Queer Film Fest 2020: ‘Cruising’ and ‘Stranger by the Lake’

Today: One of the most controversial gay movies ever made and one that feels a lot more dangerous.

When William Friedkin (who had previously directed The Boys in the Band) started filming the notorious gay serial killer flick Cruising in 1979, he ran into an unexpected problem: gays who were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

Village Voice writer Arthur Bell, one of the first journalists to cover the Stonewall Uprising, sounded the alarm, saying that the film, which was beginning production in New York City, “promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen. … I implore readers … to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhoods.”

And they did. Filming was interrupted multiple times, and the protestors apparently succeeded in running up the film’s cost significantly by causing so much noise on location that a good deal of dialogue had to be dubbed in later.

What was the fuss about? Friedkin based the film on several reports of a cop who went undercover in the leather scene to track down a serial killer targeting gay men. Al Pacino is the cop, Steve Burns, who goes fully Tom of Finland in his aviators and leather and black tank-tops, learning the ins and outs of the scene, even the hankie code. The problem is, Pacino is totally miscast as the cop; it’s never believable that he would be irresistible in the bars, nor does he ever completely look comfortable in the role. Plus, it’s just a seedy film, even on the recently remastered Blu-ray that makes sure you see every last detail.

Though I generally don’t think speech (or films, or whatever) should be censored before it’s even made, I don’t blame the activists for wanting to make some noise. Gay visibility was still a new thing; this was happening only a decade after Stonewall, after all, and there weren’t many realistic depictions of gay life to counteract the fever-dream horror that’s presented in Cruising.

As a GLAAD official told Slate in 2007, when Cruising got a special-edition DVD release: “Today we have other movies, other representations, other media to help counter negative images. We know now that not all gay men are bad guys.”

They didn’t have that in 1980. As Mark Harris wrote for Entertainment Weekly, also in 2007, “It’s easy to forget that ‘gay culture at large’ wasn’t so large in the pre-cable, pre-indie, pre-Ellen/Rosie/Will/Grace era — Cruising‘s window on gay life couldn’t be easily contextualized by most moviegoers, because available context was so scant.”

Now, it’s easier to watch Cruising and laugh at its excesses (Pacino should never have tried to dance, and what the hell was with the giant black guy in a jockstrap who interrupts the interrogation of a suspect?) and even to somewhat appreciate the fact that Friedkin depicted the leather scene at all. But it’s impossible for me to watch the film now and divorce it from the killer that would actually strike this scene just a year or so later, when the fight displayed by these activists would turn into a battle against AIDS and a government that didn’t care at all about their lives and deaths. Cruising “represents the flashpoint at which gay people learned to fight homophobic stereotypes in pop culture with everything in their arsenal — to be out, loud, proud, pissed-off, and media-savvy,” Harris wrote. “Over the decade that followed, that ferocity ended up mattering far more than anything in Cruising.”

And now, 40 years after Cruising‘s release, there’s more room to explore gay killers because, like Harris said, there’s more context around them. Hence, the far more interesting and disturbing Stranger by the Lake, the 2013 thriller by French director Alain Guiraudie.

Instead of bacchanals in leather bars, Guiraudie’s film is set on the sun-dappled shores of a French lake, whose rocky beach is sparsely populated by mostly nude gay men, some of whom venture off into the nearby woods for anonymous trysts. The director isn’t shy about depicting what goes on in the trees, either, and we’re just as much voyeurs as the one man who never fails to show up any time Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is about to get it on.

But Guiraudie is gay himself, so his film never has the look-at-the-freaks energy of Cruising — even when one of the anonymous encounters turns deadly, and even when Franck is maybe a little bit turned on by that fact. I don’t want to give too much more away, because part of the fun of the film is in how unexpectedly it unfolds.

Cruising says that it’s a slippery slope between being gay and becoming a killer (it’s not for nothing that knives are shown penetrating flesh as they do). Stranger, which is more Hitchcockian than Cruising could ever hope to be, finds a lot more complexity in the idea that danger and lust can be so closely intertwined, particularly in a band of outsiders. Is it an AIDS metaphor? Perhaps; it appears to be set in the early 1990s (no cell phones, for one thing), but it’s not like humans have ever not taken chances for momentary pleasure (wear your masks, people). Regardless, Stranger‘s ambiguity is certainly a lot more fun to ponder than Cruising.

Up next: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson and Wigstock

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