Cruising Différance in 3 Scenes

Creator's Statement

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 ObscuraJump 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.

William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) remains an object of fascination. Since its release, the film has provoked a range of complex and contradictory emotions. This is particularly true of queer scholars, whose reactions have extended from revulsion to celebration via ambivalence. “Cruising Différance” seeks to explore both the multiplicity of these responses, and the reasons for such variety. Through a reflection on three key sequences in the film, each of which is matched with extracts from scholarly commentary, the essay tries to convey the diversity of critical opinion on Cruising; to capture what the introductory statement describes as the film’s “affective potency”; and to frame all this, audio-visually, through the concept of “différance”.

“Cruising Différance” is thus structured in conversation with Derrida. This is reflected in the author’s choice of multiple texts, the non-chronological arrangement of these texts, and the essay’s deliberately polyvocal conclusion. These tropes underline the introductory statement’s point that Cruising’s critical reception should not be neatly and teleologically historicized; such a “progressivist narrative” ignores the film’s history of competing and conflicting interpretations, while implicitly minimizing its power to disturb viewers in the present. For me, though, the essay makes this argument most effectively when it brings out Cruising’s sensory allure. The complementing of colour and movement across the first two sequences analysed—cruising in Central Park and Precinct Night at the S&M club—deftly conveys the original film’s sensuality. In drawing out the deep blue tones, chiaroscuro, and the conscious choreography of bodies having or seeking sex, the essay demonstrates how Cruising uses cinematic form to make being gay feel both “dangerous” and “sexy”, to quote the early voice-over drawn from Melissa Anderson’s “Rawhide”. This is precisely the “affective potency” the introductory statement discusses. That for others such stylization can tip over into excess is captured beautifully in the sudden rewind that occurs halfway through the S&M scene, which forces the viewer to re-watch the sequence recontextualised through a different reading. Not only does this shift bring out the internal ambiguities of the text, pitching us from Alexander Wilson’s (slightly strait-laced) discussion of role-play right into Eve Sedgwick’s exploration of camp, but the choice of formal technique perfectly matches the feeling of “repetition with difference” being conveyed critically. Re-viewing the same scene juxtaposed with new critical fragments made me reassess my own initial response to the club sequence. It also generated a real sense of how queer scholars have returned, almost compulsively, to worry over the significance of these moments in Friedkin’s film.  When “Cruising Différance” matches form and argument in ways both critically incisive and elegantly simple—as it does in these instants—the author demonstrates both the power of the original text, and how effectively the critical audiovisual essay can convey this to an audience.

Although it has become more common in recent years, it’s nevertheless refreshing to see scholars take Cruising and its reception seriously. Marc Francis’s provocative video, Cruising Différance in 3 Scenes, is well constructed both visually and aurally, and I found the montage work in the piece particularly compelling (e.g. the leather/keys/steps soundtrack matched to the slow-motion image of Burns cruising Richards on the park bench). The video’s final montage also works effectively to illustrate the film’s unique combination of queer and straight forms of eroticism in addition to what Francis calls the “noisiness” of its reception. Along these lines, one of the greatest strengths of the piece is its willingness to put competing critical perspectives on the film (at times from different historical periods) into a productive dialogue with key scenes from the film and with one another. Francis uses the play of text, voiceover, and film scenes very convincingly to capture what he identifies as the “relay of affects” that the film has historically incited and inspired. I likewise appreciated Francis’s efforts to complicate “a progressivist narrative” of Cruising (and its reception) by maintaining an open-ended, dialogic quality to the presentation of critical takes on the film. Indeed, the final montage best captures this approach by aurally overlapping fragments of these critical comments on the video’s soundtrack to enhance their dissonance, while also sustaining the productive potential of critical disagreement in relation to Cruising. I likewise appreciate the irony of using Willy DeVille’s “It’s So Easy” to close the video given the actual complexity—of images, sounds, and critical discourses—that grounds it.

I do, however, have some problems with the centrality of Derrida’s theory of différance to the video’s overall form and theoretical goals. Francis’s attention to the slippery symbolic work of Cruising (as well as its fraught critical reception) does indeed provide an intriguing illustration of Derrida’s concept. But given that différance could surely be applicable to any film, it’s unclear to me what makes Cruising unique or important in this regard. My worry here is that the Derrida framework enables a certain historical imprecision in the video that threatens to undermine its overall critical power. Francis attempts to clarify the historical implications of différance in his statement, but I remain unconvinced. As I see it, the analysis of Cruising demands more, not less, historical specificity in order to fully capture the film’s formal, political, and cultural significance. Moreover, I can’t help but be somewhat perplexed by a video that features a vast array of provocative queer insights on Cruising but that ultimately centers Derrida.

Just as Francis highlights the term “Different” at various points in the video, he also emphasizes the phrase “Over Time,” and it is in relation to this nod to the historical reception of Cruising that I have a few additional criticisms of the piece. The video helpfully provides dates for the critical/scholarly readings of the film that Francis provides in voice over, and this element does indeed serve to cue the viewer to “contemplate the (sub)cultural context in which these readings formed.” In addition, the inclusion of Melissa Anderson’s precise dating of her first screening of the film (in 1997) and her acknowledgement that a degree of “political nostalgia” might be at play in her response does an excellent job of situating the reception of the film as historically variable. Unfortunately, this type of precision is neither developed nor carefully sustained throughout the video. Moreover, while the artist’s statement now briefly notes the role of both AIDS and DVD in (re)shaping and further complicating the reception of Cruising, the lack of attention to the pandemic in the video itself still strikes me as a rather glaring omission. I understand that the influence of AIDS is implied throughout, but given that AIDS would have clearly informed nearly all post-1981 responses to Cruising and the fact that many of our current students have no idea that AIDS was once specifically aligned with the gay male community, I wish the video could have addressed the pandemic in a more direct manner.

The recent wave of critical re-evaluations of Cruising was also specifically inspired by the film’s digital remastering for DVD release. Original prints and videos of Cruising have a notably different color scheme (far more muted), and thus the film text itself has notably changed since the 2007 DVD release—that’s why it’s now “drenched in royal blues.” I realize that one can’t include everything in a video of this length, but it would nevertheless have been interesting to address the ways in which these key commercial/industrial factors have also shaped the film’s reception and form. Such variations might even have provided Francis with an opportunity to illustrate Cruising’s enactment of différance in a more textually unique and precise manner.

With regard to the video’s “Precinct Night” section, I do like the way that Francis’s visual strategy of rewinding the scene actually suggests the important role and function of re-viewing and retrospection in relation to Cruising. That said, I’m not entirely convinced that the quotations from Sedgwick effectively convey the various ways that Cruising and its reception might be framed in camp terms. Given that Sedgwick’s comments appear over the Precinct Night sequence, is camp then framed here as a textual quality of the film (as Francis seems to imply with the revised “Or Does He?” text onscreen)? How is Cruising specifically camp? When do such readings of it occur and why? Might there be a difference, say, between straight Brooklyn hipsters “camping” Cruising at a revival screening and gay men in 1980 laughing at the “hips or lips” line? In other words, is there a historical dimension to camp in relation to Cruising? Moreover, whose camp strategies are we talking about in using Sedgwick here?

I’m also not entirely sure about the use of split screen/mirrored imagery in relation to the ending of Cruising in the video. I wonder if this visual strategy of doubling/splitting both Burns and Nancy might actually undercut the sense of erotic multiplicity and the proliferation of desire (and identities) that’s implied by both Miller’s use of “queer” and Nancy’s donning of the leather garb. One could read the dissonant, overlapping montage that follows as an intentional contrast to the more dualistic use of the split screen, but my sense is that this thematic/aesthetic contrast needs to be signaled in the video in a more effective manner.

Finally, despite the reservations noted, I should emphasize that I thoroughly enjoyed watching, reading about, and analyzing Francis’s critical video on Cruising.  I’m also encouraged by the continued interest among younger film/media scholars in this one-of-a-kind queer text. My comments on the video’s potential limitations (or omissions) are also admittedly informed by the historical focus of my own research methodologies. Thus, if Cruising Différance in 3 Scenes doesn’t entirely work for me, that may simply be because cruising Derrida isn’t the kind of queer practice that turns me on.