Stormy leather

Pub date September 4, 2007
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

Cruising for a Bruising By Jason Shamai

FILM William Friedkin, like it or not, has contributed so much to mainstream queer cinema that it’s remarkable his name primarily calls up images of projectile vomiting and Gene Hackman running a lot. The Boys in the Band (1970) and the more high-profile Cruising (1980) are bookends to a decade of comparatively unencumbered gay sex that is legendary to gay men of my generation (I was alive for a gloriously unencumbered two months of it), yet there was almost no mainstream representation of gay men in pop culture between the two films that didn’t involve guest spots on Match Game or The Hollywood Squares.

Last year’s excellent Friedkin offering, Bug, spent its first 15 minutes or so, gratuitously but innocuously, within a lesbian community. And let’s not forget Father Dyer’s gayer-than-gay proclamation in The Exorcist (1973) that “My idea of heaven is a solid white nightclub with me as a headliner for all eternity, and they love me.” Friedkin’s representations of queer people are hardly consistent in their degrees of sophistication, but the venom he’s inspired in so many activists is certainly excessive and arguably not worth the energy. If he can be accused of exploitation, what he’s exploiting is of no mere passing fascination to him. For some reason the man, whether or not he’s welcome, has clearly thrown in his lot with the queers.

Cruising — let’s just get it out of the way — is a pretty terrible movie in most of the major categories: dialogue, acting, and plot all add up to a big fat blecch, and the restored version playing at the Castro Theatre beginning Sept. 7 in anticipation of the DVD release does nothing to remedy the narrative inertia. The murder mystery it purports to be — regarding an undercover cop’s pursuit of a serial killer in the West Village’s leather-clad S-M scene — is a murky and parenthetical excuse for a series of Boschian tableaux of boot licking, fist fucking, and ass ramming. But beyond a frustrating mess of implications about the scene’s negative influence on Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino), Friedkin isn’t guilty of much beyond overexuberance.

The initial vitriolic reaction to Cruising, it seems, had more to do with its depiction, embellished a touch, of a significant chunk of the gay world with its legs up in the air. The flatteringly concentrated sexual activity in the bar scenes may be less of an issue nowadays because of the growing number of politically engaged queer people, unconcerned with assimilation and happy to sign off on anything that makes jittery straight people uncomfortable. But does this say enough about the movie’s sexual proclivities? There isn’t much talk about Cruising as a pageant of eroticized violence or as a film eager in its bloodiness for the titillated approval of its viewers. Were Friedkin’s murder scenes — overt visual associations of anal and violent penetration, blood sprayed across the screen in a porn booth — intended as an extension of his conception of S-M play? Would it be wrong for him to do so, or for the audience to be duly turned on?

I’ve always taken for granted that Cruising‘s two major scenes of police harassment were your garden-variety (though highly effective) critiques of injustice, a risk-minimizing way of approaching an unfamiliar culture. But now I’m wondering if these scenes were intended as an indictment of the police at all (was the unnecessarily long, squirm-inducing raid on an all-black bar in The French Connection intended as an indictment?) or if they were simply elaborate fetish scenarios, artistic expansions of the imagery and dynamics already well integrated into the S-M scene? Mr. Friedkin, are you trying to get us off? ——————- ——————-

Stormy Leather by Matt Sussman

When Cruising (1980) finally arrived in Bay Area theaters Feb. 15, 1980, San Francisco’s gay community had long been up in arms. The 1978 murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone were still fresh in many people’s minds. Gay bashing was still a regular occurrence. Word had spread through the gay press about efforts to disrupt the movie’s filming in New York, and the verdict was clear: Hollywood was profiting from gay murder.

In a December 1979 Oakland Tribune article, Konstantin Berlandt, a member of the group Stop the Movie Cruising and perhaps the film’s most vociferous adversary in local gay rags, called Cruising “a genocidal attack on gay people.” Two months later, the STMC helped organize a demonstration at the Transamerica Pyramid, protesting one of Transamerica’s subsidiaries — the film’s distributor, United Artists. On opening day hundreds of protesters picketed the St. Francis Theatre.

“I don’t remember what I thought of the whole thing other than it was kind of stupid and annoying,” recalls Marc Huestis, one of the cofounders of the city’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (now the SF International LGBT Film Festival). “As long as I’ve been here, there has always been the battle between the respectable gays and the fringe gays,” Huestis continues. “The respectable gays — many of whom I will say probably went to the leather bars to cruise after their protests — were all into showing a positive face.”

The issue of positive representation — and whether or not Cruising‘s problematic yoking of gay sadomasochism and serial murder warranted merely protest or outright censorship — was at the core of much of the debate. One reader wrote to San Francisco’s Sentinel, “It is ironic that we who have long been victims of prejudice and censorship should attempt to use these weapons of oppression against the movie.” In a February 1980 cover story, “The Men of Cruising,” in Mandate (the gay “international magazine of entertainment and Eros”), Rod Morgan, one of the gay extras in the film’s bar scenes, commented, “If the protesters want progay propaganda, let them get the money together and make their own movie.”

“The stakes of gay representation were very different at the time,” reflects Michael Lumpkin, artistic director of LGBT media nonprofit Frameline. “They were much higher because it was, like, ‘Hollywood hasn’t given us anything, and then they give us this?’ ” However, critic Scottie Ferguson, writing in the Advocate in April 1980, found a thrilling frisson in Cruising‘s portrayal of gay men and asked readers, “What Hollywood film has made the sexual electricity of the gay male seem so vibrant and visceral and unnerving?”

By 1995, when the Roxie Film Center revived Cruising, Ferguson’s observations had been somewhat vindicated. Mainstream LGBT film was taking off, and thanks to the risky work of directors like Gregg Araki and Tom Kalin, new queer cinema had confronted audiences with visceral and unnerving representations of violence-prone gay men.

In contrast to the largely positive reevaluations in the local press, David Ehrenstein implied in the Bay Area Reporter that the Roxie’s revival was tantamount to screening the notorious anti-Semitic film The Eternal Jew (1940). Representatives from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation showed up to hand out protest literature. “It was hilarious,” former Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine recalls. “There was a line around the block, and 90 percent of those waiting were in the leather crowd, and these GLAAD folks are trying to persuade them not to see the movie.”

Cruising has, to some extent, been defanged by the passage of time, its campier moments and macho signifiers embraced by a younger generation of queers. Clearly, though, the film still touches nerves: flame wars are being ignited as fast as they are being put out on And even for this gay fan of slasher movies, the film’s murder scenes are incomparably unsettling.

After a recent local media screening of the restored movie’s DVD release — at which director William Friedkin was present — DJ Bus Station John, whose clubs Tubesteak Connection and the Rod evoke the milieu of gay nightlife at the time Cruising was made, commented in an e-mail that “Friedkin’s present claim that contemporary audiences are more ‘sophisticated’ and therefore more receptive to Cruising, if not more friendly [to the film], doesn’t mitigate the damage done to our community at the time [of its release].”


Sept. 7–13, $6–$9

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

For Johnny Ray Huston’s interview with Cruising director William Friedkin, go to Pixel Vision at