Cruising for controversy
It all started when I found a video on the internet of a large black man, wearing only a jock strap and a cowboy hat, walk into a police interrogating room, slap Al Pacino in the face, and then walk out; I had to know more.
A few poorly-worded Google searches later and my query struck quarry: Cruising, a 1980 mystery thriller starring Al Pacino as NYPD officer Steve Burns, who must go deep undercover to penetrate the seedy underside of the gay S&M community of 1980s New York in order to catch a serial killer. Finally, a real grindhouse movie! Twenty minutes later and it was mine; the only copy I could find was a digitized VHS copy, which was itself a tape of the Mystery Channel; I believe the available quality speaks volumes of its critical acclaim.
Cruising does double duty as both a film and a conversation piece: there is the film itself, and the controversy surrounding the movie, which resulted in about a third of the footage being destroyed. The protests against the film arose from gay rights groups who felt that the film portrayed an unflattering portrait of the gay community by focusing exclusively on the heavy leather crowd. Not being alive at the time of this protest, I really can’t comment on it, but after both 30 years and the heavy hand of the MPAA censor board, the film seems neither pro nor anti-gay; instead seeming just tame. As such, upon first viewing I thought, “Here is the consequence of a lifetime of unmonitored internet use: the man of tomorrow looks into a gay S&M bar, in all its glory, with neither disdain nor arousal – but jaded disinterest.”
I’m willing to believe that times have certainly changed since the ‘80s as far as gay culture and mainstream media go, but I have a hard time believing anyone who was not simply upset by gays was upset about this; most modern PG-13 movies show more flesh than this in the opening sequence, never mind the most controversial scene in the film.
Judging from the dispassionate writhing in the clubs, I would say that the most anti-gay part of the whole movie was the hiring policies for the extras. Sure, they go all through the motions, but nobody wants to seem “too into it,” least of all Pacino. It’s impossible to say what bland-o-fied the movie: was it the Ministry of Truth’s sock puppet (the MPAA), or the fact that gay heavy leather culture is just an ape of biker culture and all the club scenes just looked like a parody of our very own Boss Hogs? Then again, Boss Hogs was never exotic in the first place, so maybe it was just the impersonal toll of gray Father Time. Perhaps Tarantino simply lied to us when he revealed that B movies from the ‘70s were action packed blister packs of gory social deviance… no, that couldn’t be it!
The rest of the movie focused on the police and their relations with the gay community that was actually quite gritty and interesting. Early in the film it is established that relations between the police and the gay community are complex, but strained. Patrolmen practice hate-rape on their own informants, and most of the community feel that the police are deliberately stalling the search for the serial killer. Early on there is a lot of ambiguity whether or not this is true; particularly if the police chief is sabotaging the undercover operation by sending in Burns, who is obviously uncomfortable with homosexuals, wholly ignorant of gay culture, and consistently fighting the urge to reaffirm his heterosexuality.
Finally, when the police have a suspect, they offer him a plea bargain for eight years; approximately one year for each murder. Does this reflect the shaky evidence or the police force’s secret support of the murders? The ambiguity makes Cruising a good mystery thriller, constantly leaving the viewer unsure of the motivations or potential guilt of many of the characters, including Burns himself. Indeed, the film’s climax is a real “Han shot first” scenario where the audience is unsure if Burns is attacking or defending himself from a man with only circumstantial evidence against him.
That said, Cruising was ultimately disappointing, but through no fault of its own. It is a competent, interesting murder mystery that paints an evocative picture of a dark, grim world. But that’s it – the controversy promised by both IMDB and Wikipedia never really appeared. What homophobia that does exist in the film is a property of certain characters, characters that need properties like this so that they can believably drive the plot – which is a thing that used to be in older movies between giant robot fights. The worst part was that you never really find out what the deal with the naked black cowboy was. Seriously, no context for him; he simply is, and that is all.