Cruising ★★★★½

Whatever danger Cruising situates as indigenous to the gay S&M scene becomes contextualized not as the result of queerness itself (Friedkin, like Demme in Silence of the Lambs, takes time to specify through dialogue that this world is clearly delineated from ‘normal’ gay life) but as a pervasive hypermasculine ethos which is the result of the internalization of fascist symbolism into the queer community, and which is reflected in the police department’s similarly masculine operations. The more immediate danger originates in straight society’s terror of homosexuality, whether it be the ‘homo killer’ or Al Pacino’s taciturn police officer, who seemingly murders Ted Bailey as an act of expulsion or denial of homosexual desire. So, while understandable that gay audiences protested this film in an era where essentially any cultural lines drawn between homosexuality and violence were going to have dangerous real-world effects, with 40 years of intervening space the film becomes a far more sympathetic portrait of the gay community and a far more damning account of the police.

The semiotic permeability mentioned in the above paragraph (i.e. the fascist/police iconography penetrating gay spaces) is, of course, bidirectional. The cops seem to take up certain symbolic and practical elements of the gayness which they seek to investigate and dominate, whether it be Al Pacino’s deteriorating grasp on his own sexuality, the inexplicable presence of a tall man in a jockstrap as part of the police torture of Skip, or the cops in the very first scene who assault the trans sex workers. What makes Cruising so fascinating is this mirroring, which suggests both the Oshima-esque thesis that libidinal energies work termitically at the edges of fascist power structures, producing not their total collapse but progressively larger breakdowns of internal order, and the notion that queerness, when yoked to (even parodic/erotic reappropriation of) fascist imagery and toxic masculinity, is capable of producing fascist violence just as easily as the police themselves.

Certainly, Cruising is more than an academic exploration of structures of power, and its strength as an aesthetic document is undeniable. The goofy edginess of the rock/noise-rock/early hardcore sonic milieu gives way to genuine ecstasy (most notably, in the moment where Pacino begins to lose himself dancing, and the cold blue lights of the club seem to transform into warm hues for a brief moment) and the clinicality of the camera’s gaze can hardly repress the undeniable eroticism of those club scenes, which would be surprisingly lascivious even by contemporary major release standards. Moreover, one can hardly oversell what a strange film this is, dramatizing the play of desires in ways that are sometimes affectively intelligible but basically never narratively or logically so (which was clearly a sticking point for most contemporary reviewers). All in all, I’m tempted to claim this as an all-time great of queer cinema, the kind of film that understands queerness better than any of the people involved probably did, and better than anything that the last decade has produced as an account of gay masculinity.

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