Cruising (dir. William Friedkin) occupies a particularly contentious place in the history of homosexuality onscreen. Released in 1980, it depicts NYC’s gay bar scene as a Dantean underworld into which an undercover cop (played by Al Pacino) must descend in order to catch a killer preying on gay men. The film was heavily protested during production as well as after its release by gay activist groups who objected to the associations of gay male culture with violent death as well as to what they felt was an exploitative use of s/m imagery to strike horror and fear in the hearts of straight audience members. Gay characters like Stuart Richards (pictured above) adhere to familiar cultural stereotypes: he’s a student at Columbia researching the roots of the musical theater tradition, and his murderous impulses (as well as his sexual fetishes) are explained as being rooted in latent daddy issues. In Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary The Celluloid Closet (1996), the Cruising protests become a symbol of a turning point in gay cultural history, something of a “we’re not gonna take it” moment; we see footage of activists marching to the chant “Stop the movie Cruising!” After which point, according to The Celluloid Closet’s progress narrative, such bad, straight-authored representations of gay people are replaced by good, gay-authored representations in films like Desert Hearts and Parting Glances (on the subject of which, stay tuned).
But history, gay or otherwise, rarely moves teleologically, and even the response of gay and lesbian audiences to a film like Cruising has been knottier than The Celluloid Closet would like us to believe. The behind-the-scenes footage on the Cruising DVD explains that many members of the gay community supported the film and co-operated with its production (much of which took place on location at the city’s premier leather bars). More recently, it seems that gay audiences have come to regard Cruising as, if not exactly a point of pride, then at least a provocative cultural artifact that lends itself to valuable discussion and debate. When the film screened here at the Brattle Theatre a year or so ago, it was billed as a gay cult classic.
It’s my contention that Cruising functions, in spite of its being pretty shoddily made in spots (that ending!), as an exploitation film that touches off a number of interesting, sometimes contradictory, responses in gay and straight viewers alike. These responses may include discomfort, repulsion, arousal, fear, nostalgia, and outrage. But, as Heather Love argues in Feeling Backward, it’s important that we as gay (and gay-friendly) viewers keep in touch with all of these affects instead of simply trying to insulate ourselves from those ones that make us uncomfortable. This is not to say that Cruising is not, or should not be, an upsetting film—merely that we should be open to the experience of letting it upset us, and confronting our upset-ness in ways that allow us to keep thinking, feeling, and watching.