Morgan Woolsey

Morgan Woolsey is a doctoral student in the Musicology Department at UCLA. Her work focuses on the intersections between studies of identity and music in film. Her essay on music as structure will be featured in a forthcoming anthology on the films of the L.A. Rebellion.



"'Trying to feel the movie's zither vibrations': Film Music and the Construction of Subjectivity in William Friedkin's Cruising"

Upon its release in 1980, Cruising (based on Gerald Walker’s novel of the same name) was vehemently boycotted by a striking array of gay rights groups anticipating the inevitably homophobic treatment of the story of a cop tracking a gay serial killer amongst the denizens of the leather bars and parks of Manhattan’s west side. While the film worries over the usual psychoanalytic stereotypes of male homosexuality— unresolved daddy issues, narcissism, and the tired linkage of deviant sexuality with violence—film music plays two central roles in the construction of this pathology. On the one hand, it is used conventionally to mark urban spaces—here, the leather bars—as exotic. But on the other, it draws on a literary soundscape that makes reference to a specific film cue—Anton Karas’s jaunty zither theme from The Third Man (1949)—which in the novel gives the reader voyeuristic access to the killer’s interior world.

Unpacking these parallels in the literary and cinematic musical construction of interiority (the killer) and of exteriority (the urban environment) can provide an underexplored glimpse of the functions (political and aesthetic) of film music across texts in constructing subjectivity. That Friedkin rejected the more uniformly textured original soundtrack—created by punk band The Germs—in favor of a more diverse one that refers to a literary soundscape with which the film audience was probably not familiar, highlights Friedkin’s desire to covertly center the novel’s most virulent concerns: the vulnerability inherent in urban life and the threat of contagious sexuality it often implies.

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