It's always interesting to see how New York City has changed by watching old films. William Friedkin's Cruising came out the year I was born, 1980, at the end of an era and right before the AIDS crisis. It's a fascinating film for how it displays its subject matter: a serial killer lurking underground gay leather bars. The meatpacking district is now lined with designer stores but in Cruising, the neighborhood is desolate, dark and grimy. The film was controversial, especially with the gay community, for its disturbing portrait of gay males. Friedkin, whose oft-harrowing films show unrealistic events through the guise of realism (The French Connection and The Exorcist), insists that he was trying to be an accurate observer though he better understands the community's concerns today. I wonder though how the subject matter would be handled today. Something has definitely changed since 1980. Hollywood and American society can't seem to portray a straight man experimenting with the gay lifestyle without a heavy dose of humor (Humpday, etc.). Pacino's character, a straight cop posing as a leather bar patron, is obviously conflicted and psychologically affected about what he's doing. And yet he never seems shocked by the actions around him or disgusted. The film affirms his straightness for the audience by inserting dull love scenes with Karen Allen. In fact anything sexual, gay or straight, in cinema has to be unrealistically pretty or has to have jokes to comfort its audience. Have we become more prudish today than then?
Perhaps one of the film's major problems is a convoluted approach to its gay serial killer (or is he the one or not the one? The mystery, like many of Friedkin's works, isn't solved) by linking his violent actions to his father's nonacceptance. And then later, another gay killer emerges. His rage rooted in jealousy. Subliminal images of male on male penetration is also linked to the stabbings of victims. The film seems to suggest, and perhaps not Friedkin's intention, that the gay lifestyle easily leads to ritualism and violence.
Cruising was nominated for 3 Razzie Awards including Worst Picture, Director, and Screenplay and panned at the time of its release. However, reception has warmed since its release. I too think it's aged well in the sense that it remains a cultural document: a transportation to a riskier, grimier era in New York and a rare Hollywood depiction of gays. The unusual score by Jack Nietzsche and the soundtrack full of the then-emerging punk scene, is a far cry from the slick disco films of the era. This is a grungy affair. And remains one of Hollywood's most unique thrillers. ***
In complete contrast, Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed shows a sunnier side of Manhattan life in the same era. Both Friedkin and Bogdanovich were landmark early 1970s filmmakers, financing their own work. The failure of these two films reflected not only the gradual decline of the quality of their work, but of Hollywood's new sensibilities.
They All Laughed (title taken from the Gershwin song) is a slapstick about private detectives falling in love with the women of their cases. The film is light, too light, and never hits a comic stride. The lines aren't particularly funny or clever. And the actors, as great as they are, including John Ritter, Ben Gazzara and a lovely Audrey Hepburn, deliver bland performances. The luminous Dorothy Stratten figures in her final film appearance (her name appears in the opening credits under a shot of the World Trade Center). Colleen Camp is beautiful but grating as a country singer. Influential on modern directors like Tarantino and Wes Anderson, this is another male fantasy about gorgeous ladies falling madly in love with awkward, unattractive men. And yet, like Cruising, They All Laughed is a curious document of the denouement of the 1970s in New York. The use of locations are vividly done. I never knew the city once had a popular country music station! **