Camp David


By • Aug 12th, 2012 •

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It was 1980 and my phone was ringing off the hook, on a Saturday afternoon no less. I finally answered it, only to discover that the big news was Willam Friedkin’s CRUISING had opened in Westwood to much fanfare, most of it negative, and my close friend, actor Reggie Nalder, was on the other end of the line advising me to come down and see the film with him again. He had already seen it once, confiding in that Austrian accent of his “Ya the leather men ver vorking on him.” The “him” was of course Al Pacino. Reggie was known internationally for his role in Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH as the assassin who falls to his death in the Albert Hall. Reggie was also a gay man whose curiosity had been aroused by all the adverse publicity surrounding this film by the media, both gay and straight. Friedkin’s film was damned in the Village Voice by Arthur Bell, a gay reviewer who felt the film would cause great harm to the gay community as a whole since the violence in the film would then spill into the streets, especially where certain gay men cruise for sex. This was very interesting since Bell’s articles regarding the brutal killings of homosexuals that had occurred in the Village back in the 60’s were used by the production for research purposes. (Bell later sent a bill to the production offices for services rendered. He was never paid for his trouble both on and off the set – which he tried on several occasions to shut down.)

It is fascinating to me that this film was made at all at that time in Hollywood, and having said that, it is now a cult film with a growing fan base among straight men as well as gay film buffs. In the past five years I have had at least six straight friends recite lines of dialogue from CRUISING as if it were THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW at a midnight screening. Once the initial shock wears off of seeing inside a leather bar, perhaps for the first time in a mainstream film, you then witness the nightly ritual of New York’s gay men, some of whom appear to live perfectly straight lives during the day only to change their personas at night like vampires. This transformation is helped along by donning leather attire, complete with studs and dog collars, or simply being shirtless with chaps. Then one is at last presentable to inhabit the seedy dives in the meat packing district along the Hudson river where groups of abandoned trucks are transformed into a wonderland of faceless men having sex in the dark.

Into this aberrant scene (which is described in a disclaimer at the film’s beginning as a special sub-culture of gay life, not to be confused with the gay community as a whole) comes a nameless evil in the guise of a killer in black leather who is stabbing to death and then dismembering his victims before throwing their body parts into the river. These parts later turn up in the morgue where they are filed away as “circumstances undetermined pending police investigation.” The police enlist the aid of young rookie cop Steve Burns, played by Al Pacino, who goes into deep cover posing as a gay man in the village with hopes of attracting the killer, since he fits the physical profile of the kind of men the killer seems to like to cruise.

In all the years since the film’s release Al Pacino has remained silent about the making of this film. It seems that CRUISING is to his film career what MOMMIE DEAREST is to Faye Dunaway’s. Unlike Dunaway, Pacino’s career has never been in a slump, and he has moved well past whatever about it displeased him – most likely the negative reviews of the period, not to mention that the film then tanked at the box-office. CRUISING became a film Al Pacino just wanted to put behind him and pretty much has by now.

What is strange about Pacino’s performance is that after he is initially briefed by his captain, played here by a very tired Paul Sorvino, about the nature of his assignment (which has Sorvino speaking the immortal lines “Have you ever had a man smoke your pole?” and “Have you ever been porked?”), the way Pacino plays his character you never get a sense that any of this really sinks in. He registers no emotion about what he is about to do except to say to his captain “I love it!” You never get the sense that this detective is on a case that is not only dangerous but highly unsettling as he goes deeper into the night life of S&M that the leather scene provides. We get reaction shots of Pacino watching men getting fisted and making out, and to all of this he just stares into the void, and what stares back is the real mystery of this film.

Friedkin makes sure we see this transformation in detail as we watch Pacino making himself up with eye liner and working out with weights – all this work to lure a killer out into the open, or is he really becoming part of this new world where man sex is available whenever he wants it. At this point he is given a love interest of sorts with his next door neighbor, Ted, who is attracted to Steve even through he has a lover played by James Remar (who had just completed a star turn in THE WARRIORS). The film alternates this reality by having Pacino return to his girlfriend, played by a pre RAIDERS Karen Allen, for sex, and by this time, fully inhabiting the netherworld of gay life, he has very rough sex with her during which we hear the unmistakable sounds of the beating, pounding music of the leather bars he spends his nights cruising. He is slowly losing his grip on his old life as he goes further into his new life in the clubs.

We were told at the time of the film’s release that William Friedkin wanted to go for ambiguity in the film and we certainly get that in many ways, not the least of which is the real identity of the killer. It is however left to actor Richard Cox to assume the role of the killer since he is the one who is brought down by Burns in the final reel. Then, while in the hospital recovering from being stabbed by Burns, he is offered a deal by Sorvino to cop only to a couple of the killings, making the scene even more confused. In CRUISING there are three distinct killers, all played by different actors, even down to dubbing different voices on the soundtrack. The concept of a nameless evil that inhabits different men at different times during the film is a possibility. When I first watched this film I assumed that Steve Burns simply went over the edge as the film progressed and then became a killer by the end of the film, but this is too easy a way out since there is no real proof that this is what happened except for a line Paul Sorvino is given near the film’s end when the police invade Ted’s apt only to find him lying in the bathroom floor stabbed to death with his eyes open (a scene inspired by a David Bowie album cover) as if he knew the killer perhaps? When Sorvino asks who lives next door they tell him it was a guy named John Forbes – Pacino’s undercover name. Sorvino then says “Jesus Christ” as if to confirm our worst suspicions.

The depiction of the murders is really where the film’s infamous reputation started. As we witness the first murder in the St James hotel, Friedkin actually inserted flashes of anal sex from a porn film into the sequence where the young man is placed on his back, his hands tied with leather straps and then stabbed repeatedly. This sequence begins with the two men making out and then Friedkin uses the leather boots as a fetish. They fall onto the bed and begin fondling the boots before having sex. The murder in the Rambles in Central Park is shot as a hide and seek with the men saying ‘who’s here’ ‘I’m here’ – something Pacino would use later on since other witnesses heard this exchange before the stabbing. The murder in the peepshow is also done in nearly total darkness, the victim stabbed as he goes down on the killer. In a sequence just before, we see the victim closing up the shop he owns with another man played by Keith Prentice, who played one of the BOYS IN THE BAND for Friedkin earlier. The only murder that is done entirely off camera is that of the neighbor, Ted, who perhaps is the most defined character in the film and the most likeable. It is no accident that all of his moments in the film are shot in daylight. Ted is a nice guy who deserves better than an abusive boyfriend and then death at the hands of perhaps the one man he came to trust, but this we will never know for sure in a film filled with unanswered questions.

The charges of homophobia leveled at CRUISING seemed to carry weight in 1980 with most critics but a closer examination of the film today reveals something else entirely for me, simply because at the time the film came out what other films were there that showed any kind of positive gay characters in any kind of light except perhaps for Friedkin’s own film of BOYS IN THE BAND which, for time in which it was made, was a breakthrough of sorts. Yet the cast of characters in BOYS were somewhat hysterical and dated with a stereotypical midnight cowboy and a very camp interior decorator. The men in CRUISING are mostly butch guys with little time for the camp or swishy men depicted in the films of the 70’s like THE GAY DECEIVERS or FORTUNE AND MEN’S EYES. The atmosphere of the cityscape in CRUISING resembles a monochrome city not unlike the New York we see in Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER, a boiling-over inferno of death and desire in equal measure.

The late Joe Spinell, who plays one of the cops in the film (whose character has become gay since his wife left him), and uses his job to force young hustlers into performing oral sex on him, is also a red herring since he turns up in Central Park cruising Pacino at one point. Spinell told me he had another scene that was cut where he takes one of the hustlers out of the radio car and forces him to “beat his ass while singing ‘she’ll be coming around the mountain.'” Spinell’s character is the first in the film to describe what is going on in the city from the cops’ point of view when he says “Look at this place: once you could play stickball here and now look at these guys. One day this whole place will explode.”

The entire narrative is decidedly bleak and soulless, and since it is a Friedkin film, that is to be expected. The soundtrack is one of the great pleasures of this film. The producer was Jack Nitzsche who supervised the very avant garde sound-scapes we hear, especially in the clubs. The soundtrack is used subliminally so that we still hear these pounding primitive anthems while Pacino is trying to have straight sex with his girlfriend or shave in the mirror at the end of the film. Willie De Ville’s terrific ‘It’s So Easy’ was used by Tarantino in his own very transgressive DEATH PROOF as an homage to this film. My two other favorite cuts are Madelynn Von Ritz’s ‘When I close my eyes I see blood’ which is unforgettable, as is ‘Shakedown’ by the group Rough Trade. This song is used to great effect when Pacino dances with a hot guy at the club while they do ethyl chloride doused in handkerchiefs clenched between their teeth. All the while an electric American flag pulsates in rhythm to the men dancing as if they might explode any moment. This was certainly a defining moment in gay pre-AIDS cinema and yet most critics of the day simply ignored what a dark and special film CRUISING really was.

The strangest moments in this film occur out of nowhere, like the interrogation scene where Burns and the young man from the steakhouse are picked up just before they were to have sex in a hotel room. Pacino keeps telling the officers at the scene “You came in too soon” meaning perhaps they should have waited until after they had sex, but this is never made clear. At the station, out of the blue, a tall muscular black man wearing nothing but a jock strap and a cowboy hat comes into the room and slaps the kid around and then exits, causing Pacino, understandably, to say “What the hell was that?” The weirdest moment after that has to be the hallucination (or is it) that Richard Cox has on a park bench with his ‘Father’ who tells him “You know what you have to do Stewie.” We later learn that the Richard Cox character has major father issues and writes volumes of letters to his father that are never mailed because his father has been dead for years, thus making that scene a figment of his imagination, or maybe the ghost of his father is telling him to kill. Hamlet’s ghost used for murder and revenge. Well, that is one of many ways to interpret this material, since so much is left up to the audience.

The final confrontation is between Pacino and the film’s only real suspect (at least the one Pacino spends the most time investigating), Richard Cox’s character, a Columbia student nicknamed Stewie, who we are told is a music major since we see him at one point playing the piano. Pacino coaxes him out of his apt for a long overdue showdown and the result is the highlight of the film for me, mainly because of the cat and mouse aspect of their dance together. Cox has a lean and hungry demeanor which, when clad in leather, looks a bit lethal. Pacino matches him in bravado, so the two seems destined to mix it up one way or the other. The dialogue that follows is much quoted today…as they sit side by side on a park bench in a deserted part of the campus. Pacino begins to taunt Stewie by asking for a light. One gets the sense at this point that Stewie is on to him, and they then move the action over to a more secluded area where he asks Pacino how big he is, to which the undercover cop replies “party size.” Then he asks him what he does, to which Pacino explains “I go anywhere. Hips or lips?” Then Pacino demands that Stewie “Drop um. I want to see the world…” With this, a swift attempt to pull a blade leaves Stewie crumpled on the ground with a stab wound, and the fight is over before it really gets started. Not much of a moment except for the dialogue, which is priceless.

The final scenes of CRUISING are the most perplexing because after we have the police arriving at the murder scene over at Pacino’s former residence as an undercover officer, and the scene at the hospital with Richard Cox, Pacino then returns to Karen Allen’s apt and begins to explain, or so we are told, just what has been up with him, since she was kept well out of the loop for the entire film. At this point Pacino goes into the bathroom and begins to clean up, looking into the mirror as he had countless times at the other apt, only putting on a disguise rather than taking one off as he is doing now. In the next room Karen Allen is now examining Pacino’s wardrobe – the leather jacket, mirrored sunshades and the leather cap. Why he would bring this outfit with him to her place seems odd. In any case she begins to put these items on, transforming her into what for all purposes looks like the killer once again, since all we ever saw previously was a shadowy form in a leather costume. As she moves from the living room into the hall towards the bathroom where Pacino is trying to resume a normal demeanor, her outfit complete now, with keys that rattle, causes Pacino to instantly lapse back into the sights and especially the sounds of the leather bars. The pounding music has taken hold once again. This scene then dissolves and we are back where we started, in the meat-packing district at night. We are watching the same shadowy figure, clad in the leather cap and jacket of the killer, walking toward the same leather bar that Pacino frequented throughout the film.

What does this mean to the audience? Is the killer still at large? Are we to believe that the killings are the work of an intangible evil that moves from one body to another? Is that figure perhaps our Steve Burns?

When you look into the abyss long enough, the abyss may look back…

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