Sunday, February 8, 2009
There was a time when, after viewing Cruising, I was so disgusted that I vowed never to lay eyes on it again. Well, after gaining a new appreciation for another eighties Friedkin film, To Live and Die in L.A., I decided it was time to go back. And though I'm still aghast, I've come to the conclusion that it's an exceptional film. It's a coal-blue, shit-flecked diamond in the rough -- sleazy late-70s hangover warts and all. Sometimes I'm so hypersensitive and moody about the sound and vision I come across, I wonder how I can be so brash as to take pride in my taste. It brings me to this rock crit tidbit I read today from All Music Guide's Mark Deming:
"It's hard to say what Lou Reed had in mind when he made Metal Machine Music, and Reed has done little to clarify the issue over the years, though he summed it up quite pointedly in an interview in which he said, "Well, anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am." For the record, I did get to side four. But I got paid for it."
How nice for you, getting paid to be dismissive of a landmark album. Like Cruising, Lou Reed's best solo album is confrontational, rash and lucid as a means of sensory overload. The stuff is quease-inducing, alright. But in a way that's purely intentional and adventurous. Anyhow, to be dumber than Lou Reed is an honor and a privilege. Even though the rest of his solo work (save "Walk on The Wild Side" or "Perfect Day") is just hokey and vexingly overrated, he is partly responsible for some of the greatest rock music ever created with his former band. So if I'm dumb in any measure for not viewing Metal Machine Music as a mere endurance test, very well.
Maybe I'm a masochist. Cause Cruising hurts. It's a cold, ugly place to be. The world of this film is a brutal, impersonal one. And Pacino, playing voyeur/undercover cop Steve Burns, is of little solace. This was back when he was still wide-eyed, but more brooding than exclamatory. There's no sudden "CAUSE SHE'S GOT A GREAT ASS, AND YOU''VE GOT YOUR HEAD ALL THE WAY UP IT!" outbursts here. Just a resolute, yet distant “Lips or Hips?" proposition (for those who were curious, apparently Pacino is "party size"). Being an undercover, we never really get to know him all that well, and we only see his barely contained shock which was apparently very real.
You got to hand it to Friedkin for showing such graphic sexuality in this film (apparently made up of actual leather bar patrons). It's not so explicit as to be pornographic, but it skirts the edges just enough to put the viewer on edge. And the POV murder scenes have the feel of a particularly bleak slasher film (think Maniac, whose star Joe Spinell is featured here as a dirty cop, or Driller Killer). If you're like me and you felt cheated when the obnoxious Don Scardino emerged from both He Know You're Alone and Squirm unscathed... Well, actually, it's kinda sad because he's the only sunny character in the whole film. Still and all, he's gotta be one of the most unbearable Regis Philbin lookalikes this side of Tom Pace. Then there's the soundtrack, which does wonders for the unnerving atmosphere Friedkin weaves. It's obscure (save The Germs) punk, funk and hard rock, but it belies an extremely scuzzy and throttling sort of feel that fits the film amazingly. Even if you don't care for Cruising, the now out-of-print soundtrack is worth hunting down. It's simply badass in its tastelessness, with dialogue snippets that make the sordidness seem almost fun (not really), and Jack Nitzsche's skulking, somber "Cruising Suite" to serve as a reminder of the film's quieter creepy moments.
Adding to the relentless delirium of the film is the high pitched whistling that you hear throughout many of the club scenes. According to the Friedkin (on the DVD's behind-the-scenes feature) this sound was the result of the rigorous campaign against the film from the local gay community who acquired access to neighboring apartments and constantly blew whistles in an attempt derail the filming process. Apparently word got out early about the film and the protesters dogged it every step of the way. Seems now like it may've have been a waste of time and energy.
Though Pacino was a marquee name having done The Godfather, I can't see how it’s damaging to the reputation of anyone. Movies - much as they affect our psyches, are still just for our entertainment. Milk is no more than that. Even the doc, though it is more about being informative, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk is not fundamentally representative of a people. Any additional value placed on cinema beyond entertainment is purely subjective. Even if, by some strange logic -- as critic at large Mark Deming was keen enough to illustrate -- some get paid for this subjectivity. The only negative stereotype I could glean is that of leather bars being seedy places. And I think they like it that way.
I don't think Cruising is most folk’s idea of entertainment. And from what I can see, this film is more about finding solace in degradation and the mechanical and rough side of sexuality (in the meat packing district, no less!) than the gay urban population in general. It's about exploring the void-like aspect of a particular gay subculture. And as it is a somewhat hidden one, it holds some fascination for that alone. In one sense, all Friedkin created with this film was another gritty police drama. I prefer to appreciate the film as a seedy, strange and ambiguous viewing experience. It's a bizarre thrill, from the abrupt, punk flashing of the fat-lettered introductory title card to Joan Allen (playing Detective Burns' unwitting wife) finding and calmly trying on her husband's undercover cruising garb at the end.
Friedkin's film doesn't push any ideas onto the viewer, but it does push a lot of vulgar and morbid imagery. It's pretty sick. But you're not necessarily sick for being fascinated with it. I'd argue that Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, while possessing a similar mastery of atmosphere, is more questionable for suggesting that one of these sexually unscrupulous fringe dwellers are so hateful of straight society that they would take pleasure in raping a woman. Even so, it's important to remember these are films that at their best are more about pain-stakingly creating a harrowing atmosphere than commenting on it. Friedkin is imperfect as a film-maker (save The Exorcist or French Connection), but he is impeccably attuned to moods so airtight as to be charmingly transfixing. Cruising succeeds wonderfully at this, whatever you might think the film's "message" may be. I really don't see that there is one. This murkiness works in its favor. It's a brilliant piece of bleak fetishism for film lovers who yearn -- above all else -- to see something different. Even if, as the firecracker warning states, it’s one to view and get away (and then pop in Planes, Trains or something similarly innocuous).