Cruising

cruising
The first time I heard of William Friedkin’s “Cruising” (1980) was fifteen years after its release, in “The Celluloid Closet,” an indispensable documentary about the portrayal of gays and lesbians throughout the history of films. In it, “Cruising” is indicted as a film that encouraged hate crimes and exploited homophobia. It depicts protesters demanding that the filmmakers halt production altogether. Watching this, one feels that it was a seminal moment, when gays and lesbians spoke up and tried to take control of their own image in the media.

Certainly there’s merit to that. However, after finally watching the film, now thirty-five years after its release, I struggled to identify the reason for all the fuss.

“Cruising” tells the story of a cop (Al Pacino) who goes undercover to find a serial killer who’s been targeting gay men in the underground leather scene of New York City. The nature of his mission requires a certain open-mindedness, but the job also provides a cover that allows him to indulge his curiosities and explore facets of his sexuality that he might have otherwise ignored. This is a fascinating setup, and the complexity of Pacino’s character is remarkable considering that he evolves without the benefit of expository dialogue. His motivations are known only to himself. He has no confidant, so there is never a scene in which he shares his feelings aloud. Nor is there a voiceover to let us know what he’s thinking. Some have complained that this makes his character frustrating and unnecessarily obscure. I disagree. Pacino’s performance communicates everything we need to know about his secret attraction to the leather scene, and his isolation from the audience makes thematic sense. (This works only up to a point. More on that later.)

Watching the film, I noticed a curious amount of ADR and later learned that protesters followed the production and deliberately ruined the audio recordings by making noise on set. But why? What made this film so controversial that activists actually wanted to shut down production? The film is strikingly sympathetic to the gay community. The first scene involves a pair of homophobic cops, but its purpose is not to make us laugh at or be grossed out by gay people, but to feel sympathy for these characters who face constant harassment. (The scene also introduces the theme of repressed sexuality by showing a cop who antagonizes a drag queen but ultimately forces her to go down on him.)

In a way, the real villains in the story are the intolerance toward gay people and the shame that’s imposed on them. That’s what motivates the murders. I suppose that idea is problematic in itself, that an intolerant society can twist gay people into crazed killers, but the film isn’t that simplistic. Yes, the scene that attempts to humanize the killer and assign his motivation feels clunky, but it’s no reason to protest.

cruising 3I think the real objection was that the film shined a light on the dark corners of the community. The Gay Liberation Movement, as it was called at the time, was grasping for mainstream acceptance, and here was a mainstream film that depicted a subset of the community, one that is particularly sexual, fueled with drugs and violence, and altogether unpalatable to grandmothers the world over. But the film goes out of its way to distinguish the leather subculture from the gay community at large, both by having a character say that outright and by introducing a gay character who is not at all involved in the S&M culture.

One can understand why the Gay Liberation Movement of 1980 would have been apprehensive about a film that invited the whole world into the leather bars of the Meatpacking District, but to go so far as to disrupt the production seems to betray an intolerance toward members of their own community. Perhaps these protesters were themselves a fringe group; conservative and hungry for acceptance, terrified of being viewed as perverted sex freaks and willing to go to any lengths to prove how “normal” they were. Of course I’m extrapolating now, but the struggle between the freaks and the assimilationists was real in the early post-Stonewall era.

cruising 2Regardless of the reason, this film was under tremendous scrutiny before it had even been made, and all the controversy succeeded in diluting the story. The scenes between Pacino and his wife could have provided more insight into his character while maintaining his strict secrecy, as in “Brokeback Mountain” when Heath Ledger insists on certain sex positions with his wife and we understand the meaning. Here, we do see that Pacino can’t get it up for his wife, but that fact alone doesn’t have as strong an impact without accompanying scenes showing him fully capable of performing with men. Also, the relationship between the Pacino character and his neighbor is vital to the film’s conclusion, yet senselessly underdeveloped. As a result, the ending falls flat for lack of a convincing setup. By the time it’s over, one gets the feeling that Friedkin was forced to cut several key scenes and then tried to pass off the resulting obscurity as artistic.

“Cruising” was far ahead of its time and suffered, technically and dramatically, as a result. Here is a film that begs for a remake. Surely now, when the media represents the wide spectrum of the gay community, no one would protest a murder mystery set in the milieu of the leather bars.

And yet, this film, despite its flaws, deserves recognition at least for Pacino’s performance as the conflicted undercover cop, for creating sympathetic gay characters long before that was common, and for going where no mainstream film had gone before. Maybe not boldly, but it did go there.

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Raging Bull

raging bull
Midnight shows are my favorite. For one thing, the films selected for this coveted time slot often cater to us film geeks. For another, the people who show up to watch movies in the middle of the night always make for an entertaining crowd.

I recently attended a midnight screening of “Raging Bull” (1980) at the magnificent Nighthawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was the first to arrive and waited patiently for the parade of those awkward, lumpy film snobs I love so much. I assumed it would be them coming, because who else would go see Scorsese at midnight.

I think all “serious” lovers of cinema have a special place in their hearts for Martin Scorsese. For me, it’s because his films pulse with intensity and energy. In “Raging Bull” in particular, his actors explode and flip tables, and his screen is spattered with blood and sweat. I’ll take that over Antonioni’s ruminations on nothingness or Bergman’s quiet, brooding empty rooms. I understand that this is heresy, but here I must break from my film school brethren. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the auteurs who shaped modern cinema — I do! — it’s just that I can’t honestly say I enjoy sitting through many of their films. I dunno. I like when things happen in a movie. That’s just my preference.

raging bullI’m sure a lively debate could have been held on the subject that night at the Nitehawk. The auditorium was filled with the collective knowledge of countless hours of moviegoing experience, and some debates had already begun in the lobby queue.

Most of the nerds in attendance were in excited, chatty packs, but in the back row I was flanked by a few stragglers. To my left was the only other person, aside from myself, who had come alone. He was the tallest and fairest of all the attendees. I fell in love with him immediately. To my right was a poor dope who’d come with his decidedly un-geeky girlfriend. Clearly a Nitehawk novice, she placed her bag on the floor, nearly killing our waiter when he twice tripped over it. As the lights when down, I sank into my seat, sipping my whiskey, already full of feelings.

We hadn’t reached the midpoint of the first act before it became apparent that the girlfriend on the right had grown bored. She kept trying to chat with her date, but he would only shush her savagely. His rebukes didn’t stop her though. She had a lot to say. After the movie, he hustled her away, probably hoping to avoid any more peevish glares. I wondered if he was reevaluating his relationship, and whether they would have an awkward brunch the next morning. Can a lover of cinema ever get serious with a person who can’t sit through “Raging Bull”?

I pondered this question while the credits rolled, and stole some glances at the elven boy on my left. He did two things after the movie that sealed his place in my heart. First, he stayed seated through the credits. Second, he produced a flip phone from his pocket. A flip phone! My spirited brain extrapolated his whole persona. An entrenched Luddite. Not on Facebook. Writes letters on paper. (Swoon.)

Then my spine stiffened. Suppose he adores Ingmar Bergman? He’s just the type who would. What if “L’Avventura” is his favorite film? I sat through that “movie” (using the term is a stretch) once, last summer, and I wouldn’t endure the experience again. He’d think I’m a complete dunce, of course, and I’d have to allow him that, or I couldn’t say the same thing about that girl who was bored by Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta. (And I don’t want to not say that.)

The last credit rolled. The boy stood up, stretched, and ambled out of the auditorium. Just as well. It’d never have worked between us. I sighed and searched my glass for a last drop of whiskey.

Next midnight I’ll have to see something more lowbrow. But not too low…

A Guide for Cinephiles in New York City


I have compiled a calendar of all the revival screenings and retrospectives I could find in New York. But let me tell you why.

There exist certain movie theaters that still try to give you a real “moviegoing experience.” They know all the things that bug you about the big multiplexes and they avoid those pitfalls. They don’t show commercials for soda pop or any of a number of godawful cop dramas on D-list cable networks. Their concessions include baked goods and coffee that you’re happy to pay money for, rather than having to smuggle in your own. These cinemas are staffed not by surly high schoolers but by surly film students. (This I consider an upgrade.) But the best thing of all is that these theaters from time to time exhibit classic films, cult favorites, and obscure treasures of the cinema.

IMG_5606It’s at these revival screenings and retrospectives where you’ll find me. Midnight shows are often my favorites. I’m always excited to see what kinds of weirdos will show up. A while back, I went to a midnight screening of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996) at the Sunshine Cinema on Houston. Just who exactly would come out at midnight to see this, I wondered. Well, they were as gangly and oafish a bunch of nerds as you’d ever imagine. They were my people. Now, I’d seen this film countless times on VHS, but to see it on the big screen again, playing to a house full of its dearest fans, transformed the experience. We created a weird sort of energy in the theater that took us all back in time. Jokes I’ve heard fifty times before made me laugh again. I’m sure most of the people in that auditorium had seen the movie before too, probably dozens of times each. But we’d never seen it together.

And finding your weird compatriots is only one of the joys of revival screenings. But I guess I don’t need to convince you of all that. You’re here for the calendar.

Well, recently I grew concerned that I was missing out on too many screenings on account of finding out about them too late. I did a quick internet search to see if anyone had compiled a list of revivals in New York, but my not-too-thorough search yielded no results. Rather than try harder to find one, I just made my own, and I’ve been using this calendar to guide myself through the vast array of cinematic offerings in this city ever since. I’ve found it useful, vital even, so I figured I’d share it with whoever might feel the same way.

Below are the theaters that I’ve included in my calendar. Please consult their websites for more info about the films and to confirm showtimes. You’ll want to sign up for their newsletters too.

Enjoy! Maybe I’ll see you at one of these shows.

Your pal,
Reedley


BAM
bam.org

Film Forum
filmforum.org

Film Society of Lincoln Center
filmlinc.com

IFC Center
ifccenter.com

Museum of the Moving Image
movingimage.us

Nitehawk Cinema
nitehawkcinema.com

Sunshine Cinema
landmarktheatres.com/new-york-city/sunshine-cinema