The Devil May Care

William Friedkin on Bug, Cruising and nights at the opera

It seemed only fitting, then, that when the film version of Bug had its world premiere, at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, it was presented not in the festival's tony Official Selection, but rather in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar, which is traditionally seen as a showcase for the work of vanguard younger directors. At 71, it was as if the Young Turk of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation was an enfant terrible all over again.

"I frankly am not on the same page with most of the films that are being made by the studios now," Friedkin says. "I certainly can't think of any that I wish I had directed. This is not to degrade these pictures they're making today, like Spider-Man 3. I'm just not seeking them out, nor are they seeking me out."

As Bug opens in the U.S., Friedkin will be returning to the Directors' Fortnight for a special revival screening of his most maligned and misunderstood film: 1981's Cruising, starring Al Pacino as a Manhattan detective who goes undercover to investigate a series of unsolved murders in and around the gay leather-bar scene. At the time, Cruising was widely attacked for its supposed homophobia and unflattering depiction of the gay lifestyle. Today, it has been somewhat critically rehabilitated, and if its colored hankies and studded bracelets unavoidably seem like fossils of a bygone cultural era, the movie's unabashed approach to its subject, its jarring narrative ellipses and its enigmatic resolution (or lack thereof) retain their unsettling power.

"The film doesn't turn away from the sexuality," says Friedkin, who notes that the Cannes screening will be followed by a theatrical re-release, complete with a new Dolby Digital sound mix, in select U.S. cities this fall. "That means it will still disturb a lot of people on both sides of the issue."

He does wish, though, that the studio (Warner Bros.) had been able to find some of the 40 minutes of deleted scenes that he was forced to remove from Cruising 26 years ago at the behest of the MPAA, all of which are now feared missing or destroyed. Most of that footage, Friedkin allows, "did not move the story forward at all. It was me filming in great detail everything that went on in the clubs: I filmed fist fucking, in such a way that it could be used as a manual. Golden showers. All of that."

But there is one scene he's particularly sorry not to have been able to restore: An alternate opening in which the movie's two abusive vice cops (including one, later revealed to be a patron of the leather bars himself, played by cult character actor Joe Spinell) engage in a game of "liar's poker."

"One cop says to the other, 'Whoever wins gets to beat the other guy on the ass with a billy club,'" recalls Friedkin, who based the scene on an actual incident reported in the New York papers. "So they play it out, and you see that the cop played by Joe Spinell has the winning number, but he claims he has a lower number and the other guy wins. Then Spinell says, 'Okay, you've got to beat me on the ass now.' And the other guy says, 'Yeah, right! Are you out of your fucking mind?' And Spinell says, 'No, a bet's a bet.' So, they get out of the car under this bridge, Joe takes down his pants and leans over the hood of the police car, and the other guy beats him hard while Joe sings 'I'm Going to Kansas City.'"

These days, it's a different sort of musical entertainment that occupies much of Friedkin's time. In 1998, at the behest of the conductor Zubin Mehta, Friedkin agreed to direct a production of Alban Berg's atonal opera Wozzeck at Florence's Teatro del Maggio Musicale. He's been actively staging operas ever since, in various cities around the world, including Los Angeles, where his acclaimed double production of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Puccini's beloved farce Gianni Schicchi premiered in 2002.

Of the latter, Friedkin notes that it is actually part of a trilogy of one-act Puccini operas, collectively known as Il Trittico and intended to be performed together over the course of a single evening. Recently, he says, Los Angeles Opera artistic director Placido Domingo proposed the idea of doing just that, with Friedkin directing the two parts he didn't stage the first time around. And as for Gianni Schicchi? None other than Woody Allen will take the reins. "They haven't announced it yet, but we're going to do it in September of 2008," Friedkin says with a sly chuckle. "Now let's see if his is as funny as mine!"

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