Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I love the 70s

Purely coincidentally, I recently watched James Toback's Fingers (1978) and William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) back to back. The latter is being reissued in a director's cut while the former finally reached the top of my Netflix queue (I booked it after seeing its French remake, The Beat That My Heart Skipped). Both movies are essentially about men facing—or not—their own nature. By the end of Cruising, Al Pacino seems to have reached a point of no return; Fingers' Harvey Keitel loses himself in violence and Bach (not violence and Beethoven, that's Clockwork Orange) in order to avoid dealing with himself.

Cruising was swirling in controversy even before it came out—its shoot was disrupted by activists who protested what they said was a homophobic view of the gay community. Almost 30 years later, I have to admit I found their objections baseless. The cops, for instance, are almost (almost!) never dismissive of the S&M milieu that serves as background to their investigation, and they genuinely try to solve the murders of gay men. Pacino's character never shows any disgust or revulsion, just an increasing fascination, with the hardcore clubs he explores. (Compare with Hollywood's current infatuation with man-child characters stuck in perpetual adolescence and reflexive homo-panic.) In his commentary for the Fingers DVD, Toback explains that Keitel's character has homosexual leanings, and a lot of his permanent unease results from his trying to repress them.

Both movies have a deadpan matter-of-factness that serves them very well, though they come at it from different angles: Cruising from the unique combo of genre and artiness that Friedkin embodied in the 70s and 80s (Michael Mann owes a lot to Friedkin's 1985 To Live and Die in L.A., for instance) while Fingers represents Toback's attempt to pull off the seeming contradiction of neo-New Wave baroque. Everybody in Fingers, except for the father of Keitel's character, is opaque—you know very little about them, and there is very little explanation of their actions or, god forbid, motivations (how I hate that word!).

Both movies were also shot on location in New York, and look completely bewitching now. At one point, Keitel goes into John's Pizzeria on Bleecker St to collect money on behalf of his father. Toback doesn't even bother to change the place's name, and there's even a bit of a joke about the fact that John's doesn't sell slices. There's also a superb shot in Battery Park City, with the base of the then-new Twin Towers in the background.

It's also striking to note how underpopulated the city looks. Now, I know these are movies, but Toback and Friedkin obviously were concerned with a certain realistic depiction of the milieus, and the density in both Fingers' Soho and Cruising's West Village is impressively low: Where is everybody?!? The city is simultaneously teeming with anarchic life and sparsely populated, giving the characters room to breathe. As a backdrop, it suggests freedom and possibilities, something our current hive of activity actually stifles.

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