There can be no doubt that William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 film Cruising presents a highly evocative, perhaps infectious, rendering of 1970s gay underground nightlife. Its association of BDSM practices with actual murderous violence has been a point of great dispute since its release. For many gay activists at the time, the film’s sensationalized and injurious stereotypes joined a long tradition of cultural products that confirmed a deep-seated homophobic sentiment in U.S. culture. Others, however, have through the years zeroed in on the film’s set of contradictions and uncertainties. Rather than yielding one narrative of either bigotry or fetishistic delight, the film, for many, appears to withhold any simplified readings and thus easy answers.
Cruising Différance in 3 Scenes assumes a panoramic position within this conversation. This audiovisual essay, rather than pursue a form of textual analysis, takes stock of the noisiness of the discourse that surrounds the object of study. In lieu of telling a unidirectional-unilinear history, Cruising Différance in 3 Scenes moves through the different readings of the film to allow for a dialectical, multivalent, and polyphonic form of analysis to take hold. While watching Cruising, a spectator or viewer might become absorbed by the film’s suspenseful narrative propulsion or by its lusty atmosphere. This video essay encourages its viewer to simultaneously meditate on the politics of pleasure and critique, especially as they play out within the highly public idiom of Hollywood cinema.
Cruising’s indelibility is by and large a product of its affective potency. Whether from a standpoint of attraction, vitriol, fascination, or ambivalence, the film’s criticism and scholarship is a response in equal measure to its intense simulacrum of gay life. Many of these critics acknowledge the way the film’s energy oozes from the screen in shots that, drenched in royal blues, display undulating torsos covered in sweat on the dance floor and shadowy glimpses of figures as they stroll through a moonlit Central Park. By overlaying excerpts from articles with clips from the film, this audiovisual form optimally conveys the relay of affects that have emerged from Cruising’s critical discourse. It gives the viewer a firsthand sensorial experience with the film’s vibrant and unforgettable moments alongside their most pointed readings.
By textually citing the author’s name and year of publication, my hope is that viewers of this videographic essay will contemplate the (sub)cultural context in which these readings formed. Certainly time’s passing accounts (to a degree) for the text’s later reparative readings. The film’s remastering and 2007 DVD release no doubt emboldened those royal blue and sweat-drenched scenes, endowing them with vibrancy and absorbing detail. The trauma of HIV/AIDS no doubt galvanized a whole younger generation to seek out and savor pre-HIV gay softcore and hardcore representation. At the same time, nostalgia and aesthetics tell only part of the story. It was important for me not to offer a progressivist narrative, which might argue that with time comes a social progress that allows for the once harmful depictions of yesteryear to now be seen as simply quaint, campy, and/or sexy. Though it is difficult to illustrate this in one video essay, one can find ambivalent, critical, lukewarm, virulent, shameful, and loving readings of Cruising virtually from its moment of release. Robin Wood’s brilliant exegesis of the film, both in line and against the grain of contemporaneous gay liberation politics, exemplifies precisely a phenomenon in which the critic holds together conflicting feelings towards the film.
By offering a sample of some of these readings, therefore, my goal was to show that meaning, as Derrida suggests with his theme of différance, is in a constant state of deferral, always capable of emerging from the recesses of semiosis. Différance, I should stress, is not tethered to linearity or chronology; the temporalization of meaning that Derrida discusses does not correlate with the temporality of historicity. It is about recognizing that there exist a multitude of meanings at any given time, and that they must be sublimated, marginalized, or forgotten to make language and thus meaning possible. And yet, the meanings that have been cast aside leave traces, and are thus deferred until a later time, perhaps surfacing in some future "to come." Cruising, for me, is better understood in this schema than rooted in a particular past or context that is always, in actuality, under continual revision, reconsideration, and dispute.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that I am removed from the hermeneutic exchanges represented in this piece. The rapid montage at the end is meant to signify the noisiness in my own thinking about the film, as both a queer spectator and scholar of the work. The section in which I cite Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of camp is where my own position as a reparative reader is likely most prominently felt. Perhaps this moment epitomizes that what affectively spills out of the frame in Cruising must be equally met with the emotionally profuse and ethically responsible practice of critique, a challenge to the assumption that any text can or should speak for itself.
Melissa Anderson. “Rawhide.” Film Comment 43, no. 5 (2007): 36–37.
Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” The Phenomenology Reader, eds. Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney (New York: Routledge, 2002).
D.A. Miller, “Cruising,” Film Quarterly 61 no. 2 (Winter 2007): 70-73
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
Alexander Wilson, "Friedkin's Cruising, Ghetto Politics, and Gay Sexuality," Social Text 4 (1981): 98-109.
Robin Wood, “The Incoherent Text” in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
Marc Francis is a lecturer at Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles). He recently received his PhD from the Department of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His work focuses on queer film and media and programming/curation. His essays have appeared in Camera Obscura, Jump Cut, and Film Quarterly. In addition to his text-based scholarship, he curates an LA-based film series called Wayward Cinema. He also serves as Assistant Editor for Film Quarterly.