Saturday, May 15, 2010

Out Serpicoed by Mr. Serpico Himself

After writing about The French Connection, and already having much applause for the likes of The Exorcist, I took it upon myself to embrace other William Friedkin creations.  On the top of my list was Sorcerer, but not having access to that at once, I made a zigzag for the 1980 Al Pacino vehicle, Cruising.

Controversy inevitably stalked this film due to its subject matter alone, which details in grisly display the gay S&M subculture of New York pre-Aids pandemic.  There was much manloving, and much bloodletting, as we found Pacino going undercover to uncover the identity of a brutal serial killer who focuses his attention on Italian stallions.

Moreso than the sexual activity of the film, I found the attitude of the film to be its most controversial component.  Pacino's Steve Burns quietly accepts his new assignment to the sausage district, as we expect that any good seeker of justice would in such a case.  Burns also has been promised a quick promotion to detective status if he pulls the game off well.

The majority of screen time is interested in documenting Burns' slow envelopment into the culture.  This becomes a more prominent question than the solving of the murder itself: what is this experience doing to our protagonist?  There's a fascinating question.

Stories like this force me to imagine myself in our hero's shoes.  Could I handle all that manlove?  What would that do to my thoughts?  Would the sheer amount of exposure to that environment skew my reasoning?  Could I be slowly imprinted to grow a desire for such fetishes?

Now, the controversy lies here; the answers are all left ambiguous.  There are pieces of data we can hope to pile high in hopes of reaching a definitive conclusion about the mental state of our protagonist by film's end.  But the pile only weighs as much as we say it weighs.  I think the
only reasonable answer is to say that we don't know what happened in Burns' head.  We can't even really be sure if the right guy was nabbed for the serial killing.  This is no David Lynch story -- we expect answers!

I read that many gay groups came out opposing the film, as they believed it only served to spur on the stereotypes of gay men as rabid addicts of perverse sexual acts with strangers.  Such a view I think perhaps fails to see what the film does to the viewer.  By not answering the question of the protagonist's final state of being, we are left to synchronize his attitude with ours.  He becomes our reflection.  That, to my knowledge, is why the last shot of Pacino is through the mirror.

Roger Ebert saw cowardice in Friedkin's denouement.  I see a brilliance that may be just a bit too dim to illuminate such a dark place.