(THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED SINCE IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED.)
If I'd seen Cruising when I was a teenager, I'm pretty sure I would have stayed in the closet another 10 years and never left the relative safety of my small hometown. For a movie so filled with such nastiness, such brutality, such wanton disregard for life, humanity, or even fun, charges that it's homophobic are just lazy. And dumb. I concede that I may be a bit more liberal in this arena than your average gay: I have a pretty high tolerance for various representations of how to live in the name of "freedom of expression." Which is one reason I fucking hate groups like GLAAD. In the past they have actively called for boycotts of writers (gay ones!) because they didn't feel that their work accurately represented the "gay community" in a positive enough light to suit their political agenda. (In fact, back when I fancied myself a filmmaker, one of my major career goals, I shit you not, was to someday be boycotted by GLAAD; that's when I would have known I'd made it.) Which I guess is why politics and art shouldn't mix.
In Cruising, William Friedkin makes no attempt whatsoever to accurately portray the whole of the gay community. It could even be argued that he makes the argument that repression of your true self (i.e., your gayness) can turn you into a self-hating murderer of other gays. Perhaps the film should be subtitled: Free To Be You and Me: Don't Hate! As he explains in the vignettes on the recently re-released DVD (which has a crystal-clear screen image, and lightens up a whole lot of that "background action" that was supposedly darkened for the release almost 30 years ago), to him it is simply a murder mystery, that just happens to be set in this realy extreme underground culture of gay S&M in New York City. Maybe that's a cop-out, but he also admits to understanding where the protestors are coming from, and why a lot of gay people feel maligned by the film. It is, however, as he also points out, a subculture that really existed at the time, and was going strong. He didn't make it up. By no means was every gay person participating in it, but a lot were, and if nothing else, it just looks terribly boring. I totally understand the euphoric thrill of anonymous sex, but when you're laid out in a sling, your legs in the air, and three guys are standing around taking turns fisting you (as is portrayed fairly explicitly in the film), one wonders where exactly the pleasure is. A prominent hallmark of genuine sexual addiction is the loss of enjoyment associated with actually having sex: it all becomes about the chase, about the procurement, about the bigger and bolder risks. The actual sex ends up being beside the point. All addictions are degenerative, and behavioral addictions are certainly no exception.
More than anything, though, Cruising is just depressing. Despite the killer being caught (sort of), it ends on a vague and unsettling note implying multiple things (SPOILER ALERT!): that Al Pacino has possibly been "turned" gay by his undercover research, and that Al Pacino is possibly a hideous murderer, preying on the most innocent among us and committing one of the most brutal crimes throughout the entire film.
It's an open-ended, dubious, and ambiguous movie through and through. But despite how unpleasant it is, it's also kind of brilliant, for a lot of the reasons I just mentioned. It has a lot to say about identity and how society can shape a person, particularly at a time when homosexuality was still very scary and/or exotic to most of the population. Whether or not William Friedkin really understood what was going on in the gay world at this point in time is left unanswered. I wonder if he knew that this explosion of sexual activity and obsession was a result of having been repressed for so long, and finally going insane with feelings of liberation? Is it possible that the characters in the film have so much sex simply because they can, and not even because they want to, or get any pleasure out of of it? Maybe Friedkin is actually a total genius and is making a prophetic comment about the ravages of unchecked decadence and hedonism. After he slaughters each of his victims, the killer says to each one in a deadpan purr, "You made me do that." Is Friedkin calling out the gay community for self-destructing?
Eh, it's definitely a stretch, but an interpretation I kind of like.
On a related note, I decided a couple of months ago that I thought it would be fun to try to watch as many movies as possible set in NYC during the 70's, back when it was still dark, ugly, dangerous, and only crazy people wanted to live there. Before the Disneyfication and Sex and the City turned it into a sunny, pastel playground of nice restaurants and martinis. As luck would have it, Scott Heim, author of the novel Mysterious Skin, had a post on his blog recently about that very subject, and his top-10 favorite films set in New York City from the 70's, which includes Cruising and The Warriors, which I've seen, but not any of the others. Maniac looks especially...fun.