The psychosexual dynamic of Cruising, William Friedkin’s notorious 1980 thriller starring Al Pacino as an NYPD cop deranged — sexually and otherwise — by his contact with the hardcore gay underground, is certainly questionable (deliberately so, to some extent), though in chalking up violent homoerotic impulses to unresolved daddy issues, the movie may be a greater insult to the intelligence of psychoanalysts than to the sensibilities of gays. From today’s vantage point, it seems unlikely that any audience for Cruising (which returns to theaters in advance of its September 18 release on DVD) would automatically equate the hardcore leather scene depicted in the film with gay culture at large, though it pays to remember that this was an era when Time magazine, reporting on the Cruising controversy, could blithely inform its readership that “homosexual homicides are frequent — and often gruesome; dismembered corpses .?.?. and mutilated genitals are common.”
Still, it’s hard not to detect another source of anxiety underlying the protests that plagued Cruising throughout its production and release: the squeamishness of the assimilation set over a movie that flaunts the decadent, disreputable antics of their Dionysian brothers. Cruising is a mediocre thriller but an amazing time capsule — a heady, horny flashback to the last gasp of full-blown sexual abandon, and easily the most graphic depiction of gay sex ever seen in a mainstream movie. Filmed in such legendary bars as the Ramrod, Anvil, Mine Shaft and Eagle’s Nest (the latter two eventually barred Friedkin from the premises), it’s a lurid fever dream of popper fumes, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore disco frottage and Crisco-coated forearms. Nowadays, when the naughtiest thing you can do in a New York gay club is light a cigarette, it’s bracing — and, let’s admit, pretty fucking hot — to travel back to a moment when getting your ass plowed in public was as blasé as ordering a Red Bull is now.
Elaborating on the infernal urban horror show of Taxi Driver, Friedkin imagines the entire West Side of Manhattan as an expanse of sticky asphalt swarming with tumescent Honcho sluts. Grotesquerie abounds — leering sex fiends, freaky bondage weirdos, fugly trannies — but so does a palpable sense of fun. Nothing at the orgy is as shocking as the smile on everyone’s face. This atmosphere of uninhibited sexual camaraderie — invisible to the protesters and long since vanished from the scene — overpowers the trite homophobic conceits. Cruising’s lasting legacy isn’t political but archival. One year after the film was released, the first symptoms of AIDS were detected in New York City. (Mann Chinese 6)