A quarter century later, “Cruising” shows more than its age

Gay America divided some time around Ellen’s infamous puppy episode, some time around the debut of “Will & Grace,” maybe a couple years after the Roseanne/Mariel Hemingway kiss, and almost a decade after the publication of the Kirk/Madsen make-them-love-us treatise “After the Ball: How America Will Conquer its Fear & Hatred of Gays in the 90s.”

As Thomas Friedman noted in his book, “The Lexus & the Olive Tree,” it was the democratizations of technology, finance and information that fundamentally changed the ways of the world. The age old conflicts between well-cultivated ideology (the olive tree) and technological advancement (middle-class luxuries like the Lexus) had to be recalibrated, but they nonetheless remained. The mainstreaming of “gay” at that time, history will prove, is a product of that phenomenon.

Those of us who came of age during this era, therefore, have no personal sense of history that dates beyond it. When gay went mainstream, the culture of GLBT life in America changed: from that point on, there were those of us who lived through the most devastating years of AIDS and those who didn’t; those who experienced institutionalized homophobia and those who didn’t; those who, after coming out, found freedom (ironically) in an underground community of likeminded folk, and those who learned “out” meant being out to … pretty much everyone.

This year marks the 25 th anniversary of “Cruising,” a movie starring Al Pacino. In the time that has lapsed, the film – along with the story of its tortured development – has become a fascinating memento in the pursuit for GLBT equality.

Still yet to be released on DVD, the VHS version of the film is virtually unavailable. OutLoud! has for rent a 1990 release from Warner Home Video; the original VHS release, from 20 th Century Fox in the early 80s that is rumored to include an alternate ending, is all but extinct.

The film is a mess. Simply. The story of a heterosexual rookie police officer (Pacino) who goes underground into the S&M/leather subculture of gay New York in search of a serial killer, the movie leaves the viewer stymied by a series of unanswered questions that the description on the cover box would lead you to believe were intentional.

Why does it end so abruptly?

Why does the killer say, “You made me do that,” when he kills?

Why does he sing the lines, “Who’s here, you’re here, I’m here” before he kills?

Why hasn’t he mailed the letters to his father that Pacino finds in his apartment, especially given he has access to his father just by walking to a park (where he essentially recites one of the letters to him), as he does late in the film?

Why does Captain Edelson look as though he’s figured out some secret when he discovers the Ted character has been killed?

What’s up with the big black guy, wearing only a jockstrap and cowboy hat, bitch-slapping suspects in the interrogation room?

Simply: is this movie primarily a murder mystery, or is the Pacino character and his discovery of – and disillusionment by – the gay S&M underworld more relevant?

One suspects the latter though it reveals a significant flaw in the film. The novel that inspired the movie, written by the late New York Times writer Gerald Walker, describes a conflicted policeman, a racist and homophobe who resents the job he’s been asked to do but accepts only because it will fast track him to detective. In the movie, the policeman is just a young rookie, with a girlfriend no less. For storytelling purposes, it makes sense: the viewer can experience the seedy S&M underground from someone just as unbiased. The problem, then, is that we don’t see any emotional adjustment in the Pacino character. When he tells his girlfriend, “What I’m doing, is affecting me” partway through the movie, all we can do is take his word.

A scene or two later he’s dancing in a gay club, hiking a popper-soaked hanky to his face now and then and still, we’re given no indication as to whether he’s now enjoying the “lifestyle” or if he’s still an unaffected undercover cop on the job.

One thing is clear: he shows palpable affection toward his neighbor, Ted, who is notably the only gay character not also sold to us as a stereotype. In this Oprah-fied world, we could assume their friendship is just another Hollywood-fed vision of male camaraderie but, back in 1980 – in a movie hoping to describe a gay underworld, no less – their moments have to mean more. Again though, it is ambiguous, which presents another question: how far did the Pacino character go (?!) with the men he meets?

Generally speaking, when a film is riddled with as many holes as this, going to the source material tends to answer any questions that remain. In this case: don’t hold your breath. The film “Cruising” is only technically based on the Walker novel. Adapted for the screen by its director, William Friedkin, it is also based on the true story of New York City policeman Randy Jurgenson, who went undercover to solve a smattering of unexplained gay murders in the 1960s. Some of the scenes in the movie, in fact, are lifted directly from the stories Patrolman Jurgenson told after his assignment ended.

The director Friedkin had a history with gay America. It was his film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” – with its self-loathing, anguished gay characters – that drew the ire of homosexuals across the nation ten years earlier. He went on to direct the landmark 1970s classics “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” A couple follow-up films did middling business at the box office and put Friedkin in need of a comeback. Gerald Walker’s novel “Cruising” seemed to him to be the source for that (Brian DePalma was reportedly interested in the novel, as well, and it is said he settled to direct the thriller “Dressed to Kill” when “Cruising” went to Friedkin).

Though the book was not well received by the gay community upon its release in 1970, it wasn’t until an early draft of the screenplay was leaked that The Gays went into protest mode. Just before principal shooting began in July of 1979, Village Voice columnist Arthur Bell rallied the troops further. “I implore readers,” he wrote, “to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhood.” With that, he listed the Greenwich Village locations where the production had chosen to film.

Archived news reports from the New York Times verify the outrage felt by the protestors. A thousand people were counted at one location shoot. It was reported that many brought with them air-horns, whistles, and chanted loudly forcing the filmmaker to dub much of the exterior dialogue in-studio later.

The uproar, in fact, forced the director to add this disclaimer to the introduction of his movie: “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world which is not meant to be representative of the whole.”

Critics hated the movie, upon its release, and theatergoers stayed away. Still, it made $20 million, mostly due to the U-turn in marketing that 20 th Century Fox took. “Cruising” was, in the end, sold to the public as a murder mystery, rendering all the intended depth of the character study pointless.

The director explained to the UK newspaper, The Guardian, in 1998, “the film was really heavily edited by the man who was head of the ratings board at that time.” Regarding a possible rating for the movie, he (his name was Richard Heffner) reportedly exclaimed, “There are not enough Xs in the alphabet! I would have to go and find Xs from some other alphabet! This is a 59,000 X rating is what the rating is!”

Friedkin went on to say, “The reason people say that they don’t know what happens at the end of this film is because it’s all been cut out.”

At the time, he hinted that a DVD release of the film – including 40 minutes of never before seen material – was imminent. That was seven years ago. To this day, “Cruising” is a film its star refuses to speak of (Pacino reportedly asked to be released from the film when the protests broke out and, once denied, claimed to work under duress). His wariness, at first glance, appears to be the solitary reason the many unanswered questions in the film remain so.

Censorship – in an effort to retrofit political correctness – by some in the gay community may also be a contributor. Back in 1995, an art house cinema in San Francisco arranged for Friedkin to appear accompanying a showing of “Cruising.” One day before the event, the Bay Area Reporter published an article written by David Ehrenstein, who was disgusted by the lack of outrage this time, accusing the film of historical inaccuracy, and – using “The Boys in the Band” as a touchstone – called into question Friedkin’s motive in making “Cruising.” Like pawns, protestors arrived for the event. Friedkin did not.

Again, this was back in 1995, around the time that the world and its societies were changing, during an initial stage that would eventually render all of today’s gay culture postmodern.

In a media landscape that has become glutted with as much gay material as this one – from the Logo television network and “Noah’s Arc” to the non-issue Ellen DeGeneres has made of her sexuality on her daytime talk show – any creative endeavor offering a picture of gay life pre-“Will & Grace” is, due to the lack of any alternative, considered a classic.

Even the original novel by Gerald Walker is representative of a time we’ll likely never see again. In it, there is no seedy S&M/leather underground that forced the hero – this time named John Lynch – to go undercover. The killer was just killing regular ol’ gay people. Why the NYPD needed to infiltrate such a wide open subculture may be a question better answered by social historians, though many were similarly left wondering why Nashville’s police department would embrace the service of a “confidential informant” when it arrested a gaggle of gay guys dealing drugs online earlier this year.

In the novel “Cruising,” the murderer was, similar to the film, interested in killing only men who had a certain look that John shared. In the end, though, we learn that it was a look that resembled the murderer himself. He was a self-hater, a young man so unsure of his sexuality that it brought about murderous impulses in him: “it was the queer in himself he was killing every time he knifed a homosexual,” Captain Edelson told John at the close of the book.

In stark difference to the film, the murderer eventually found his way to a bathhouse and, at random, stabbed six men before another killed him in self-defense. It makes the surprise ending of both the book and the movie more deliciously palatable.

As mentioned earlier, John was a racist and homophobe in the novel; at the close of the story, he realized that he not only physically resembled the murderer but, psychologically, they may have been similar too. (It really is no surprise gay people would protest the creation of this film in 1979).

Though there still remains a struggle to comprehend John’s emotional malaise, it is clear that he fell for his neighbor Ted and, in the end – as he assumed the role left by the now-dead murderer – we understand why Ted is found later dead, with ejaculate on him. This is what Captain Edelson figured out after he reached the scene in the film version, a discovery we couldn’t have possibly pieced together using only the preceding scenes in the movie as a guide.

As for the other questions: rumor and gossip suggest the killer didn’t mail the letters because his father was already deceased, a subtle point that was, for some reason, edited out of the final cut. And the black jock-strapped man? It was suggested that his presence would both force answers from the suspects and provide a story so implausible that no one – prosecuting attorneys, or a judge, for example – would ever believe it, should it come to that. Again: why wasn’t that in the film? I’ve found no answers for the other unanswerables.

The debut of “Cruising” on the American landscape, back in 1980, brought with it a fierce sense of activism among the gay folk of New York rarely seen since Stonewall. The writer and comedian, Bruce Vilanch, has said about that time: “Cruising’ meant something to a traditionally passive community. It was a big-budget wake-up call, and organizations like GLAAD seemed to bob up in its wake.” Given there was so little expression of anything overtly gay in the marketplace at the time, he added that the film “can’t help but give the audience the impression that This Is What It’s Like.”

Would gay America erupt this way if another film came down the line with a similar philosophy? No, and the reasons why are varied. For one, we have Hollywood on our side now; a story like “Cruising” would never be written. Much to the contrary, Hollywood finds itself today bracing for conservative resistance to the gay male love story, “ Brokeback Mountain,” scheduled for theatrical release this month.

As well, we live in a 500 channel universe. To some extent the protests against “Basic Instinct” in 1992 and “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991 were justified; we still lived in a world where the popular culture had only a handful of outlets. Today, with Logo and here!TV and QTelevision, the splintering of our media allows each subculture in America to now look more contemplatively at itself. In order to present a more full understanding of our community and its storied history, Logo and here!TV should be lobbying for the full DVD release of gay classics like “Cruising.” Will they?

Or are there enough old-school gays out there like Bay Area Reporter’s David Ehrenstein who’ll refuse to accept history as it was, who’ll never see a film like “Cruising” and the story of its development as a memento of an era long gone, who would work to keep it underground?

In the year 2005, a quarter century after its initial release, “Cruising” is not art – in the form we’ve all seen the film, in fact, it never was. Today it’s an artifact; it’s gay history.

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