The gifted, elusive William Friedkin is one of cinema's more curious cases. The creator of hugely popular, indeed groundbreaking films like The French Connection and The Exorcist, he's now fatally linked to the excesses of the '70s (see Peter Biskind's recent book on this subject, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), and his name appears as often on TV shows as on movies. Pauline Kael and others have long since written him off as a skilled but impersonal auteur so obsessed with the mechanics of his craft that his films lack warmth or humanity. Warmth and humanity, however, may be better suited to greeting cards than to art.
Despite Friedkin's undeniable coolness, the best of his work is among the most immersing and experiential in modern film. The French Connection's justly famous subway/car chase scene -- a harrowing mix of gritty location photography, POV shots (with Friedkin himself sometimes manning the camera), and violent cutting -- is still a model of its kind, creating a dizzying double sense of engagement and dislocation similar to what the earliest filmgoers must have felt at the first sight of a train roaring out of the screen at them. Friedkin's obsessed -- it must be called that -- with ripping away the veneer of respectability from modern life and forcing audiences to experience what the troubled title character in Jade calls "the darkness within us." Thus the upright psychologist in that film turns tricks by night, and the cops in Cruising queer-bash by day and haunt the leather bars by night -- an unfairly maligned film in which Friedkin's insistence on rubbing audiences' noses in demimondes that both dazzle and repel peaked. In one brilliantly unsettling scene, naive undercover cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) gets a blow job from his girlfriend. While he sweats and grimaces, the music of the leather bars -- the irresistible world into which he and we have plunged -- seeps ominously onto the soundtrack and Pacino's expression becomes one of terror, triggering that vertiginous sense of the ground falling away beneath him (us) that is at the heart of Friedkin's work.
-- Gary Morris
A weeklong series of William Friedkin's films begins screening Friday, Jan. 8, at the Roxie, 3117 16th St. (at Valencia), S.F. Admission is $6.50; call 863-1087 for a complete schedule, or see Reps Etc. on Page 75.