Friedkin screenings a series of psychological and sexual thrills

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Pacific Film Archive/Courtesy

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Watching a William Friedkin film is like lighting a candle in a pitch-black cave. Suddenly, the shield of darkness is lifted, releasing sinister shadows and giving form to what was previously an unknowable space. In director Friedkin’s work, that unknowable space is the human soul, and it only becomes more terrifying when taken out of the dark and exposed to light.

In 1973, Friedkin terrified audiences with “The Exorcist,” the story of a little girl possessed by the devil. The theme of evil as an outside force stands in contrast to the rest of Friedkin’s films, wherein human-generated negativity is constantly looming, ready to consume his characters the second they give in to it. In six films shown in the last two weeks, the Pacific Film Archive’s short series “Dark Matters: The Films of William Friedkin” explored this theme of human darkness.

The series opened with “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), the story of Richard Chance (William Petersen), a Secret Service agent desperate to avenge the murder of his partner by taking down the counterfeiter responsible, played by a young Willem Dafoe. Chance becomes so obsessed by the chase that he abandons the rule of law and instead embraces his basest, most vengeful instincts. Petersen embodies this darkness to an impressive degree. The coexistence of good and evil within his character speaks to the natural capacity to be both human and monster, depending on what circumstances coax out.

The smog-covered crime thriller features some of the best sound effects of the series (second, perhaps, to 1977’s “Sorcerer”). In his first scene, Dafoe works under a hellish red light making counterfeit bills. The metallic crashing of his equipment echoes in the closing shootout in a burning building while the flames mirror the crimson glow of the faux mint.

Friedkin spoke to a BAM/PFA audience about his inspired use of sound layering to build tension and ratchet up a film’s fear factor.

“I was most influenced as a young man by dramatic radio,” Friedkin said. “All the tension was created by sound. There was no image, of course, except in your mind’s eye … It could scare the hell out of you. The soundtrack to shows like ‘Inner Sanctum’ and ‘Suspense’ … they were doing radio drama that was often really terrifying.”

Besides Friedkin’s audio echoes within films, a look at the entire series reveals certain thematic echoes in his work as a whole. “To Live and Die in L.A.” shows a young cop’s descent into madness as he immerses himself in the world of a morally nihilistic criminal. Similarly, “Cruising” (1980) drops a heterosexual undercover police detective, Steve Burns (Al Pacino), into New York’s underground leather and S&M districts to track down a killer responsible for the brutal murder of gay men. The further submerged Burns becomes in this gay subculture, the weaker his grasp becomes on his own heterosexuality, causing both fear and psychological instability.

Unfortunately, the psychological thrill of “To Live and Die” is conspicuously absent from “Cruising.” Friedkin devotes more screen time to the “shocking” behavior found within the gay S&M scene than to the character development that made his 1985 film so gripping. The film exploits gay culture for cheap shock value and reduces gay men to a sinister, carnal stereotype. Released at the height of the AIDS epidemic, “Cruising” met with fervent protests from the gay community, as many feared the film would set back the gay liberation.

During an audience Q&A, a former “Cruising” protester brought up James Franco’s “Interior. Leather Bar.” (2013), in which the filmmaker reimagines the lost 40 minutes of “Cruising” footage. When asked what was in those 40 minutes, Friedkin revealed, “It was 40 minutes of what you would call pornography that I shot because I was able to shoot it … I actually knew a lot of the guys who owned the (S&M) clubs.”

This lack of artistic purpose runs throughout much of “Cruising.” Ten years earlier, however, Friedkin had released a much more artful and human portrayal of gay men called “The Boys in the Band” (1970). The film, based on a play of the same name, explores human negativity as a reaction to deeply felt insecurities and a lack of stability within the oppressive heteronormative environment of the time.

“What I find interesting is that, at the same time that (the film) is announcing that there’s gay culture, to me it’s also crystallizing certain stereotypes that we have about gay men,” said Steve Seid, curator of the PFA series.

“It transforms itself from being a comment on a contemporary consciousness,” he said. “Then you transport it 40 years forward, and it becomes kind of like an archeological artifact that’s equally interesting. Now we’re looking in retrospect at how people were thinking about (gay culture).”

While “The Boys in the Band” improves with some historical context, the other films in the “Dark Matter” series certainly suffer from it. The series spans 40 years, yet during all that time, Friedkin did not manage to feature any female characters of substance. The only crucial female characters appear in “Killer Joe” (2011), in which they are ruthlessly used and degraded. For a modern viewer, this debasing portrayal of the female sex inspires little admiration and detracts from what would otherwise be a fairly impressive oeuvre.

Although Friedkin limits his own portrait of human darkness by focusing only  on male characters, the “Dark Matter” series succeeds in its depth, if not breadth. The character transformations shown are truly unnerving, and by the end of each film, it is a relief to no longer dwell in the darkness.