“No human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness.” Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter
I’ve had a number of those awkward conversations with friends recently where they tell me what is going on inside my own head. I’m going to have a few more of those conversations over the remainder of the summer. I’ve appeased them by agreeing with them, but I think on every occasion we’ve both known we don’t really understand each other. Sometimes we’re barely speaking the same language. There are parts of our lives that we don’t/can’t share with others. Dark feelings and thoughts. Painful memories. Regrets. Shame. You can be married to someone for 45 years and see your partner as a stranger.
Cruising is an unknowable film. It wasn’t known when it was released. It can’t be known as we watch and rewatch it on DVD. It won’t be known when entire films are made exploring cut moments from the film. Cruising is a film that does not want to give you easy answers or resolution (urgh).
A series of murders have been committed in New York, predominantly within the gay community. Al Pacino is sent undercover to capture the murderer. And those are the only two firm facts within the film. Is there more than one murderer? Is the murderer captured within the film? Is Al Pacino one of the murderers? Is Pacino truly undercover? Is the core of the text lying to us at every moment?
From the start, the police force is shown to be a deeply corrupt institution. Its perversions run deep and the abuse they commit is on an industrial scale. Patrol officers sexually assault innocents; suspects are physically abused. What do we really have to distinguish Pacino as distinct from this institution? His eagerness for promotion? Isn’t every police officer a part of oppression once they take hold of their badge and their gun? Friedkin goes out of his way to show that this corruption is endemic. Police officers are forced to fake confessions because politicians seek easy answers. And we, the general population, are misled into a false sense of security.
Cruising is a tangle of sexuality, Pacino’s slow awakening to the contact of other men (there is a beautiful scene where the colour heightens onscreen when Pacino dances at a club). Pacino is nominally shown to be heterosexual (his sex with his girlfriend is perfunctory.) Through his exposure to the scene he begins to free himself. Never before has the self-loathing of the closet been so truly portrayed (and to be catty…is that why Pacino refuses to talk about the film to this day?) When Karen Allen dons his sadomasochistic leather clothes at the end, she transforms herself into the true object of his desire… It’s a portrayal of queerness that is not unproblematic, though a big part of the controversy extends from heteronormativity not knowing aspects of the scene and LGBT culture shying away from difficult presentations of their lives.
We’re all as fucked as each other.
The murders are committed with knives…which aren’t that far from penises in their act of thrusting into another’s body. What is it with men and their phallic invention of weapons?
We all play roles for each other. We all simplify ourselves (and to a greater or lesser extent deny ourselves) for the sake of a simple life. Cruising heightens and amplifies these emotions within a psycho-sexual roleplay thriller. In Cruising, murderers and victims look the same – there is no distinction between our ‘sins’, especially in a culture that so willingly condemns any sexual behaviour that falls outside of the vanilla.
Cruising is a deliberately Hitchcockian thriller (Friedkin isn’t always categorised as a Hitchcock acolyte, but he undoubtedly is.) The film unravels at a slow deliberate pace, shots carefully constructed within a traditional scheme of edits. The deliberation of pace is quite out of tone with the cascade of lies presented on screen. Psycho (1960) cheats. It cheats to throw you off the scent, to keep you from guessing the dark secret at the heart of the film. It is most certainly not Anthony Perkins stabbing Janet Leigh in the shower. Cruising takes this deliberate misdirection to the next level (as indeed did the roughly contemporaneous Psycho II (1983 – Richard Franklin, another Hitchcock disciple). Different actors play the murderers in different scenes. Voiceovers by murderers are quite clearly distinct from the images on screen. Flash cuts present flashbacks of different people. The spotlight focuses on misinformation.
Directors can be split into two categories, those who think cinema is about truth and those who think it is about lies. Friedkin clearly falls into the latter, no matter his focus on neo-realistic revelation. His willingness, and playfulness, to misdirect the audience so abruptly reflects cinema’s own willingness to mislead in order to make profit. His presentation of multiple killers and personalities is a mirror to cinema’s own perversion of schizophrenia. Complex mental health issues are reduced to actors putting on a lot of silly voices.
Cruising is an unknowable, uncontrollable film. Interior. Leather Bar seeks to know it deeply, but in turn, presents its own reflection of the delusion and deceit of cinema. Whilst lacking Cruising’s formal construction, it still seeks to damage any trust held between the film and its audience. Are the ‘behind-the-scenes’ moments within the film as performative as the sex acts on display? Isn’t everything a performance once a camera is turned on it? Isn’t this becoming more of the reality of the world now that everyone carries a camera around in their pockets?
Lies are far less important than everyone assumes – what is the ‘truth’ anyway? And why do we seek to place such importance upon it? Lies don’t matter, they only need to be entertaining. If we lie so much to each other, might as well we sit back and enjoy the performative element of it?
But Interior. Leather Bar fails to capture the full range of human experience in the way that Cruising does. Despite James Franco’s deep disillusionment with Hollywood’s fascination with bloodthirsty cruelty, his film is unable to capture the threat of violence with which every person lives their life – a threat which is magnified ten-thousandfold when the individual belongs to a minority community. By seeking to focus on the censorship of sex, it limits the scope of experience that the film can present.
Cruising is a beautiful, brilliant film because it demonstrates the huge range of darkness within human existence. The lies we tell in order to impose sense. The intrusion of savage barbarity upon the everyday. The disregard we have for other lives. The deceit of commitment and relationships. The repression, both internal and external, of full sexual experience. With this in mind, of course it was going to be misunderstood. Its truths are too hard to digest.