The Panic in Needle Park
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
I’ve written before about seeing Dog Day Afternoon when I was around 12 years old. Way too young to see it, or get a lot of it, but it changed the course of my life. It launched a great passion. A passion that continues to this day. By that I mean, the power of acting and what acting can DO to an audience. Because I saw Dog Day Afternoon in the olden days, before my family had a VCR, before video stores were everywhere, before instant gratification became a possibility in Everyday Life, I had to resort to other means to get my fix. This meant poring through the TV Guide to look for movies that seemed interesting, or relevant to my grand passion. Channel 56, thank you for playing old movies with such regularity. It is how I got my education. And it is how I watched the incredibly inappropriate Panic in Needle Park when I was 13 or 14. It was on television, although I find that hard to believe in retrospect. But it was. No other way I would have seen it. (Probably a VERY edited version, although who the hell knows in those Wild West days when kids were not as protected as they are now.) I watched it on the little TV in the downstairs den, and found the experience to be one of sheer horror. It was akin to reading Go Ask Alice, which put me off experimenting with drugs for life (except for one notable exception, which really just drove the point home for me that “This is not for you.”) I know now the sketchy history behind the scam that is Go Ask Alice, but it worked on me like it was meant to. Panic in Needle Park was so horrifying to me, so real, that I remember it feeling like a documentary. I felt I had never seen a movie that seemed so real. Could they have shown the footage of the guy desperately trying to poke a needle into his scarred-over bloody tracks on the TV version that I watched? That scene goes on forever, and I still can’t watch it. But they couldn’t have shown that bit on television, could they?
Panic in Needle Park was, along with Dog Day Afternoon, my introduction to New York cinema, 1970s-style. I was a kid when I first went to New York City. My parents let me take the train by myself – by myself! – to spend the weekend with my aunt Regina. This just would never happen now. My aunt Regina was an actress, in her early 20s at the time, and she took me everywhere. She took me to see Annie (Sarah Jessica Parker played the lead role, for the record), we went to the Museum. I also saw the filth, the porn shops, the homeless people (this was New York in the late 70s, remember), and a gross guy came right up to me and exposed himself, and Regina, horrified, dragged me away. New York wasn’t just dangerous in those days: it FELT dangerous. It was in the air. It was in the trash everywhere. It was in the subways covered in graffiti. As awful as it was, I am glad I remember it and experienced it (although fuck you, guy who exposed himself to a child). I miss that New York. And that cinema, that era, was so formative for me, in terms of how I thought about cinema, and image, and setting, and direction. And acting, where the acting felt like it was “caught” on camera, as opposed to acted FOR the camera. Whatever it was, Panic in Needle Park haunted my 13-year-old psyche, especially the scenes of people just hanging around in dingy rooms, on street corners.
I was 13. I usually had somewhere to go, to be: school, Sunday school, family obligations, piano lessons, acting lessons. I also had spare hours free here and there, in order to torture myself watching movies that were far too grown-up for me to understand. But, you know, my life was regimented, like a lot of kids’ lives are. The aimlessness on display in Panic in Needle Park was more disturbing than the drug use (for me as a kid, anyway): the drug use I didn’t really understand, except in terms of: DO. NOT. GO. THIS. ROUTE.
The reason I clocked the film as “must see” is because it starred Al Pacino, who had so changed my life with his performance in Dog Day Afternoon. I knew nothing about him. Not yet. I just knew I had to see him again, see him in something ELSE. Even then, I enjoyed seeking out examples that would show the full range of an actor’s career. It is only now, as an adult, that I can really get what an extraordinary performance this is from Pacino, especially in light of the fact that it is his debut. You would never know. He carries himself like a star already. He is the lead of the film, along with Kitty Winn (who plays his slumming girlfriend – she won the Best Actress award that year at Cannes for her role in Needle Park). Pacino’s Bobby is alternately a ball of energy, chewing his gum like it’s a piece of rough steak, his jaw wildly moving, or in a daze of heroin addiction, sleeping in the ratty bed with his mouth wide open. It’s a disturbing image because he is clearly not sleeping, but passed out in mid-moment. He is a charmer, a guy who acts like courting a woman is part of a vaudeville act, he plays ball with the kids in the streets, loud and brash and showing off, and you love him. But you also know he’s on a Dead End Street. Pacino inhabits the drug hustle world of Needle Park (Broadway and 72nd – I dated a guy who lived on that corner, although it was long after the drug scene had been hustled out of there) as though he was born to it. Helen (Kitty Winn) is the somewhat Mary Sue-ish character, written by screenwriting duo (and husband and wife) Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. (The film was produced by John Dunne’s brother, the late Dominick Dunne.)
But Helen is a clear Didion stand-in. She has the flat affect of some of Didion’s fictional lead characters, in Play it As It Lays or Run River. Untrustworthy because so insubstantial. Helen is a nice girl, who takes a walk on the wild side, for no apparent reason, except that Bobby (Al Pacino) is so compelling. Only he’s not. He’s charming, sure, but he’s a mess, a drug addict, a criminal. He has no sex drive. All of that has gone into drugs. So something’s up with Helen that she is drawn to this world. Helen is an aimless artist, from Fort Wayne Indiana, living in New York with her rather horrible boyfriend (played by Raul Julia, awesome). In the opening scene, she’s on a crowded subway, clearly having some kind of emotional breakdown. We learn in the next scene that she was on her way to an illegal abortion. She gets sick afterwards, lying in bed, and Raul Julia scolds her: “Didn’t I tell you to smoke some weed?”
Helen doesn’t have much going for her. As a matter of fact, she seems built to be prey. At first she doesn’t join her new boyfriend Bobby in doing drugs. But then she caves. She starts hooking for cash, so she can get her fix. A line has been crossed. You can see how Al Pacino’s Bobby struggles with the ramifications of this. He doesn’t like it. But he also needs a fix. He certainly looks at her differently afterwards. Now she’s just like everybody else in his world. (Peter Nellhaus has some more thoughts about the film. I agree with some of what he says, and I think my feeling about the film is certainly colored by the fact that I saw it at age 13 and it lived on in nightmare-fashion in my mind until pretty much this day. But he is right to point out that perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Panic in Needle Park is that this was a film put out by a major studio. Amazing to consider how much the world has changed.)
The drug-taking scenes are realistic to the point of being unwatchable. The film is filled with close-ups of needles going into infected scabby veins. Horror stories abound. There’s a good-hearted prostitute (played by Marcia Jean Kurtz, an actress who is still working, still around – Pacino dovetail: she was also one of the hostages in Dog Day Afternoon, playing a completely different kind of character), who hides her baby in the bathroom so she can service one of her regulars. The “panic” in Needle Park has already begun at the time Kitty joins the group. Drugs are scarce, there’s nothing on the street, people are getting busted, there’s too much demand.
I could have done without the whole puppy side-plot that comes in late through the film. It would work better in a short story. By the time the puppy comes into the picture, the mood of the picture itself is already so bleak and hopeless that the puppy’s trajectory barely registers. I get it. Kitty sleeps with men for money in disgusting alleys and hotel rooms, and doesn’t blink an eye, but she goes gaga over this puppy and it is Life or Death that she takes good care of it, and etc. It’s a bit too symbolic, too Ohio Writers’ Workshop-y.
But Pacino owns the screen. Only a year later The Godfather would come out and he would become a giant star. This is not at all a surprise, seeing his work in Panic in Needle Park. And Kitty Winn is one of those people whose emotions and thoughts register – with EASE – to the camera. You feel no effort in her performance. It’s just THERE.
Oh, and look for a young Paul Sorvino, shame-faced and annoyed in the police station, busted for sleeping with a prostitute.
Pacino and Schatzberg would work together again in Scarecrow, a far superior film, I think. Even crazier, and even less dependent on normal storytelling devices like plot.
Directed by William Wyler
The feisty Southern girl wants to wear a red dress to the cotillion, and maybe she is a bit headstrong and careless, but everyone knows she’s a virgin and that there’s nothing REALLY inappropriate about her relationship with her fiance (Henry Fonda). It’s the DRESS that marks her downfall. She hasn’t DONE anything wrong. But appearances matter, and that’s what that famous scene is all about. William Wyler moves the camera through the floating visions in white, with people glancing at the camera, horrified, and then, stunningly, pulls back, way back, so that we see the entire crowd has pulled back into a semicircle, far away from Bette Davis in satiny red (well, we assume it’s red since the film is in black-and-white). The scene gives the feeling that she has a communicable disease which, considering where the film goes and how it ends, is appropriate.
So what is it with Julie? She lives by her own rules, which basically means showing up late to parties, entering snooty rooms still wearing her riding clothes. The pre-Civil-War Southern society in which she has been raised is rigidly hierarchical, although they have far more serious problems underlying the situation than whether or not a virgin chooses to wear a red dress. In the context of the world that is about to be set aflame (literally) by war, Julie’s choices seem extremely silly, and I suppose that’s part of the point and part of her ultimate journey. She represents the silliness of Southern society, the old order that is going to be torched to make room for change and growth. She is engaged to be married to Preston (Fonda), a lawyer, and she has been toying with him mercilessly for probably years. He puts up with it, until finally (Red Dress Alert) he has had enough. The film is actually quite sophisticated about sexual politics, and is a great portrait of a woman who treats flirtation like a vicious game. In other words, she doesn’t know when to drop the game and get serious. And by “serious”, I mean soft, yielding, feminine. A good mate. Not weak – that would be a mischaracterization of what the film is saying. Julie is not grown-up enough yet to realize that once you’re looking at something as serious as marriage, it’s time to put away the games. Preston is a grown man. He’s sick of being teased, coquetted, flirted with, and rebuffed. Life is serious and she’s just a silly little girl. He really does have a point.
Julie decides to wear a red dress to tease Preston and to also punish him for not going on a dress-making jaunt with her. He had to work. Well, she’ll show HIM. The ladies fluttering around her beg her to re-consider, Preston himself gets a glimpse of the dress and says, “Surely you can’t be serious”, which is like waving a red satin ballgown in front of a bull. Bette Davis is almost psychotic in the level of denial and forced gaiety she puts on, to show she doesn’t care. But she does care. She has Missed the Memo: There’s a time for games, and there’s a time to stop playing those games. She pays a huge price. She retires from society and she’s barely out of her teen years, if that. Meanwhile, the tensions between the North and South start heating up. The political conversations at the dinner table are fascinating, made even more so by Julie’s headstrong ignorance. Henry Fonda returns from the North, with a wife, and warns his fellow Southerners that big industry is coming, that the agrarian lifestyle on which the South is based is on the road to being Dunzo. He encounters resistance to these warnings, and Julie, who is heartbroken that he has gotten married, decides to defend the South against Yankee interference, and Yankee sneers. She does so by goading the wife (who is from the North), and goading two gentlemen into a duel. Dueling is an aspect of the society that is seen as barbaric and ridiculous, and Julie’s participation in making one happen is the final straw. Her aunt calls her a Jezebel. Banishment is nearly complete.
So Julie will be made to suffer for her actions. And she does. And when Yellow Fever breaks out, she finds the means to redeem herself, not only in the eyes of her family and friends, but in the eyes of God. Bette Davis is great in the role, and there’s a mania in her behavior that suggests true madness. Blanche Dubois in her final scene in Streetcar.
There are great details throughout: Preston’s good-hearted wife trying to be polite to the Southerners, but still horrified by what she is seeing. Her taken aback reaction to the two black butlers who open the door for her. Slavery right in her face. Henry Fonda is good in what amounts to a pretty thankless role, and he’s actually sexy as hell in some of those later scenes, felled by yellow fever.
But this is the Bette Davis Show and it looks like she had the time of her life. As always, her work is detailed to the utmost. Her behavior with flower arranging, how she moves the vase from table to table to table … She has the ability to both broad and specific, in the same moment.
I Could Never Be Your Woman
Directed by Amy Heckerling
Talking about Amy Heckerling at last Saturday’s party made me seek out this film, which I had not seen. I love Clueless and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but have missed her two latest, I Could Never Be Your Woman and Vamps. I Could Never Be Your Woman is wonderful. Don’t let the two big floating disembodied heads of the poster put you off. Besides, I’ve always been a Michelle Pfeiffer fan, especially in comedic material. Here, she plays Rosie, a TV producer in charge of a show called You Go, Girl!, a sit-com about teenagers. She was once married to Nathan (Jon Lovitz), who has since married a much younger woman and now dresses in track suits and backwards baseball caps, to try to seem young. But he’s a good guy, and they have a very funny relationship – you can clearly see that they are people who were once together, are no longer, love the daughter that they had, but have no mixed feelings about why they are no longer together. This is in the script, but it’s in the performances as well. It’s a delicate balancing act. The comedy is often quite broad, but it requires that underlying sharp social commentary as well as a grounding in realism to make it work. Rosie and Nathan have a 12-year-old daughter named Izzy, played by Saoirse Ronan, who is extremely touching here. There is an irony that Rosie has a daughter who is almost a teenager, and the almost-teen seems more like a little girl than a grownup, and Rosie is filming a TV show with grown adults cast as teenagers. Our ideas/concepts about age are all effed up, in other words. Amy Heckerling goes after all of these ideas/concepts.
Rosie has a treacherous competitive secretary named Jeannie, played by Sarah Alexander. When someone calls the office for Rosie, Jeannie, a hot young blonde, will always answer with something along the lines of, “No, she’s not in right now. She’s getting Botox, can I take a message?” Rosie is busy enough with parenting her daughter, working her ass off, and trying to keep her job (Fred Willard plays her boss at the TV studio, who tries to remain hip by using terms like “Shizzle”, it’s mortifying), that romance is not in the question. You don’t get the sense that she’s yearning for a partner. She’s too fucking busy. But then, during a casting session for a new character on the show, an Erkel-type nerd, a guy walks in and makes them all roar with laughter. This is Adam, played by Paul Rudd. He is also clearly too old to be playing a high schooler, but that’s part of the ongoing joke. He’s only hired for one episode, but the ratings go up, and Rosie writes three more episodes for him. Naturally, too, she looks at him and something inside her thuds: “He cute. Me likey likey.” Despite his cute good looks, Paul Rudd is totally believable as a guy who was not good-looking in high school and learned that the way to get women to like him/pay attention to him is by making them laugh. He’s excited about the new opportunities in his acting career, and he’s also crushing on Rosie a little bit. The power dynamic is all off, because she is basically in charge of his career. But they go out for a date, and sparks fly, but she puts on the brakes. She tells him she’s 39, which is hysterical (they both lie about their ages, multiple times). At one point, after telling her he is 31, he caves and admits to being 29, and she gasps, “What happened to 30??”
Anyway, all of this could be cliched stuff. It’s not. It’s relevant. It’s relevant to the lives of millions of women, and men, who are trying to connect, who are somehow outside the cultural norms (You get married in your 20s, have kids in your 30s, send them to college in your 40s, etc. etc. If you think these cultural norms are easily ignored, then bully for you.) Is age that big a deal? It isn’t to Adam, who likes Rosie, and likes making her laugh. He plays video games with Izzy while waiting for Rosie to come downstairs. He’s intimate, in a very casual way. Meaning: he doesn’t make a big deal out of liking someone, caring about them, he just knows what he likes and settles in to liking it. No biggie. I knew one of those types of guys. Killer combo. If you reversed those terms (ie: if he was casual in a very intimate way), it wouldn’t be as effective. In fact, you may be looking at a sociopath in that case. Perhaps I am projecting. Probably so. But that’s what a good movie can do. It can help you make connections, or at least see that there IS a connection.
Another great thing about the film is that although Rosie’s insecurity about her age, and about the age difference between them, is hugely on her mind, it’s not the ONLY thing she has going on. It’s not like other movies, where the female character’s “job” that she is “obsessed with” is just given lip service so that she can then learn to “relax” and “let go” and “have it all”, or whatever the hell the message is shoveled down our collective throats. Here, you see her at work more than you do with Rudd. You see her trying to deal with her daughter’s blossoming adolescence more than obsessing about this guy. She flat out doesn’t have time. That’s realistic, in my experience. It’s refreshing.
The age difference theme is underlined by Tracey Ullman, who plays “Mother Nature”, wandering through scenes wearing a flowing gown with an empire waist, shoveling fruit into her mouth. She warns Rosie that this age difference thing is a big deal, it goes against nature, eventually a man will want to have babies with you, that’s the deal, that’s how biology works. You know, these are the messages we get all the time. You don’t even know you’re receiving the messages anymore. You reiterate them to yourself. It’s like being in a cult. Jason Beghe, when he busted out of the cult which will remain nameless, gave a pretty famous interview afterwards and he said that the “con” of the cult is so good because “you police yourself”. So in a way, Rosie is “policing herself” in the cult of what is appropriate for her, in terms of a mate, even though everything is going great with Adam, and they click, and it’s not just about hot sex. It’s more about … that they fit, somehow, in each other’s lives. You can talk yourself out of something being right for you, if the cultural noise around your choice is wicked loud (there was a great Thirtysomething plotline where Melissa basically talked herself out of a great love with a guy named Lee who was 15 years younger than she was. That episode was all about projecting your own insecurity out into the culture. Who the hell cares what gossipy unhappy people think anyway about your personal choices in life?). In I Could Never Be Your Woman, the judgment mainly comes from Mother Nature herself, although Rosie also gets it from her vicious secretary who just wants the old folks to step aside and leave room for new blood.
While this is a very serious topic, and I feel very strongly about it, the movie is so so good on the small details. Like Rosie walking into the kitchen and seeing her daughter and a friend with black veils draped over their heads, murmuring some potion amidst a bank of lit candles. They look like small demons of death. Pfeiffer is like, “What are you guys DOING?” They’re creating a love potion, so the cute boy in school will somehow know that Izzy likes him, or whatever. But that detail is so right ON … little girls do stuff like that. We play with Ouija boards, and chant “light as a feather, stiff as a board”, and we are obsessed with witches and potions and spells … I roared at that scene because it’s so accurate. There are also great scenes between Rosie and her daughter, where Rosie tries to guide her through her first crush, tries to support her but also tell her that she shouldn’t sell herself out. Be strong, be careless, pretend you don’t care! (Humorous advice seeing as she does not take the same advice in her own relationship with Adam). But it’s quite touching, the scenes between Pfeiffer and Ronan. Izzy doesn’t seem like Hollywood’s version of a 12-year-old. She seems like the 12-year-olds that I know, the 12-year-old that I was.
It’s a film about an important and controversial topic, but it’s handled lightly, comedically, ironically, and also sensitively – an Amy Heckerling combination, not to be tried by amateurs. A lack of sentimentality helps, too. Love is just part of the wider fabric of life here. Love doesn’t sweep everything aside. It shouldn’t, anyway. Love needs to fit in with all the other stuff going on. It’s not the primary thing. I liked that a lot.
Loved the film!
The Snake Pit
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Olivia de Havilland was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Snake Pit. She plays Virginia, a troubled woman who has a mental crack-up three days after getting married, and is put into a mental institution. A state hospital. She has no memory of who she is, that she is married, or why she is there. She thinks it’s a prison. She is in a state of terror and confusion for almost the entirety of the film, and it is a gut-wrenching performance.
I watched it the other night and cried off and on throughout the entire thing. Her husband has committed her to the state’s care, and he comes to visit his wife, but she cringes from his touch. She thinks people are trying to trick her. She thinks that maybe he is someone else impersonating her husband.
A kindly psychiatrist, Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) starts to make progress with Virginia, in their counseling sessions, and also through sessions with Virginia’s baffled husband (played by Mark Stevens, who is quite wonderful). Some of the story is told in flashback. Virginia’s husband tells the story of how they met, and how they married quickly, without knowing all that much about each other. He says that now he can see some red flags, but he had no idea that the trouble ran this deep. Later in the film, we go further back in flashbacks, and explore the trauma in Virginia’s childhood, because, of course, this is the mid-20th century when Freudian ideas had reached critical mass: There must be a trauma. It can’t just be something off in the wiring of the brain, there must be an EVENT, that can be REMEMBERED, and therefore RELEASED. Quibbles with that concept aside, The Snake Pit is a compassionate and unblinking look at how the mentally ill are treated, the problems with state hospitals and funding, the lack of understanding in the outside world. It’s a very painful film. Hence, my tears.
My only complaint is not enough Celeste Holm! She’s one of my all-time favorites and she’s in a couple of scenes in the beginning. She’s also in the institution and she tries to guide Virginia through the process, looking out for her, reminding her who she is. She’s such a lovely actress.
Anatole Litvak was interested in the reality of the conditions facing those who are put in such hospitals, the inhumane treatment, the rough-housing by the nurses (the way those nurses man-handle Virginia, UGH), the treatment that ends up traumatizing the patient even more. The shock treatment sequence is brutal. If you have read memoirs of that time, then you know that that scene is not an exaggeration. Shock treatment is used as a way to hurry up the possibility of “contact” with the patient, and, in a way, that is made to seem quite urgent and realistic here, since the hospital is overcrowded and patients are released without being “cured” constantly, to make room for others. There are different wards in the hospital (something that Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest describes as well). There are the wards where it is understood that your presence there is temporary. There are the overcrowded middle wards, shot in harrowing detail, women lying in bathtubs being bathed by nurses, lying in narrow beds filling up the ward. Then there is the other ward, the ward you never want to go to. The ward where the incurables have been placed. As you move from ward to ward throughout the film, getting further away from the front door which leads to freedom, the conditions deteriorate. The women in the last ward, the ones who have been there for years, the ones who will never get out, are filthy. They are wild women, the ward is quite loud, with people proclaiming speeches while standing on tops of tables. Many different languages. A hubbub of noise and chaos. The “snake pit” of the title. Virginia, after biting the finger of the man examining her, is put on that ward. You start to see how people get lost in the system. I have to believe Alan Parker saw The Snake Pit, because the famous scene when Brad Davis starts walking against the tide in Midnight Express is clearly here in this film, in another form. (The prisoners are walking around a Turkish rug. Hm. Turkish!) They are not allowed to step ON the rug, and to Virginia that rule seems ridiculous. She says to the nurse, “Why don’t you hang it on the wall then?” Infuriated at the random ruling, she stalks straight into the middle of the rug and sits down on it. All hell breaks loose.
Betsy Blair, the black-listed actress who was nominated for an Oscar for Marty, plays Hester, a violent woman who cannot speak. She seems frozen in a state of perpetual terror. We never learn what made her that way, or why. Her performance wrecked me.
But Olivia de Havilland. She enters into Virginia’s panic and confusion with such a visceral sense of understanding that in one scene where she starts sobbing, “I don’t know” to a question from Dr. Kik, her agony is so real I wanted to turn away to give her privacy. Seriously. This is a great performance.
She doesn’t appear to be wearing makeup. Her hair is a wreck. She is clothed in unattractive hospital gowns half the time. She doesn’t care. She has no vanity.
This woman can fucking act. I realize this is not a revelation of any kind. She’s one of the best there is.
Very upsetting film.