Cruising by William Friedkin – 35mm Print – 1 hr 42 min
With a warning on the 35mm print you won’t find on the 98 min DVD
Shown with a 35mm optical print during the “contamination” cycle proposed by the Forum des Images in Paris, Cruising was presented as an immersion into a hostile environment. The movie followed a screening of Bug and preceded one of The Exorcist, two more first-rate movies directed by the tremendous William Friedkin. A conference was also dedicated to the filmmaker’s work: His remarks and vision, acclaimed and controversial, but remarkably timely, have become essential again in these days of filmmaking scarcity.
Cruising, an exceptional film if there ever was one, remains a major cinematographic case in the 7th art’s history. Major not only for what it reveals about its author, an incredible fighter and great perfectionist subjected to insurmountable difficulties for the duration of the project (he almost died of a heart attack shortly after), but also by the bridges it builds between different movie forms and genres in the 7th art’s global scene.
Cruising is the story of Steve Burns, a young and ambitious New York cop who accepts an undercover mission in gay S&M circles to clear up a series of brutal homosexual murders. Recruited to act as a lure, Burns has to change his identity and his appearance. In so doing, he gradually drifts away from those close to him and the new life he’s made for himself. He takes on another personality, another “self” that surfaces in him, and affects his psyche and his whole behavior.
The original idea for the movie, vaguely inspired by journalist Gerald Walker’s novel, came from some articles by columnist Arthur Bell about a series of unsolved murders in New York’s gay S&M bar scene. William Friedkin drew from these news items, which gave him the motivation to start working on this story. He found the material in his close circle: Thanks to certain stories told by investigator Randy Jurgensen, his friend and consultant on French Connection, who had to go undercover in gay S&M bars to unmask a killer, as well as the arrest of Paul Bateson, one of the radiologist actors in The Exorcist accused of having sadistically murdered homosexuals. Thanks to certain connections linked to organized crime, the filmmaker was also allowed to investigate within S&M bars himself before shooting in them.
It’s clear that Walker’s book added to the exposure of certain sexual crimes in the press, plus the Big Apple’s high crime rate at the end of the 70s, made New York in the 80s the ideal setting for several movies about serial killers: William Lustig’s Maniac came out in 1980 too (Joe Spinnel, the lead actor, was cast in Cruising), but also Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, and two years later, New York Ripper by Lucio Fulci. The subculture described in Cruising, a perfect backdrop for the director to develop his ideas, was never considered by him as being the movie’s main intention. The barrage of accusations leveled against William Friedkin for having stigmatized the gay community is totally unwarranted. If Cruising distinguishes itself from the movies mentioned above by its environment, it’s essentially the way this environment is depicted that makes it radically different from them.
Due to its treatment, Cruising frees itself from all the codes and conventions of the day. Thirty-five years later, it appears extremely timely: The midnight blue monochrome photography, the dark and sensual score, skillfully present and spellbinding, the directing sometimes clinical, sometimes emotional and impulsive (especially during the murder scenes where a few subliminal penetration shots can be found; “That’s how our brain works”, analyzes the filmmaker), but also the pacing imposed by the story, which is deliberately caught in a symbolic vice to expand the subject. All those key points predate the movie. Cruising is an erotic crime thriller, but also a slasher that doesn’t really borrow from codes, and what’s more, it’s a completely reformulated giallo.
Symbolism here is pushed to the extreme to serve the psychological aspect. As a virtuoso, William Friedkin takes us very far. The key to the movie lies in its last scene. It shows a tugboat crossing the Hudson River; the river is immersed in the grayness that enshrouds the port, barely lit by the ball of orange sun hanging over it… Consciously or not, this last scene refers to Monet’s Impressions, Sunrise. What it says about the movie is that, like impressionist paintings or films from the “first avant-garde”, it attaches more importance to a fleeting impression, to the probability of environmental phenomena (in Cruising the environment directly affects the character’s psychology), rather than to the stable and conceptual aspect of things.
So even more than the character himself, it’s the particular world he’s immersed in that determines and triggers the story. The identity search is, almost as if it was meant to happen, the theme that truly dominates the movie. This quest results in a fantasy of ideal virility, which causes physical desire for this virility as well as hatred for this desire. The filmmaker uses certain visual and audio elements in a metaphorical way to highlight this masculine desire burdened by repressed urges (penetrating blades, leather, weight bars, police hats, gay porno magazines, river water, obsessive voices and nursery rhymes). He also brings in the memory of a paternal castrating authority, something Burns and the killer are both trapped by: “You know what you have to do”, uttered by the killer’s father, sounds like a call to “Man up!” aimed at all the movie’s characters.
William Friedkin also takes us into late night leather bars where the hero becomes submerged from so many contradicting impressions that he ends up not knowing where to situate his desire. One of the movie’s great strengths is to give us hardcore scenes in a very realistic manner to make us feel Burn’s disorientation. Although most of these scenes were cut to avoid the movie being rated X (the extras are real patrons of the bar), they fascinate and considerably speed up the feeling of alteration experienced by Burns. Without the cuts imposed by the MPAA, Cruising would send us into orbit because William Friedkin is careful to confuse things throughout the movie by showing us different men’s faces as being the killer’s face (the movie’s first killer plays the part of the second victim while the first victim plays the part of the killer in the porn movie theater, etc.)…
If William Friedkin wanted to show that the dark side of an individual remains a mystery for others, the problems owing to Al Pacino’s performance probably pushed him to dig a bit deeper. The choice of Al Pacino, described by some as a casting mistake, is quite unfortunate since the acting (using only the range of surprise) is dull and linear… William Friedkin himself says in his memoir (a memoir I will discuss at length in a later article) that when Al Pacino came on set he didn’t know what he was supposed to do and hadn’t learned his lines. The actor’s excuse was his wanting to recreate his character’s surprise on discovering the world of S&M. In actual fact, we feel a lack of implication in his acting, as though he were disembodied, except for two action scenes that create a discrepancy. One can only regret that Richard Gere, the magnificent Julian Kay in American Gigolo (released the same year), didn’t play the ambiguous part of Burns. He was the filmmaker’s initial choice and possessed all the finesse and ambivalence necessary for playing the role.
True to his lifelong vision between uncompromising Manichaeism and skepticism, but also probably because of the lack of ambiguity and evolution Pacino brought to his character, even though he gradually becomes aware of his true personality, the filmmaker took some basic measures while editing. Choosing to suggest that Burns might be either the killer or his copycat, William Friedkin once again gives us a razor-edged story with a strong theme about the ambivalence of the human soul: From a mixed-up young cop trying to find his way, Steve Burns becomes a young cop adrift and a potential murderer. Just like Burns, who has become not only a mystery for others but for himself as well, the viewer then becomes free to wonder about his or her own dark side as well as that of others…
“There is a lot about me you don’t know,” Burns says to his girlfriend at the beginning of the movie… Even though Burns knows himself a bit better, he’s still not out of the woods; his dark side is a dishonorable mystery to him. A mystery he’s going to hide in order to move on, just as the movie’s penultimate scene suggests when Burns looks at himself in the mirror before turning around and staring at the camera while his girlfriend puts on his punk leather “uniform”…
Bloodletting, an erotic, grisly crime thriller by William D. Prystauk Available on Amazon, Good Reads and Barnes & Noble
Adapted from his own screenplay, which won second place in the mystery category at the Screenwriters Showcase Screenplay Contest, this abrasive, erotic crime thriller that William D. Prystauk calls “alternative” thrusts us into the fascinating world of BDSM.
In Bloodletting, we hang out with Denny Bowie, a punk rock, sadomasochistic private investigator brought to New York to investigate a series of murders whose victims were into fetishism and S&M. The novel takes place in present day Greenwich Village, which has been somewhat rethought: While the majority of the S&M clubs depicted are imagined, most of the other places where the plot unfolds actually exist.
Guided by an eccentric and impassioned hero in an unusual investigation where victims are impaled, crucified, disemboweled after being tortured, and often bled dry, as the title suggests, we get caught up in this mysterious and dangerous world that opens up before us and won’t let us go until the plot’s resolution.
Through the prism of his sensual desires, Denny Bowie enchants us and gives us clues. Bowie’s appetites are the keystones of his thinking: They guide him toward the solution, they inspire him and steer him in his investigation. This is one of the novel’s greatest ploys. And because we are always surprised by the way Denny Bowie goes about solving his case, by the links established between his carnal desires and the leads that emerge from his thoughts or his observations in the most shocking situations, we ask for more. Just like Denny, we can never get enough! The passion and life that drive this extraordinary character with whom we share intimate thoughts and poignant memories shapes our relationship with him. Magnificently written (the style is at once very direct and flowing), and because its construction is based on an excellent screenplay, the novel develops at a tremendous pace.
Bloodletting isn’t a conventional crime thriller. Just like Cruising, it paves the way for new kinds of heroes and stories where a movie atmosphere and feelings prevail, shifting the investigation’s conclusion into the background. The psychological torments Steve Burns and Denny Bowie wrestle with are the real driving forces behind Cruising and Bloodletting: “I only knew someone was playing me, trying to fuck with my head, and it was working,” says Denny, realizing he doesn’t know which way to turn. Even if the craving to discover the killer’s identity eats away at us, it’s Denny Bowie’s determination, Denny’s hopes, doubts and fears that have us tripping in the novel from start to finish.
In Bloodletting, even though Denny lets us in on his findings, he’s still the only character to know the truth about what really happened when the story comes to an end… Which, in a way, is the case in Cruising. Like Steve Burns, Denny Bowie is immersed in a world where appearances are misleading and where some people, by taking on another personality, end up getting lost: “She could’ve been lost years ago under a Mistress’s mask that was now permanent,” Bowie will say about a suspect who got out of her depth…
With Cruising, which opens with the discovery of a body part in the ocean and ends with a tugboat crossing the Hudson, we set out for a weird journey deep into the repressed urges of a cop in the middle of an identity crisis.
With Bloodletting, which opens with the arrival by train of a Chicago private investigator who’s come to New York to solve a criminal case connected to his former lifestyle, we set out on a journey into the depths of the accepted but unsatisfied urges of a private detective looking for his limits.
Even if Denny Bowie refuses to admit it, the S&M world he cherishes is the architect of the evil he’s fighting against, and while Steve Burns goes undercover in gay S&M clubs to discover the killer he has to unmask at the risk of disappearing for real, Denny Bowie risks his life by blindly adopting fetish practices to unravel the mystery and fully experience his singularity.
There exists a certain relationship between Cruising and the novel Bloodletting. Cruising, resolutely ahead of its time, influenced and paved the way for many creators. Basic Instinct wouldn’t exist without Cruising.
Even though certain impressions or references present in William Friedkin’s movie survive in Bloodletting (William D. Prystauk’s basis for his screenplay, which led to the book, comes from a script first written in the 80s), the novel distinguishes itself from the movie the way a son might take up his father’s legacy to go his own way.
In the movie as in the book, the observations of the environment that affects the hero’s psychology and imposes his acts, but where the hero of Cruising struggles in extreme situations, the hero of Bloodletting is right at home: “Some people need to dive off a cliff to get a rush while others only need to look over the edge.”
In Cruising, Burns has trouble letting go and maintains a certain reserve vis-à-vis his girlfriend while, conversely, Bowie opens up intimately and reveals himself unreservedly to the woman he loves.
Like Cruising, sexual taboos no longer exist in Bloodletting. On the contrary, unrestrained sex is displayed in all shapes and sizes: “These people wanted to explore the leather world that defined them. To examine the one thing in their lives they had complete control over: their bodies.”
It’s interesting to note that William Friedkin chose “Burns” as the name for his ambitious hero who’s ready to burn his wings, while “Bowie”, probably a reference to David Bowie (the last murder in Cruising also refers to him, inspired by the record jacket for his album Lodger), is what William D. Prystauk chose for his hero who bows to other people’s opinions to stress his differences and go his own way. We could also see this as a nod to Burns’ character with the fact that the killer’s signature in Bloodletting is a cigarette burn!
By Emilie Flory
English translation by Cameron Watson.
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Emilie Flory is a screenwriter/filmmaker.
She has, among other things, written and directed Processus5, a 10-minute futuristic short movie shot in 35mm that was critically acclaimed and screened at the HollyShorts in Los Angeles. She is currently writing a sci-fi feature movie and looking for producers and investors for her horror feature film project Trauma Dolls.
Trauma Dolls was a semi-finalist at the Shriekfest Screenplay Competition in 2013 and finalist at the Fright Night Film Fest 2014 …
The Trauma Dolls’ Trailer was an official selection at the Holly-Shorts film festival 2014: http://www.imdb.com/video/wab/vi2091035673
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