THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK
DIRECTED BY JERRY SCHATZBERG
The Panic in Needle Park, film that launched Al Pacino’s career is somehow not really a blip in his filmography. After watching this I could partially understand why but also still not understand a bunch of other things. Pacino’s role as the heroin addict Bobby would be such a leap from the Michael Corleones the Serpicos and even the lovably out of his element crook Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon. His big brown eyes make him like a down and out but still very boyish and innocent. But Bobby’s apathy and desperation for the next hit are not so much needy as a person trapped in a state of mind of being so drawn to drugs he will stop at nothing to get it- and that is all he thinks about. I cannot really say that if I watched his film before The Godfather films that this performance would make me think, ‘THAT is a crime-lord!’, and that is a real testament to Pacino’s work in the film. But weirdly enough, he is not the one who walks away with this film.
Kitty Winn as Helen got a lot of attention for this role and it is not a surprise after you watch the film. She is the outsider, the audience surrogate. She begins to realize how dire her situation is but she loves Bobby so much, and Pacino in this role is oddly lovable in a dumb little boy way, that there is a certain tension and pain involved in all of her decision-making. The real mystery is why after this film that her career did not take off like Pacino’s did. It was basically just a supporting, unmemorable role in The Exorcist and that was that.
Jerry Schatzberg, who did not really direct a film on par with this with exception to the Morgan Freeman breakthrough film Street Smart, directs the film in a cinema verite style of realism that actually makes this film age very well as a fascinating time capsule in an era where there was heroine needles around Sherman Square rather than gelato stands. The film’s subject being heroin addiction makes the comparisons to the later, more celebrated Danny Boyle classic Trainspotting an interesting case. Trainspotting was accused of going too much for ‘the heroin chic’ and making a spectacle out of being an addict. Panic in Needle Park is more quiet (I do not even remember if there was diegetic music used let alone something as brazen as opening to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”) and just as if not more devastating than Trainspotting. Both films do show the irresponsibility of their characters as dangerous but not menacing, which makes their mistakes arguably worse. Trainspotting had Renton as its voice, who already in the heroin scene but not aware of how deep he was sinking, while The Panic in Needle Park has Helen who gradually steps in and has to pull her way out. Boyle’s film was in the post-AIDS outbreak and the ‘Just Say No’ conservative response to drug-use which really did nothing to solve the problem as Boyle shows. Schatzberg dealt with the post-Manson Family/post-Altamont Fair landscape of the counter-culture and drug culture of the period which really had no real answers either or a response swift enough to act (considering around the time Helen and Bobby shoot up in this film is when there was likely a platoon of soldiers in Vietnam doing the same thing).
Helen is not made to be a solver or savior of the problems in Needle Park or New York City (never has it looked as gloomy) or the country which makes her decisions and tensions in the film a really tough, unimaginable scenario people her age faced. I consider that what Schatzberg was trying to show to audiences in America and around the globe (it did very well for itself in the festival circuit overseas). The Panic in Needle Park is a very well-aged film that feels like a step into a time and space of New York that nobody really wants to remember but the performances of Pacino and Winn are so watchable that you cannot look away.
THEY ALL LAUGHED
DIRECTED BY PETER BOGDANOVICH
This was in 1981 and Peter Bogdanovich who had made the much celebrated films, Paper Moon, What’s Up, Doc?, and The Last Picture Show makes a New York film that was set in that was essentially an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s sex comedy, La Ronde (that itself became a very good film adaptation by Max Ophuls). That this film starred Audrey Hepburn and the great character actor Ben Gazzara would make you think this would be a big, glamorous film not unlike the future 80s romantic comedies like The Working Girl or Moonstruck. If you think that from reading this review you would be terribly wrong. Not that They All Laughed is terrible, it is a film with its share of charms and a surprisingly non-punishing anti-monogamy makes this film an outlier of the usual romantic comedy fare— although you wish it became a new model.
This film is very small with an average-sized ensemble that we bounce around and meet from time to time. Bogdanovich’s description of shooting the film shows that this project was pretty jerry-rigged and that it worked as well as it did showed the man still got it. You wonder in the fact that the film was done in the post-Heaven’s Gate period of film directing that any excess Bogdanovich could get with this movie fell by the waist-side as Heaven’s Gate, even unfinished, was already declared a disaster and that no director, no matter how rewarded or gifted, could get away with that any more. Still, what makes the on-location shooting of They All Laughed feel more authentic and truly a part of the time period is that there is no real excess in shooting the atypical locales and postcard shots. Even the glamorous Audrey Hepburn can only be seen at a toy store and unremarkable restaurant that I am sure were a big deal to the natives than say, as your outsider tourist spot. The only time I really think Bogdanovich really created his own little world that does not really exist is the fact that country music is super popular in this film and the country music club scenes that showcase the Christy character work more as a device in theory than in practice. In the era of Studio 54, I really do not think that Dolly Parton herself could work up a New York crowd like this film shows. Bogdanovich admitted he wanted jazz but thought it would be too obvious, damn that Woody Allen, and not realistic considering he doubt a jazz artist would be played on the radio with any fan fare. Still, he could not do rock? Or did the idea of Ben Gazzara initially being with a rock star be an even sillier scenario?
The actors from John Ritter (wearing glasses that makes him practically a Bogdanovich stand-in) down to the not quite professionals of models turn actresses with Dorothy Stratten and Patty Hansen are all very affable and watchable. Gazzara and Hepburn, who had ended a very real-life extra-marital affair while filming this, give off an air of sadness each resigned to this tryst, the on-screen one, not going to last. You really cannot say anybody is a bad person in this film despite the fact the couples in the film are switching and still maintaining good relations with each other, which goes back to its source material in La Ronde that somehow did not get lost in translation as it made its way to the land of American puritanism. This may also speak to the fact that Bogdanovich had a crush on nearly every actress in the film, including being in a relationship to Dorothy Stratten (before her tragic murder at the hands of her husband), which he openly admits to and you can tell despite the film never really becoming navel-gazing.
My own issue with the film is that Colleen Camp chews up the scenery and is so transparent in her performance, so clearly acting. I do not see how the Gazzara or Ritter characters could even be in a somewhat short-term relationship with her. She is just so over-the-top. Yes, she is a fine singer but I never really cared for her character and her re-appearances in the film just drove me to want to see Stratten and Hepburn more. The fact that her performance is so loud really feels more out of place when Bogdanovich himself loved the scenes of just silence and gestures, which I assume includes that lovely exchange between Stratten and Ritter at a department store where she lets him get his opinion of what looks good on her by a head-shake.
They All Laughed is a pretty honest if perhaps unusual kind of American romantic comedy in that monogamy does not really seem to exist until most of the characters appear to be with the right person at the end. It does not have too much of the stated class component of La Ronde but nobody feels too small or big in the universe as the film portrays. It could be because this intimacy and equality is due in large part for this film being a rather small Bogdanovich film. Good film, but small with its own set of charms.