculous is that it would be difficult for the cops to intervene in time if it turned out the suspect was actually going to murder Burns. Friedkin underlines this point by drawing out the duration of the time in which an absurd number of cops run up the stairs with comically heavy artillery because they received indication that the suspect was about to assault Burns. When they open the door, we see that what the cops read as the initial stages of murder was actually an S&M practice that left Burns naked and tied up on the bed. Burns injects a sense of exasperated realism into the scene by softly intoning that his colleagues arrived on the scene way too soon. In the next scene, Burns continues to serve as the audience surrogate, reacting with sheer disbelief to the interrogators whose abstract performances indicate a desire to avoid the case’s complexity. Friedkin conveys the notion that the interrogators may well be aware that their suspect is not the killer, but the political need to get a conviction leads them to play into the fiction of the suspect’s guilt.
To avoid making the film a simplistic police takedown, Friedkin plays the abstract tone of the stakeout and interrogation scenes against the comparatively realist approach during the scenes involving Burns’ superior officer Captain Edelson, played by Paul Sorvino. During a rough point in the investigation a government official tells Edelson that he needs to get a conviction in this serial killer case to reassure the masses. In a later scene Friedkin uses a long tracking shot that follows his Burns and Edelson as they walk through a subway platform and try to reckon with the corner that the case and politics have worked them into. Pacino does an incredible job of conveying the immense burden that his involvement in the case has placed on his psyche and Edelson earnestly acknowledges how futile the situation is, but nevertheless insists that Burns carry out his role to its completion. Friedkin employs a relatively realistic style these scenes that give you the sense that Edelson is not just a monster looking to convict an innocent man and put Burns through hell, but rather a man who has resigned himself to performing in accordance the rules of his profession.
While it seems as though Burns is on the edge of a nervous breakdown in the aforementioned scene, he ends up ridding himself of his passivity by adopting the amoral ruthlessness of an efficient cop. In doing so, Burns starts to performance in accordance with something resembling his conception of the killer’s identity. As Burns delves deeper into this performative identity the viewer starts to lose sense of Burns’ “authentic” identity and the line between his motivations dictated by the thriller thread (violence in service of professionalism) and his motivations of the interiority thread (violence in service of fulfilling a sexual and/or sadomasochistic power fantasy) become blurred. As Dan Sallitt argues, the scene that emphasizes the mystery of Burn’s psyche occurs when prior to heading out to Central Park to tail his suspect, Burns tries to pay a visit to Ted (played by Don Scardino), but he’s met with Ted’s roommate who is coy about Ted’s whereabouts causing Burns to flip out. It’s uncertain whether Burns goes crazy because he has strong sexual feelings for Ted or whether his adopted ruthless cop identity has caused him to react belligerently to those who don’t show him respect. In the quote below: Sallitt situates this scene within the context of Friedkin’s broader artistic plan:
“The straight/gay ambiguity sort of rides the coattails of the hero/killer ambiguity. Friedkin uses Pacino's opacity, and his undercover role, to mask any changes he might be undergoing, so that it's surprising when Pacino goes hysterical outside Don Scardino's door: if I recall correctly, it's the first time in the film that his gay feelings can't be explained by his undercoverness.”
Friedkin uses the questions dictated by genre (hero/killer, straight/gay) to mask his real concerns, which involve the need for performance in various realms of daily life. On multiple occasions, Friedkin uses ellipses to throw doubt on Burns’ whereabouts during the murders, thus suggesting that Burns might be the killer himself. However, by the end of the film, when we see Ted’s corpse, the emphasis switches from the possibility of Burns being the killer to all of the random moments in which Burns could have prevented the death of people he met without even knowing it. This feeling of violent chaos weighs down on Burns and we see the strain in a scene with in which he tells his girlfriend Nancy (played by Karen Allen) he needs to take a break from seeing her. However, in the last scene of the film, Burns returns to Nancy wearing his leather jacket, with no signs of the strain evident in his visage in the earlier scene despite the death of his friend Ted and Burns knifing of an innocent man. Through these contrasting scenes with Nancy, Friedkin pulls off a subversion of the common gangster film/noir trope evident in The Godfather where the protagonist’s transformation into a monster throws his relationship with his spouse into disarray.
Burns growing into his role as powerful cop helps him overcome the fear and indecision that made him unable to perform (in both senses) for Nancy. Rather than having Burns reveal the morally dubious things he’s done for the police to Nancy only to be met with her disapproval and corresponding fear-induced dramatic confrontation, Friedkin indicates that the relationship is on more stable footing now. Despite the unsettlingly violent turn that Burns takes in the film’s last act, the last scene finds Burns in a lucid state - calm and with a new willingness to discuss his professional life with Nancy. In the film’s last shot, Burns looks into the mirror while getting the shaving cream off his face and sees Nancy wearing his leather jacket behind him. Bill Krohn describes an implication of this final shot of his great essay on the film and its production:
“… bearing in mind that costumes like the one we see Nancy trying on now sell like hotcakes in erotic emporia all over the world, the image of Steve is seeing in the off-space – like the image we have seen of Karen Allen trying on the hat and jacket, which look cute on her because they're a couple of sizes too big – may be a very sexy one, and a playful unseen symbol of film's power to create by putting things together in a new way.”
After conveying a seemingly insurmountable sense of despair borne of violence and political corruption, Friedkin ends on a strange note of optimism. Burns’ oscillation between various modes of performed identity ultimately leaves him with a new sense of agency and understanding that might help him in his relationship with his Nancy. Friedkin depicts Burns’ transformation(s) without the fatalistic determinism with which Coppola approaches Michael Corleone’s character arc in THE GODFATHER. Michael Corelone undergoes a pretty clean transformation from normal guy to Mafioso, which begins in the scene where he swears to his father that he will get revenge on the other mob bosses. Pacino’s performance manages to imbue the simplistic character conception with some nuance, which is evident in the moment when he slicks his hair back in the bathroom prior to shooting Sollozzo, thus conveying the burden that his task places on him. But by the end of the film, the film leaves little for the viewer to do but gawk at Coppola’s somewhat romanticized rendering of Michael’s descent into darkness. The film’s problem lies in the unexamined causal link between Corleone’s family and his ultimate fate to assume the role of his father.
Rather than focusing on Michael’s interiority, Coppola foregrounds Michael’s tragic arc and the way his dishonesty about his mafioso actions damages his relationship with Kay. Friedkin’s highly compromised sense of agency isn’t in and of itself more valuable than Coppola’s determinism, but it lends itself to a more spontaneous, complex cinema, one in which Pacino the actor is allowed to explore various sides of himself as a performer and Steve Burns the character can waffle between his urge to immerse himself into the gay S&M subculture, his desire to have a conventional romantic relationship with a man, his ability to satisfy his wife in bed, his urge to play powerful undercover cop, and under it all, to feel the immense burden of his fractured identity and the inner torment that comes with having the deaths of those he has come into contact with on his conscience. As Burns assumes the role of a ruthless cop, the viewer feels relieved to see him cast aside his indecision, becomes afraid when he starts exhibiting violent tendencies and is both surprised and relieved to see him assume a seemingly healthy dynamic with Nancy. CRUISING keeps its audience in an uneasy state because it never gives the viewer an easily digestible way understand what is driving Burns’ erratic behavior.
Friedkin dodges the pitfalls of other police/manhunt films by avoiding a schematic rendering of ambivalence (morality of due process v. pragmatism of the police ducking procedure, see SICARIO) and making a film that primarily deals with interiority and genre. Through its focus on performance in social, sexual and professional realms of life, CRUISING breaks down both the rigid dichotomies that often characterize people’s beliefs about sex and the tidy moralism that manifests itself in certain genre conventions. The film thus justifies the amorality of his depiction of a gay subculture by returning to ethics what it had borrowed.
Bill Krohn on CRUISING: www.rouge.com.au/3/friedkin.html
Dan Sallitt posts on "a_film_by" about CRUISING can be found in the following link in posts #3218, #3243, #3249, and the one I quoted is #3280. url: www.fredcamper.com/afilmby/0003201.html
Tony Huang's letterboxd review: letterboxd.com/tgfilm/film/cruising/