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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Film in Focus: Cruising Into Confusion

CRUISING. Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by Friedkin, based on the novel by Gerald Walker. Produced by Jerry Weintraub. Released by United Artists. 

The controversy over Cruising seems to be drifting toward an anticlimax now that the finished movie is available for inspec­tion. My sympathy, as always, tends to be with the filmmaker against the censor, however well-intentioned the latter may be. I think that it is hard enough making a good movie without having a lot of people screaming at you from the side­lines. On the other hand, I cannot deny that much, if not most, filmmaking is superficially exploitational in its depiction of sex and violence. So what? Most people in every field, including my own, are in it at least partly for the money. Consequent­ly, I have no illusions that William Friedkin, Jerry Weintraub, Gerald Walk­er, and Al Pacino undertook this project to feed the starving people of Cambodia. Whether any or all of these individuals are homophobic to any extent I cannot say. Much of the initial controversy seems to have been fueled by what A is supposed to have said at a seminar staged by B, and attended by C.

Some years ago, William Friedkin directed Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band on the screen, and I thought that his direction was reasonably sympathetic. Certain gay activists have attacked the play and the film for finally enshrouding the characters in gloom, morbidity, and self-pity. But if gloom, morbidity, and self-pity in the face of approaching middle age make Friedkin and Crowley antigay, then all of Chekhov’s plays can be at­tacked for being antistraight. It is in the nature of modern characters to be misera­ble at the slightest provocation.

One of the problems from the beginning may have been that the “story” of Cruis­ing was being told from the outside. Gerald Walker’s novel completely lacks either any confessional self-implication or any philosophical overview. The plot is developed almost entirely from the point of view of two characters: (a) John Lynch, an unmarried rookie cop recruited to act as a homosexual decoy to trap a homophobic murderer, and (b) Stuart Richards, the homophobic murderer. Ex­cept for a short prologue and some short plot-catching-up entries from Police Cap­tain Edelson’s Notebook, the novel is divided alternately in chapters headed “John Lynch” and “Stuart Richards.”

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Walker’s novel is in many ways much more gruesome than the movie. Richards not only murders his victims with a long knife but mutilates and dismembers them afterwards. There are a great many phallic references to the knife, and to its symbolic function in the Freudian notion of mater­nal castration. Walker makes a great deal of the fact that Richards murders people of his own physical and facial type, and that Lynch turns out to be a dead ringer for him. In his spare time, Richards is working vaguely on a graduate thesis on Rodgers and Hammerstein at Columbia. His pa­rents have been painfully and traumatically separated since he was a child, and they still bug him, his mother with smothering solicitude, and his father with strangling stinginess. Richards is a discerning movie buff, and two of his favorite movies are Stranger on a Train and The Third Man, both discussed extensive­ly within Richards’s sick mind or their “double” or “Doppelgänger” themes. Walker never mentions Psycho, but there is obviously a great deal of Norman and Mrs. Bates in the Stuart Richards character.

One incongruity in the Richards char­acter in the novel, however, is the frequen­cy and intensity of his heterosexual ac­tivities. Between murders he makes out with women like mad as if he were trying to exorcise some dreaded homosexual temptation. By contrast, the Lynch char­acter seems completely asexual. There is never the slightest intimation of a woman in his life, past or present, and even during his army days he did not indulge in any off-base pick-ups. Indeed, we gradually learn that he used to hang around an off-­post gay bar, and went in for a little gay-­bashing after hours. From a narrative point of view we are thus placed in the hands and minds of two confirmed homophobes, one (Lynch) of the Archie Bunker variety, and one (Richards) completely crackers.

New York’s gay milieu, and for that matter, New York itself, has never seemed so vile, sordid, dispiriting, and degrading. One can almost smell the piss in the doorways, the massive body odors on the steamy city streets. One can feel also the boiling feelings of loneliness, failure, me­diocrity, disgust, and raging self-hatred. What one cannot feel is the author’s in­volvement in this hellish scene. The book is written and structured in a singularly disengaged form. There is not even the sociological hypothesis that kept Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar limp­ing along to its preordained denouement. All that keeps Cruising together as a book is a gory stew of Freudian nightmares, films noirs, and gay guignol.

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The movie has made many drastic changes from the novel. The Richards character has been considerably reduced in size and scope, and the plot tilted from suspense to mystery. Furthermore, he has been transformed from a womanizing homophobe to black-leather hard trade. (Walker’s novel never touches on the kind of s&m scene that exists today.) Richard Cox is very effective in the role, such as it is, but he bears not the slightest re­semblance to Al Pacino as the rookie cop, now named Steve Burns rather than John Lynch. Pacino is now the one with the steady girlfriend, and he is seen banging away at the slightest opportunity. As in the book, the Pacino/Burns character makes friends with a gay playwright, but the plot payoffs are much vaguer in the film. In the novel the rookie cop kills another decoy by mistake, and then mutilates the body to make it look like the work of the homophobic murderer. Stuart Richards then goes berserk in a steam bath and knifes half a dozen male patrons before being killed in self-defense. The gay playwright is then found murdered and mutilated after having oral intercourse, and the horror resumes presumably with a decoy turned Doppelgänger.

Not only does the second decoy disap­pear in the film version; the book’s men­tion of 10 decoys on the case is omitted as well. For all we know, Pacino is the only decoy on the case, and this seems some­what grotesque on a screen across which potential suspects parade by the dozens. In the book Lynch was carefully instructed not to go “all the way” on his heavy dates. With Pacino it is never made clear just how deeply he is becoming involved. The ending is therefore completely muddled in that one cannot be sure that the Pacino decoy has or has not become the murderous Doppelgänger for the Cox/Richards culprit.

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Confusion, however, does not necessar­ily constitute evidence of homophobia. Whereas the novel can be criticized for being facile and unedifying, the movie’s major flaws are dullness and disorganiza­tion. Both Walker and Friedkin seem trapped within a genre in whose logical certitudes they can no longer believe. Hence, a pseudo-realistic open-endedness in both works undermines the mystique of detection and the faith in just and swift punishment. If anything, the movie is even more cynical and despairing than the novel in displaying the omnipresence of evil and corruption. And the police come off even worse than the leather boys in their treatment of street gays. From a political viewpoint, there is in neither the book nor the movie any moral standard against which to compare any lifestyle. The movie can be charged with sensation­alizing the milieu to the extent that it implies some of the victims “are asking for it” with their provocative costumes and overly aggressive come-ons.

In a strange way a project like Cruising seems regressive in terms of what was being done on the subject a decade ago with movies like Midnight Cowboy, Sun­day, Bloody Sunday, and even Fortune and Men’s Eyes. It is as if a less sophisti­cated audience had emerged in the in­terim.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

A Case for ‘Cruising’

I share in the homosex­ual rage sweeping New York — a rage too long dor­mant — against the cen­turies-old abuse of homosexuals. That anger is now directed at stopping the filming of Gerald Walker’s novel Cruising by William Friedkin.

Two main arguments have emerged for stopping the film. The first is that it may unleash a wave of violence against homosexuals. The second is that its con­centration on the elements of cruising, leather bars, and sadomasochism may result in a distortion of all homosexuals by focusing on a small segment.

My thoughts on violence and censorship — the issues involved here — are shaped by intimate encounters with each. As a homosexual, I have seen “queer­bashers” with chains ready to lash in cruising turfs; have seen faces of homosex­uals branded with lead pipes by hate-pocked “straight” attackers; have heard the curdling epithet “Queers!” and the accompanying crash of glass; have ex­perienced the frustration of failing to get cops to move into assaulted areas they invade only to arrest homosexuals.

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As a writer, I have experienced censorship too. Last year in England an anti-homosexual group effectively banned a nonfiction book by me by threatening the publishers with a suit before publica­tion, thus intimidating booksellers into not carrying it. That book, the group claimed, would pervert by presenting homosexuality in a “positive” light.

I do not question the homosexual anger in New York. It is the particular nuances of this matter, and possible hidden ramifications, that I believe should be explored further. Now, it would be naive to deny the special impact of films. It is also risky to predict that impact; and it may prove dangerous, based on such prediction, to move into the quagmire of prior censorship. Censorship continues to be a major factor in the oppression of homosexuals. For years, the motion picture code forbade any treatment of homosexuality. Showings of Genet’s Un chant d’amour and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks — groundbreaking homosexual films — resulted in raided theatres. Until recently, photo­graphic and verbal presentations of homosexuality were ipso facto causes for censorship. Confiscation of homosexual magazines and books was routine, and jail sentences resulted. Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar was denied advertising space. Only last year, The New Yorker rejected advertising space to a staid homosexual publication.

Where shall the line now be drawn, and by whom? Is Roots offensive for showing violence against blacks? Holocaust against Jews? Shall television news clips exposing war atrocities — factors in ending the Vietnam war — be censored? And news stories of murders and kidnappings? What about Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Hard Core, both of which contain gross scenes of heterosexual brutality rendered even more offensive by posturings of morality and gratuitous anti-homosexual implications? And Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange?

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Granted that Friedkin’s intentions may not be noble; remarks attributed to him from years back sound at best archaic today. (One should point out, however, that his film of Mort Crawley’s play, The Boys in the Band, was very daring and sympathetic for its time.) Undeniably, the producer of Cruising, Jerry Weintraub, has been vulgarly offensive, insensitive to real issues. But can one determine from a script a film’s full meaning, which is also shaped by essential elements of per­formance, editing, even music? It is not only Cruising that is involved here: The precedent set by preventing its production will reach out to all other films — and may ricochet.

What are the long-term effects? Will any group demand to see a script in advance? May the same argument be used against a film made by homosexuals and opposed by heterosexuals? Shall we determine artistic expression by popular consent? May we not inadvertently be assuring that no director, no producer­ — not even homosexual ones — will dare to deal with homosexuality on screen at all? Anita Bryant attempted to silence our voices before it could be known what we would say. Our mere presence in schools, she asserted, would pervert children, even bring violence on them. She interpreted the impact of our behavior and, prejudg­ing it, moved to ban it.

Thomas Paine saw the trap of selected censorship: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

If this film turns out to be odious, might we not turn it to our advantage, clarifying the elements it has, even if distortedly, exposed? Might we not point out that the violence against us is a result of sexual repression and other outside pressures inflicted on us — that the seamy places shown are those we have been shoved into by those societal strictures? Might we not use it to expose the indif­ference to violence against homosexuals, and the fact that one of the major outrages we face is the latent homosexuality of cops who stalk us and even turn into “queer­bashers”?

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Might we not, further, encourage pow­erful but uncommitted homosexual direc­tors and producers to counter the Friedkin film’s purported distortions by dealing with our own realities instead of hiding, as those directors and producers often do, in musical inanities and films brimful of social conscience toward everyone except homosexuals? At present, the troubling subject of violence toward homosexuals dealt with in Cruising, however sensation­alized its treatment may turn out to be, is virtually unknown to other than the victims of that violence.

It is exposure, not secrecy, that precedes the solution of a problem. When, a few years back, a cruising park in Los Angeles was ravaged by a wave of “bashings,” it was media silence and police apathy — not exposure — that allowed the attacks to continue unabated night after bloody night until murder inevitably occurred.

The second reason proffered against the filming of Cruising — that it presents a negative view of the homosexual world — also needs close examination. I firmly believe that not even implicit criticism of the homosexual world may be made that does not contain a greater criticism of heterosexual totalitarianism. But once that is emphasized, it is dishonest to deny that many homosexuals prefer certain subjects of homosexual life to remain hidden — especially that of sadomasochism.

Understandably, in view of the rabid homophobia, some of us want to conceal all that can possibly be determined as “ugly,” even when that ugliness is implanted by heterosexual bigotry. The re­sult is that we often become the only minority intent on showing our oppressors how happy they have made us. We affect that by insisting doggedly on presenting a so-called “positive” image — often a eu­phemism for heterosexual imitation — even to the point of denying the enriching spectrum of our experience, including an abundant sexuality, which needs no apology.

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Beyond the immediate context of what Cruising may or may not show, some questions should be asked. Would we allow any other film to deal with some of the elements we are objecting to in Friedkin’s? Or should we banish them totally from exploration? Only from heter­osexuals or even from our own? Will there be a leap to demand to see advance galley proofs of magazine articles and books?

Is there, in fact, an increasing fascina­tion with sadomasochism and leather, especially in our proliferating orgy rooms? Are the orgy rooms altering the pattern of homosexual behavior? Do those who fre­quent them comprise a small “freaky” segment, or a growing faction on the homosexual landscape? And if it is a disturbing faction, does it not require, exploration? Conversely, if it is “small,” does that exclude it from exploration?

And finally, why does every homosex­ual film or book — unlike a heterosexual film or book — have to represent our entire world, each and everyone of us, when we have so many diverse and rich voices?

We homosexuals cannot improve our world for ourselves and for those who follow us — and improving it is a duty we should all feel — if we ban the exploration of our problems. They will not go away if we shove them into the closets from which we have ourselves emerged. The homosexual energy now crackling in New York and elsewhere against oppression has too long been unreleased. Now that we homosexuals have rediscovered the spirit of the Stonewall Inn protest, the power must be used strongly. But critically. For the fight still clearly looms.

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On ‘Cruising’: Why the Village Went Wild

Jerry Weintraub, the producer of Cruising, has been telling reporters that pissing off gay people is the best kind of publicity. “I mean,” he told me, “when does a picture in production have an edito­rial in The New York Times?” Surely, this is gallows humor. Even if the protesters don’t actually stop his film, their disrup­tions are bound to strain its $11 million budget. Their anger won’t be lost on the networks when Cruising comes up for TV sale. And they can dent its grosses (at least in the cities) by throwing up a picket line wherever the movie shows.

Pissed-off people can limit an audience to their enemies — and that’s bad marketing. David Picker, the executive vice-president of Lorimar Productions, must be pondering the wisdom of his predecessors, who decided to finance Cruising even though the smart money in Hollywood was against it. In the nine years that Gerald Walker’s book has been up for grabs, three producers have optioned it, including Bob Weiner, who wanted Paul Morrissey to direct. At least three studios (Warner, Paramount, and Fox) turned Friedkin’s screenplay down. Did Hollywood snub this film because it was anti-gay, or because it was gay? The question is all but academic now. Assuming it’s finished, Cruising will go down in history, if only because it marks the first time a citizens’ protest has been mounted against a film before it’s in the can. And it has brought the gay community its most potent or­ganizing tool since the murder of Harvey Milk.

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No one was more surprised by the crowd that cut through Greenwich Village last week than the organizers of this campaign. For the most part, they are journalists who caught onto Cruising because Hollywood is their beat. A copy of the script, leaked by a gay person in the production, confirmed their worst fears. There are three murders in the first 14 pages, all of them hinging on rituals of leather-bar persuasion that are hard to [ed. note: illegible]. Evidently, William Friedkin does not: His script is a testament to heterosexuality; its dialogue is as inauthentic as the movies Hollywood churned out about the hippies 10 years ago. Here, for example, is the killer, being cruised by his gay prey:

“Why haven’t I seen you here before?”

“Just got in.”

“Where from?”

“Chicago, Maine, Duluth, Mars. Who cares?”

“I beg your hard-on?”

“Look, it’s a boring, disgusting place — right…?”

“You wanna split?”

And here is what follows:

“Shut up!”

“No, no please.”

“Turn around.”

“Oh God! Oh God! No.”

“You’re not getting me hard!”

“You’re hurting me.”

“Eat this underwear! Get this underwear in your mouth!”

“Oh yes! Yes!”

“I’m gonna give it to you good.”

Enter the knife.

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Friedkin’s folly has been to take characters from The Boys in the Band, which he directed 10 years ago, and update their agony by dressing them in leather. The connection between homosexuality and homicide is impossible to avoid. Sex between men is, for Friedkin, a prelude to combat. Al Pacino plays a rookie detective who is tainted by his immersion in this milieu. Cop and killer face each other, pants down, in a climax that is positively Eastwoodesque.

“How big are you?”

“Party size.”

“What are you into?”

“I’ll go anywhere.”

“Do me first.”

“Hips or lips?”

“Go for it.”

They reach for their knives.

Weintraub says the script has been substantially altered in the last few weeks. Though he denies that the demonstrations had anything to do with these changes, there is now “a healthy gay relationship” in the film, and a disclaimer stating that what is being shown represents only a fringe of gay life. Al Pacino’s sexuality will be ambiguous, and so will the killer’s. “The written page is just a guide to what you’re going to do,” says Weintraub. “You can’t rate a film until you see it.”

It’s entirely possible that William Friedkin thinks this film will be erotic to homosexual men. It’s possible that all the people connected with Cruising thought they were doing something progressive by exposing a netherworld that many gays abhor. “What if the film serves as a warning to a young guy who comes to New York looking for a thrill?” Weintraub asks. “What if it says to him, don’t do this stuff; go and find a good relationship.”

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But intentions are besides the point, because this project comes at a time when the gay middle class is beginning to assert a sense of public propriety that is not so different from that of the black middle class. Disco is the most vivid expression of this joint aspiration, but so is a new conservatism about emblems of oppression, like the word “nigger” or the accouterments of S&M. If Jesse Jackson blows up when a “progressive” like Mick Jagger observes that “black girls like to fuck all night,” why shouldn’t gay people have the same response to a stereotype even if this one has its grain of truth?

“I’m not putting anything in this film that doesn’t take place every day and every night,” Weintraub says. “This is not fiction, what we’re doing. This is truth.”

In fact, the corner of the Village where Cruising is being shot has always been a mecca for those who depend on the kind­ness of strangers. Back when Billy Friedkin was impressed by wet dreams, gay people called the stretch of waterfront that adjoins West 14th Street “the casbah.” But its bars are designed to resemble a filmmaker’s fantasy of dangerous sex. Illusion — not danger — is the point. The people who go to these bars know they are visiting a Luna Park of the libido; most of the people who patronize Cruising will think they are seeing or­dinary life.

Billy Friedkin wouldn’t know ordinary gay life if it hit him in the face — which, apparently, it has. Thanks to pressure from gay-rights organizations that are usually at each other’s throats, all but one bar in the village have withdrawn their cooperation with the film. About 20 extras have quit, and some of those who remain have leaked confidential information about locations, so there’s been no escap­ing the demonstrators. They show up every morning, shrill as the disco whistles they wear around their necks. They taunt the actors and harass the crew. The company has temporarily retreated to the basement of a bar called the Catacombs, on West 14th Street. Friedkin has constructed a replica of the Mine Shaft there. One extra said each stud in that scene was getting $60, but there was an extra $25 for any extra who would simulate a blow job. He added that everyone was expected to provide his own gear.

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I visited the set Thursday morning. The extras lounging in dress leathers looked authentic enough, but they also seemed slightly passé, like last year’s Donna Sum­mer song. This was in marked contrast to the demonstrators, who sported no regalia of any sort. Instead of the dangling keys and “hot hankies” that figure so promi­nently in Friedkin’s vision of gay life, these people were wearing buttons with small pink triangles, to commemorate what gay prisoners wore in concentration camps. The march itself, which paused at bar after waterfront bar to summon the patrons inside, seemed to be a way for gay people to signal each other that the time has come to stop flaunting fetishism. These weren’t radicals, though remnants of the Gay Activist Alliance were certainly visible when the going got tough. This was the gay MOR, spurred on by the closest thing he has to a political leadership in this town. As its ranks swelled, something larger than William Friedkin’s homophobia was addressed. After years of stereotyping imposed from without and absorbed from within, this particular rank and file was serving notice on the Great American Dream Machine that it could no longer peddle its fantasy of gay life as if it were the real thing.

“We won’t be a background for their exploitation films,” said Ron Gold of the National Gay Task Force, over the bull­horn at Sheridan Square. Then, perhaps a thousand people set off down Christ­opher Street, with a more abrupt version of those remarks. They shouted, “No more shit!”

It was the closest thing to a long hot summer the city’s seen this year. All week, the Village rang with the rampage of gay people who had anything but cruising on their minds. They blocked Sixth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, West Street, 14th Street. They threw bottles and bricks, smashed windows, slammed into cars and trucks. The Sixth Precinct was kept busier than at any time since Stonewall. There were five arrests and perhaps a dozen injuries, mostly of demonstrators who wandered away from the crowd. One cop was kicked in the balls; it made page one of the Post. The next day, Tony Baska’s picture made page eight. In the photo, he is being “persuaded” to lean against a car. A bit later, however, he was pummeled, cuffed, thrown to the ground, kicked, and clubbed — by five cops. Alone in a cell, Baska told me, he heard the police talking about the demonstrations. “I think they should be decapitated,” said one of the city’s hippest cops, the guys who play against the gay softball league each year. “These pansies are trying to act like men.”

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Tony Baska recalled the rally he’d attended at the Washington Square Meth­odist Church a few days before. Half a dozen gay leaders exhorted people to commit civil disobedience. “Call if you get busted,” they each said. Baska was permitted one shot at the telephone, and he dialed the Gay Switchboard. A tape told him to call back in the morning.

“It’s unreal,” said Betty Santoro, of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights. When things got heavy, she called 15 gay lawyers, but all of them were too busy to work for free. She finally had to rely on the National Lawyers’ Guild, which is straight, or at least, nondenominational. “The people who started this aren’t carry­ing through on their responsibility,” San­toro says. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and the right hand is running the show.”

What she means is that, even though an ad hoc committee sponsored this cam­paign, its impetus came from the move­ment’s moderate wing — especially the Na­tional Gay Task Force. The militant Gay Activist Alliance call this “The National Gay Tom Force,” but both organizations rely on each other’s presence, though they revile each other’s ideology. NGTF counts on the GAA to stir things up so it can move in to work things out. The only problem is, nobody controls the enrages, and when the shit hits the fan, nobody is there to help them out.

Last week, the GAA was relatively restrained, but that didn’t stop the occa­sional bottle from being thrown or the flash of studded belts when the cops drew near. Straight provocateurs, some people muttered. Yet clearly these were young gay people out to show their rage, but there was no strategy for them to follow, so they roamed the waterfront along with everybody else, smashing car windows and taunting the police. This, too, could be blamed on the organizers, who were so ambivalent about the need for civil disobedience that though some of them advo­cated it, they were unwilling to organize it.

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On top of this, the ad hoc committee made a spectacular blunder when it de­cided early on to throw the matter into the mayor’s lap. Maybe the NGTF thought its connections at City Hall would prove more powerful than the economics of the situation, but a little research would have shown that the Mayor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television has done everything to cooperate with filmmakers short of paying them to work here. Last March, when the Board of Education refused to allow a movie called Hot Lunch to film at the High School of Performing Arts because its script contained refer­ences to marijuana and teenage sexuality, the mayor’s office tried to overturn that decision. The Board of Ed won out, but the city promptly rented Haaren High School to the filmmakers for $1.

Last week, three members of the ad hoc committee met with Nancy Littlefield, the mayor’s movie scout. Weintraub sug­gested at that meeting that he couldn’t be responsible for his crew’s reaction if the demonstrations got violent. His indication that there were Teamsters on the set, coupled with the fact that some unsavory owners of waterfront bars may have served as consultants on this film, led some people in the ad-hoc committee to con­clude that the mob has an interest in Cruising. “That’s nonsense,” says Weintraub. “That’s propaganda. I have no connection with anybody. The Teamsters on my set are working people. Somebody comes along and yells obscenities at them, in this heat, they’re liable to get their noses out of joint.”

The city is extending the usual courtesies to the producers of Cruising: police protection, permit facilitation, per­mission to store equipment on a city pier. The ad hoc committee asked the mayor to revoke the permits and rescind the police. This wasn’t a matter of censorship, they contended; it was simply a matter of withdrawing cooperation. Said Ethan Geto, a veteran gay activist and an assis­tant to State Attorney General Robert Abrams: “We are simply asking the city not to put its imprimatur on an offensive, abusive vehicle.”

The mayor declined, citing the First Amendment and refusing to interfere in any way with the content of a film being shot on the streets of New York. Some of the demonstrators agreed, especially within the NGTF, where Koch has strong support within the gay community. But Doug Ireland, who was beaten by a bouncer for leafleting in a gay bar, won­ders: “Would the mayor allow a remake of Birth of a Nation in Harlem, or Jew Suss in Borough Park?” Is Cruising good for New York? I asked Nancy Littlefield, who is the mayor’s movie scout. “Anything that brings in $7 million is good for New York,” she said, and then hung up.

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Andrew Stein has proposed the community boards be informed in advance of films that shoot on their streets. The mayor disagrees: “I do not believe community boards should have the right to decide what books shall be shown in bookstores in their areas, what paintings shall hang in museums in their areas, what movies shall be shown in theatres in their areas, or what films should be made in their areas, as long as what is done is lawful.” But Tony D’Apolito, the chair­man of Community Board 2, which in­cludes the Village, says, “Community boards don’t have the right to decide anything. We’re asking for the right to be consulted. By asking our opinion, we might be able to save them from making a mistake.”

Most of the demonstrators do not intend to stop William Friedkin from making this film; they just want to get him out of the neighborhood. Let him make Cruising in the studio, where he’ll have to pay through the nose to make it look real. Then there are those who want the film stopped entirely because they say it will cause murder on the waterfront. Arthur Bell has characterized Cruising as “a snuff film. This isn’t a civil-liberties issue,” he told a crowd in Sheridan Square. “This is a matter of survival.” Nice rhetoric, I thought, but then I visited the set.

I saw the cops hassle three guys who were taunting the demonstrators. “Why you picking on us, we’re the only ones who aren’t queer?” They were out to avenge the honor of Al Pacino, their favorite star. I asked why they thought the queers were in the streets. “They just want publicity,” said one guy, who owns a gas station near the set. Then he pointed to the demon­strators who looked most like leaders, the ones who were giving interviews to the press. “You wipe out that guy and that one over there,” he said, “the whole thing dies.”

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

On ‘Cruising’: The Hollywood Hassle

The Cruising company departs New York this week, leaving behind a load of unresolved issues. Most of these have been argued in The Voice. Some will be resolved only after the film’s release. But one issue has been overlooked that goes beyond civil rights: the obligation the city has to its people to make certain the production of a movie doesn’t mess up their lives.

•••

Two weeks ago, Steve Askinazy, age 30, co-owner of Chez Stadium Restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, former owner of the Ballroom, returned from a conference of gay and lesbian Jews in Tel Aviv. One of the first functions he attended was a meet­ing of Community Planning Board No. 2 (he is a member). Askinazy was among several who convinced the board that vio­lence would certainly erupt if Cruising were to be filmed on Christopher Street. The following day, the board sent a letter to Mayor Koch asking him to deny the film crew a permit for that locale “so as to ease the tension in our community.”

On Monday evening, August 20, Askinazy wore a University of Tel Aviv T-­shirt (the lettering was Hebrew) and a yarmulke to Sheridan Square, where he heard speakers proclaim that a symbolic victory had been won: store owners, bar owners, and residents of Christopher Street had made it impossible to film that evening because they had locked their doors, shrouded their own signs, and put up others which read: “STOP THE MOV­IE CRUISING.” Instead, the crew would shoot on West and Perry.

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So, with 700 protesters, Steve Askinazy marched to the new location. He kept an eye on the crowd, as did the 30 other gay marshals and the 200 cops assigned from various precincts (this figure includes the Tactical Police Force). At no time were the protesters allowed within two blocks of filming, but whistles, chants, and appeals to “Stop Cruising!” were heard as far north as 14th Street.

Earlier, there had been an incident involving the cutting of a cable wire, and one demonstrator was hit on the head by a missile. At 9:30 p.m., another confronta­tion occurred and a demonstrator was ar­rested and taken to the Sixth Precinct. An hour later, a commotion erupted on the river side of West Street. A group of ap­proximately 100 protesters tried to inch their way forward and six cops on horses charged at them, dispersing the crowd and causing pandemonium.

Askinazy, who was on the other side of the street, ran toward the commotion, hoping he could do something to cool down the crowd. Halfway there, he remembers, “Several demonstrators ran in my direc­tion, and I decided to run with them instead, away from whatever disturbance was taking place. A cop blocked my path. I spun around and another cop blocked me. The two closed in. I froze, ready for them to arrest me or tell me to leave. They threw me against a car and beat me with nightsticks. Within seconds, four other cops joined them. Six of them were beat­ing and kicking me on the back, head, and stomach. I fell to the ground. One tried to suffocate me by putting his hand over my nose and mouth. I thought I was dying. I don’t remember feeling the pain — just the terror.”

Askinazy was arrested and booked. He was charged with endangerment, resisting arrest, and harassment. He was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital for treatment of severe bruises, stomach pains, and a con­cussion. He is still at St. Vincent’s.

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•••

William Friedkin, his crew, and his star, Al Pacino, invaded Jones Street Au­gust 10. Residents on the block hadn’t received prior notification. Nor had they been asked how they felt about Cruising being shot on their block. According to a Jones Street resident who didn’t want her name made public, “The cops had the street cordoned off by 8 p.m. They didn’t allow us into our buildings without first showing identification. They escorted us in. They were on practically every rooftop. At one point, they were lined up shoulder to shoulder, halfway down the street, like they were awaiting the arrival of Jimmy Carter.

“The cops are more interested in pro­tecting the rights of moviemakers than the people who live in this city. There have been instances of people being mugged in the Village and it’s taken them an hour to come. Here, they were out full force for a few minutes of movie shooting. Is this where our tax money’s going?”

•••

In Central Park, an Erie Transport truck carrying production equipment plowed through the Rambles to the spot where Paul Sorvino finds a mutilated body. The truck tore low-hanging branches off trees and left tire scars in the grass. At 26 Ninth Avenue, where the Metropolitan Community Church is housed, the crew took over a butcher sup­ply shop next door, converting it into an s&m-gear toyshop. Without notice, they shut off electricity in the building housing the church and shut down the elevators.

On August 13, they brought their equipment to 140 Claremont Avenue, near 122nd Street, and almost immediately trouble started. Once again, there had been no prior warning. Martha Williams, a cellist and faculty member at Man­hattan School of Music, noticed that “a prop man was pasting labels over our names on the mailbox and door buzzers. I told him to stop — it was illegal.” A couple of days later, he was doing it again. A neighbor started photographing him in the process and he quit. One day, the crew began shooting a scene in the lobby. Wil­liams was with several neighbors — they refused to move. “After all, this is my home,” Williams said. “This is where I’ve lived for 13 years.” The production man­ager called the cops. Four came from the 26th precinct and another four from the Tactical Police Force. They told Williams that the landlord’s lease with the film company superseded her rent lease and that she had to move from the hallway or they’d give her a summons. If she still did not move, they’d take her downtown to criminal court and put her in jail for the night. They also instructed her that she couldn’t get in or out of her building while the crew was shooting.

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Williams lives with her husband in Apartment 4A, next door to where the movie killer and mutilator of gay men resides (he’s played by Richard Cox). At 3 a.m. on the morning after the hallway confrontation, Williams and her husband returned to their apartment. She put the key in the lock and found she couldn’t open the door. Crazy glue had been poured on the keyhole. The couple went to the 26th precinct and called a locksmith. It cost $108 to repair the damage. When they finally got in, they found a message on the answering machine. It said, “You know, you’re a jerk. If you had cooperated with the film crew, they would have been all right and you would have been all right. You got what you deserved. Screw you.”

Brian Kirschner, who lives in Apart­ment 4C, found a sign on his door calling him “QUEEN OF THE YEAR” (Kirschner is straight). His apartment had been broken into, his lease and paycheck stolen, and his records vandalized.

The day before, Kirschner was playing his stereo when crew members began pounding on his door. They pounded so hard he thought the door would cave in. The next thing he knew, the electricity in his apartment had been cut off. They turned off the electricity in Martha Wil­liams’s apartment too, because she was using her vacuum cleaner. On Thursday, August 16, she was playing Bartok’s Sixth when the electricity was turned off, for the second time that day. It stayed off for two hours. Williams phoned the police. They said, “Call Con Ed.” She called Con Ed. They said, “Phone the police.” She phoned the Mayor’s Office for Motion Pic­tures and Television and asked for director Nancy Littlefield. She got assistant Meredith Anthony instead.

Meredith Anthony told Martha Wil­liams, “The Cruising crew is sensitive and professional.” She further said that the mayor’s office has no jurisdiction outside of actual filming on city streets.

“Do you mean that a tenant in this situation has no rights and no recourse against the city?” asked Williams. “I’m afraid that is the case,” answered An­thony. Later on, Williams spoke to Nancy Littlefield, who promised to call the prod­uction office. That was the last Williams heard from Littlefield’s office.

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•••

I phoned Nancy Littlefield. In fact, I called her five times during the week I wrote this story, leaving messages each time. Finally, I received a call from her assistant. “Miss Littlefield has no com­ment.” On anything? “That’s right. Miss Littlefield has no comment.”

Garbo has that option but certainly no public servant does — so I phoned the mayor’s office and complained. An hour later, Nancy Littlefield was on the phone. Had she relayed Martha William’s complaint to the Cruising production office? Yes, she replied. They assured her that Williams’s electricity would be turned on.

Littlefield reiterated that problems be­tween tenants and film crews were not within her jurisdiction. Indoor shooting is a “private, individual thing that a film company negotiates.”

Would the Cruising agonies hurt future film projects in New York?

“I don’t think it’s going to help or hinder. Censorship will hurt.”

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•••

When all this mishagas started, Mayor Koch summoned me to City Hall. He asked me to come alone. He wanted to explain his position. For 25 minutes, I listened to him discuss feelings. His feel­ings are he doesn’t believe the city should censor books or movies, no matter what the content. He hadn’t read the Cruising script, nor the synopsis in the Post. Besides which, that wasn’t the point. “Whether I like the script or not, the city has an obligation.”

He then went on to say that he’s “the best mayor this town has ever had, protec­ting people and their rights.” I told him to stop the soapbox. It occurred to me how touchy this business must be for him. Had he done too much for the gay community by issuing an executive order right after election? Or not enough by failing to get the gay civil-rights bill passed? Were in­nuendos to haunt him all through his administration? Why wouldn’t he try to understand the political issue of Cruising?

We were playing twin soliloquies, and I was getting mad. As I started to leave, the mayor said, “You’re not going to shake my hand?” By reflex, I shook his hand. I used to like him when he wasn’t mayor.

Cruising isn’t the only film to disrupt New York, but no other movie has caused as many problems. Godfather producer Al Ruddy conferred with Italian Americans in 1970 before filming. They made it clear they wouldn’t allow Ruddy to shoot his big wedding sequence as planned, at an Italian-owned manor on Long Island. It was shot on a Staten Island estate instead. Whistles and noisemakers slowed down filming of Cotton Comes to Harlem on Harlem Streets. Protesters claimed that Cotton depicted blacks in a stereotypical and negative manner. Badge 373, with script by Pete Hamill (who has supported Friedkin in two Daily News column and whose book, Flesh and Blood, will be made into a TV movie by Jerry Weintraub, the producer of Cruising) faced opposition from Puerto Ricans in the summer of 1973. Meetings with director Howard Koch took place at the Paramount offices. Puerto Rican spokesmen threatened that theatres showing Badge 373 would be bombed. The theatres weren’t, but the movie bombed anyway at the box office despite heavy media coverage.

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(Advance publicity doesn’t make a bad movie a hit. Cleopatra was the most pre­-publicized film in history due to the loony romantic shenanigans of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during production in Rome. Nevertheless, it was a critical and financial disaster. Not even the terrorist stakeout of an embassy helped Muhammed: Messenger of God. Muhammed was pulled from theatres at the height of the Washington rumble and reinstated after the real-life drama had run it course. It didn’t benefit from the headlines. Another Time, Another Place was released in the mid ’50s after Lana Turner’s daughter stabbed Lana’s lothario lover. Lana was a big star and revelations about her abundant love life sold papers, but they couldn’t sell her stinky film.)

Several films in progress have tied up city traffic and caused entire neighbor­hoods sleepless nights. The Warriors was problematic before it was released. Real-life gangs riffed with cast members, and the producers had to pay off the toughs in order to assure peace on the shooting site.

When Kojak shot in front of Fran Lebowitz’s building in the Village, the author of Metropolitan Life innocently left her apartment carrying 25 pounds of laun­dry.“’Go back in,” production men shouted. Fran did not obey. “I’m doing my laundry,” she said. “I’m not trying to break into show business.” They let her go to the laundromat, but when she returned a cop stopped her and said, “You can’t go in there.” “Why not?” Fran inquired. “I live here.” “They’re making a Kojak mov­ie,” the cop replied. Finally, the director intervened. “Listen kid,” he said to Fran. “Help us out. You can watch us work.” Fran retorted, “I’ve got a column to knock out. Why don’t you walk upstairs with me and watch me work?”

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Fran is opposed to moviemaking in New York. She maintains, “It’s like the Shriner’s parade. They should have it somewhere else.”

Most everyone else is all for it. When Woody Allen films his Manhattan love sonnets, neighborhoods go out of their way to respond with generosity. When The Goodbye Girl was shot in the West 70s, simulated rain flooded half a city block; local kids splashed in it and applauded Richard Dreyfuss, who applauded back en route to his dressing-room trailer. Martin Scorcese took over East 13th between Sec­ond and Third for a few days of Taxi Driver, and the shoot was like a street carnival. Director, producer, publicist, crew, treated the citizen’s with affection and respect. They responded in kind.

Cruising is a different story. Friedkin doesn’t speak to people. I’ve no doubt that had he at least conferred with the Com­munity Planning Board, problems in Greenwich Village would have lessened. Had he dealt with gay groups, he’d have had an understanding of the inciteful na­ture of his script. If he had a sense of social justice, perhaps he’d have altered his script, which, in effect, says that murder is the result of gay sex. (The murder sequences in Cruising are filmed like prod­uction numbers in an M-G-M musical — ­each more spectacular than the last.)

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Ethics, professional or personal, mean nothing: Disrupting citizens’ lives is some­thing producer Weintraub and director Friedkin couldn’t care less about. (Wein­traub told Martin Burden of the Post, “I wish they’d got the title right in the picket signs. It’s Cruising, not Cruisin’ ”). Budget is relative — they’ve gone over by at least a week. However, much of the money going into Cruising is coming from reluc­tant taxpayers, and more has been lost by individual merchants such as those on Christopher Street who willingly closed their shops rather than participate in the making of the film. Thousands of police hours have gone to keep angry gays in their place while Friedkin filmed his anti-gay movie. (A sound technician at the lab where Cruising is being processed told me the film is not only anti-gay, it’s anti­-human.)

Another bit of local fallout is the mor­als division’s August 15 raids on Crisco Disco, the Mine Shaft, and the Anvil. They were the first major police raids on gay hangouts in a decade. Fourteen men were arrested and charged with selling or serving liquor without a license. Sgt. Phil­lip Tambasco of the Public Morals Division maintained, “The raids had noth­ing to do with Greenwich Village protests by homosexuals against the filming of Cruising.” Lawrence Gedda, State Liquor Authority commissioner, claims, “When one of these places hits the newspapers and gets a certain amount of notoriety, it gets raided.” Both the Mine Shaft and the Anvil received media attention because they denied Friedkin and company access to their facilities.

•••

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In Hollywood, Larry Marks chats from his office on the Paramount lot. Marks is vice-president of production and market­ing at Paramount. He feels that “Future movies that are potentially dangerous on an explosive subject will no longer film in New York. People there are more in tune. Films like Cruising will have to shoot in Kansas City.”

Does that mean they’ll still make mov­ies with fag jokes and anti-gay themes, but away from Manhattan? Larry Marks thinks less so. “I can feel the effects already. Industry people will be more careful about gay lifestyles and the kind of gay ingredient that should be in a script.

“To use a cliché, what you’ve done in New York is raise consciousness.”

What Cruising‘s done in New York shouldn’t happen in Kansas City.

Page 10 of 12.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Making Sense of “Cruising”

William Friedkin’s Cruising first appears in the Quad Cinema’s exhaustive Al Pacino retrospective this week, unspooling unassumingly on Wednesday night — atypical for a movie that has made, over the course of its history, quite a bit of noise in the Village. Starting with its production in 1979, and on through its release the following year, this sweaty cop thriller, set in the world of waterfront leather bars, would become the focal point of a heated debate that raged throughout New York City, its gay community, and the pages of this very publication.

Friedkin, who also penned the screenplay, based the film on three primary sources: a 1970 novel of the same name by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, about an undercover cop investigating a serial killer of gay men; Friedkin’s conversations with Randy Jurgensen, a former NYPD detective (and a consultant on Friedkin’s The French Connection) who spent several months undercover in the city’s s&m clubs and proclaimed the experience “messed up his mind”; and a series of Voice articles by Arthur Bell detailing several grisly, unsolved killings of gay men picked up in leather bars. In 1977, Paul Bateson was arrested and charged with those crimes. In the kind of coincidence that wouldn’t make it past your average script’s first draft, Bateson had appeared as an X-ray tech in Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist.

The writer-director made several trips to the Mineshaft and the Anvil, two of the most notorious hardcore bars on the scene; introductions and protection were provided by Genovese crime-family member Matty “The Horse” Ianniello. (Those s&m-inviting businesses, like most gay bars and clubs of the era, were under mob ownership.) But Friedkin remained an aloof observer of gay life, and Cruising was undeniably a script written from a straight, Other-ing perspective — a fact that sounded alarms when news of its existence leaked to gay activists just as the film’s production commenced in New York during the summer of ’79.

The first salvo in the battle came, ironically enough, from the same Voice writer whose columns on the gay serial killer had caught Friedkin’s eye. In the July 16 edition of his “Bell Tells” column, Arthur Bell wrote that Cruising “promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen, the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight and a validation of Anita Bryant’s hate campaign.” Bell opined that Friedkin was “not only playing with a keg of dynamite, he’s throwing a match to it,” and offered up a suggestion for action: “I implore readers — gay, straight, liberal, radical, atheist, communist, or whatever — to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhood.”

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Bell’s readers, to put it mildly, took him up on the challenge. In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, the filmmaker recalls, with against-type understatement, how “attempts to prevent the film from being made became a cause célèbre in New York.” Pamphlets were distributed, rallies were held, streets were blocked, bottles and bricks were thrown, demonstrators were roughed up, and arrests were made. Friedkin, who didn’t like working in the studio, shot the film’s many apartment scenes in real buildings; residents in adjoining units played music so loud it drowned out the dialogue. (Most of it had to be re-recorded after the fact.) People on the streets did their part by blasting air horns and whistles.

Activists also took more official routes to stifle the picture. Appeals were made to Mayor Ed Koch to withdraw the tax incentives provided by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting, or to cut off the support of that organization (which issued permits for shooting in the city). Koch, unsurprisingly, denied the request. “To do otherwise would involve censorship,” he explained. “It is the business of this city’s administration to encourage the return of film making to New York City by cooperating to whatever extent feasible with film makers.”

But the company was inconvenienced in plenty of other ways. Gay bars that had granted Friedkin and his crew permission to shoot withdrew their cooperation. (“I couldn’t blame them,” Friedkin shrugged.) Bell had also called upon gay men the production had hired as extras and background color to “be aware of the consequences” of the picture; about twenty of those men quit, and some who remained served as spies for the community, leaking valuable, confidential information about the company’s movements, which allowed activists to better disrupt location shoots. In a later column, Bell relayed, with relish, the trouble the company had in shooting a simple scene of Pacino’s character leaving a building on Jones Street. Residents refused to leave the stoop, and then ruined each take by making faces at the camera or blocking the actor’s movements. (Bell subsequently reported retaliation against troublemaking residents by the film’s crew.)

The disruptions came to a head on the night of July 26, when (according to the Times) about a thousand protesters gathered at dusk, moved to the film’s production headquarters at Pier 40, and then marched through the Village, chanting “Cruising must go!” The protest ended with a sit-in that stopped traffic in Sheridan Square for a half-hour before the protesters were broken up by about a hundred police officers. Two arrests, per the Times report, were made. “One cop was kicked in the balls,” wrote Richard Goldstein in the Voice’s August 6 issue. “It made page one of the Post.”

“It was a surprise, you know, to me,” Pacino tells the Voice now, of the protests. “You’re an actor, really. You’re going into what the role means, what that means, and you’re not looking around at who you are in relation to the whole thing. You just aren’t. Or at least I wasn’t. I try to do that now. If it taught me anything, it taught me that. You have to know what you represent and what you’re doing and how it affects the world around you. A little bit, you need to know that stuff. Because if you don’t, that kind of thing can happen.”

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Reporting on the march for the Voice, Goldstein opined, “Assuming it’s finished, Cruising will go down in history, if only because it marks the first time a citizens’ protest has been mounted against a film before it’s in the can.” Whether one agrees that protesting a work of art sight unseen is a net good, Goldstein’s objections have the kind of nuance and insight badly missing from Friedkin’s script, which, by the maker’s own admission, saw this gay subculture as “just an exotic background for a murder mystery.”

It’s a question, to dip into the current lexicon, of representation. Goldstein explains that the city’s waterfront bars were “designed to resemble a filmmaker’s fantasy of dangerous sex. Illusion — not danger — is the point. The people who go to those bars know they are visiting a Luna Park of the libido; most of the people who patronize Cruising will think they are seeing ordinary life. Billy Friedkin wouldn’t know ordinary gay life if it hit him in the face — which, apparently, it has.”

Yet as the anti-Cruising movement was gaining steam, other voices stepped up with their own objections. Right alongside Goldstein’s extended commentary in the August 6 issue of the Voice, John Rechy made “A Case for ‘Cruising,’ ” as the piece was headlined on the front page. In the article, Rechy granted the foundation of his colleague’s concern, while noting carefully, “It would be naive to deny the special impact of films. It is also risky to predict that impact; and it may prove dangerous, based on such prediction, to move into the quagmire of prior censorship.”

Nat Hentoff did not hedge his bets, or mince his words. The founding Voice columnist and First Amendment absolutist took to the paper on September 24, after the completion of Cruising’s New York photography. Noting that he had “resisted adding a broadside to the sulfurous polemics about Cruising because there has been no scarcity of comment on the matter in this paper,” Hentoff nonetheless granted that “one would have to be an utter dolt not to understand the anger and fear of homosexuals at what they thought it was about (and what it actually may be about, for all I know).” Yet Hentoff, in sharp contrast to his Voice cohort, saw such understanding as doing more harm than good. “There are often extremely honest, powerful motivations for censorship,” he wrote. “And that is precisely why thought control has to be resisted at every point, because once one group does succeed in obliterating expression it considers intolerably threatening, then another group will insist on lighting its own pyre.”

Yet Hentoff’s rhetorical remove, or for that matter our own historical one, cannot downplay the validity of the fears and concerns voiced by gay activists that summer. It wasn’t like mainstream Hollywood movies had a sterling reputation for nuanced characterizations of LGBTQ people. Was there a place for a film that explicitly dramatized gay life as a sordid bacchanalia of rough sex and blood lust? Should there be?

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And thus, Cruising became a rallying point, and perhaps one the gay liberation movement needed. It had, after all, just passed merely the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising (also covered legendarily in the Voice), and the movement’s signal cause (AIDS activism) was still on the horizon. Outsiders raising their voices against a potentially incendiary Hollywood production, from a superstar actor and an Oscar-winning director, made for a story, and a sexy one. As Goldstein noted, the picture “brought the gay community its most potent organizing tool since the murder of Harvey Milk.”

Pacino and Friedkin on the set of “Cruising”

Or did it? In a cover story for the February 1980 issue of the gay magazine Mandate, editor in chief John Devere visited the set — as an extra, recruited (as so many were) in New York City gay bars, and without divulging his status as a journalist — and deflated some of the narrative around the production. “More than 1,600 gay men participated in the filming of Cruising,” he wrote, while “significantly fewer gays protested the filming, and the protestors, day after day, were usually the same basic group of people, about 25 in number, who were of course joined by others daily.” And to the concerns of suburban moviegoers viewing the version of gay life depicted in Cruising as disproportionately representative, Devere offered up a counterpoint: “One recurrent observation was that the men who frequent the world being depicted — the Eagle, the Spike, the Mineshaft, the Anvil — were in the movie, and did not object to their world being depicted. Middle-of-the-road gays, they thought, were the ones who didn’t want the leather fringe seen by Middle America, even though the world certainly exists. Many felt that the protests were as much a protest against the leather world itself as they are a protest against Friedkin’s film.”

The elemental questions surrounding Cruising — of who is permitted to tell a culture’s stories and who is not; of the limits of free speech and peaceful protest; of the significance and consequences of representation in popular art — haven’t gone anywhere in the nearly forty years since the film’s release. But they weren’t contemplated much in the original reviews, which mostly dismissed it outright. In the February 11, 1980, issue of the Voice, Geoffrey Stokes summarized it (perhaps accurately) as “a hopelessly garbled film,” while reporting on a post-screening Q&A with members of the media in which Friedkin seemed unable to explain entire swaths of his plot. (He insisted, “The violence in this movie is by a heterosexual killer,” and confessed, “I myself was not sure whether there was one killer or more than one.” Huh?). “That Friedkin has made a tedious movie is too bad, but he has gifts and will make a decent one again,” Stokes wrote. “That he lacks even the courage of his bad convictions is shameful.”

Other critics were even less charitable. New York’s David Denby wrote, “The movie is sordid and depressing because it’s been made without insight or love and from the depths of a soul about the size of a thumbtack.” The Times’ Vincent Canby called it “exceptionally unpleasant, not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because it makes no attempt to comprehend it. It just stares.” And Daily News’ Rex Reed, while insisting Bell’s “hysterical columns have done more harm to his fellow gays than anything in Cruising,” nonetheless wrote that the film “sickens, insults, and distorts.” (And that last one is saying something, considering the source.)

But what of those early, dire warnings that helped sound the alarm for the Cruising protests? Bell predicted Cruising would “negate years of positive movement work and may well send gays running back into the closet and precipitate heavy violence against homosexuals.” Goldstein believed its release “will endanger the political viability of civil rights legislation without which no homosexual can live a full and candid life.” While neither of those predictions is necessarily false, when one looks at the struggle of LGBTQ people in the Eighties and beyond, determining the causality or culpability of Cruising is a complex task. An argument can perhaps be made that because Cruising was so effectively protested, it was denied the commercial success that might have brought dire repercussions for the community to pass.

And yet, in the decades that followed, something curious happened. Critics — particularly gay critics — revisited Cruising, and came to find value in it through the lens of (ironically enough) representation. Several such pieces greeted its long-delayed DVD release in the fall of 2007. Christopher Wallenberg of the New York Blade wrote, “It remains a curious cultural artifact remarkable for its bold, graphic depiction of an underground gay subculture — something you’d be surprised to see in a mainstream movie even today.” The Voice’s Nathan Lee doled out the strongest praise ever seen in these pages: “Cruising is 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.”

And in the New York Sun, Grady Hendrix offered up this thought: “With over 72,000 AIDS deaths in New York to date, it stands to reason that a large slice of the men you see in the club scenes are no longer with us. But here in their disco grottoes, behind their mustaches and muttonchops and leather, behind their tough-guy masks, they’re smiling. They’ve found a place in the world where everything finally makes sense.” And maybe, through that prism, Cruising finally does, too.