MCN Columnists
Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt


Few movie making careers have crashed and burned as resoundingly as William Friedkin’s. It began to skid out of control beforehand, and it is still smoldering in mediocrity today, but the flames of disaster reached their apex with Friedkin’s head-scratchingly stupid 1980 story of an undercover cop, played by Al Pacino, trying to solve a series of murders among gay men, Cruising, and, unable or unwilling to leave well enough alone, that film has become one of the most fascinating portraits of denial ever issued on DVD, thanks to the Warner Home Video Deluxe Edition. The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer is solid, although Friedkin has ‘raised the lighting’ in the bar scenes, so you can see all of the Gomorrah-like activity more clearly, and the sound has been remastered in 5.1-channel Dolby Digital, highlighting one of the movie’s only legitimately artistic components, Jack Nitzsche’s edgy musical score. There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Along with a 44-minute retrospective documentary, in which the producer and a few other secondary members of the cast and crew chime in with their recollections of the shoot (which was challenged, during much of the location filming, by substantial and malicious protestors), Friedkin supplies a fascinating commentary track, which, combined with what he has to say in the documentary, suggests that he still doesn’t understand what he has done.

“In Cruising, there is subliminal imagery. The whole notion of the subliminal is that it is not something that you are to be directly conscious of. To me, it’s the way the mind works.

“Before I made the film, I would go into the club, and I went in on ‘dress code’ nights. I had to dress the way the dress code called for. I remember having to strip down to my jockstrap and socks on ‘Jockstrap Night’ and everyone else was in a jockstrap, and everyone else there had these incredible bodies. You know, they were really physically in great shape, and I was easily the ugliest guy in the room. Nobody hit on me.

“I had no intention of making a statement one way or the other about what was happening in the leather bars. I went with pretty much documentary-type cameras and recorded what I saw, and there’s no comment made in the film about what the audience is seeing. There’s no comment from me or from any character in the film that this is right or wrong or moral or immoral or whatever. And that’s how I feel about it today.”

That is all well and good, except that throughout his talk, he reveals that there is no one killer in the film, and that the identity of the killer is meant to be ambiguous. So what he is actually saying, even though he is ‘not conscious’ of it himself, is that every man in the leather bar is probably a homicidal maniac.

“The shot of Pacino shaving and finally just staring into the mirror at the audience is something I had in mind throughout as being the next-to-last shot of the film. What it’s meant to suggest or to say is, ‘When you look at someone, do you really know who they are? Do you know who I am? Do you know what I am? Do I know, and who are you?”

In the documentary, one of the producers claims that while the 102-minute film was universally castigated when it first appeared, it has somehow become justified because of its enduring cult popularity, but what he fails to admit is that the movie is popular for the same reason thatShowgirls is popular, not because it is good or daring, but because it is so incredulously bad. Pacino’s character goes into a shop for gay attire and asks the attendant for an explanation of the coded handkerchiefs on a rack display, and yet, just a few scenes later, he is not only wearing one of the handkerchiefs as was explained to him, but his character is utterly oblivious to its meaning and surprised by the reaction it receives. Another character, overly anxious, apparently, to start his evening, drives up to a porn shop and goes rushing in to use one of the peepshow booths, not bothering to put the top up on his convertible even though he has valuable items in the back seat (in New York, in a porn shop neighborhood). It doesn’t matter, though, since he doesn’t come out alive. There are other, smaller idiocies throughout the film (a suspect is interrogated in the police station by a large black detective wearing only one of the aforementioned jockstraps; there is a box full of addressed letters, but the addresses don’t have zip codes; and on and on), and it is continually amazing that having once made one of the best films ever about New York City cops, The French Connection, Friedkin then proceeded to create one of the absolute worst.

Fortunately for the DVD, his commentary, much of which is a play-by-play description of what is happening on the screen, is equally ridiculous. “Instinctively he goes to Richards’ closet, where he finds the wardrobe of the leather bars…They stare across the road at one another like opposing gunfighters…They’re alone, in a deserted park, probably after midnight… It’s not clear who will make the first move, but Burns parades right in front of Richards, sits down on the bench next to him, and makes a crude attempt at conversation. He asks him for a light… They face each other, eye to eye, and thus begins the slow courtship toward an endgame. Forbes is trying to think through what he’ll first say to Richards. Richards is waiting. And Forbes puts on his leather cap, Richards’ leather cap, and he starts to sing the little refrain that was heard at the scene of two of the murders. ‘Who’s here? I’m here. You’re here….'”

January 28, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon