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A Poet of Cinema: Jerry Schatzberg

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by Ian Haydn Smith
November 19, 2012 9:30 AM
1 Comment
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The films of Jerry Schatzberg, particularly the key works he directed in the 1970s, have been undervalued in the eyes of many critics who, in their survey of American cinema have elevated other directors to iconic status. (He is not alone – Michael Ritchie is another director richly deserving of re-evaluation.) So this brief retrospective, which includes a masterclass with the filmmaker, is a very welcome addition to the third edition of the American Film Festival. 

Although Schatzberg has not made a film for some years, his work continues with his photography. In these images one can still see what made his film work so compelling; like other great directors of the 1970s, Schatzberg's attention to faces and how they contrast with the world around them creates an intimacy between the image and spectator. 

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One can see it in Morgan Freeman's face in the most recent film screening 1987's Street Smart (Schatzberg was one of the first directors to really utilise the actor's versatility and power). It is also present in Faye Dunaway's pained expressions in Schatzberg's devastating feature debut Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970). Stripped of the glamour that most audiences came to expect from the star of Bonnie and Clyde (1968), Dunaway presents a compelling and convincing portrait of a model suffering from some kind of mental breakdown, detailing the minutiae of her illness, through which reality and the imaginary blur.

The remaining two films in the programme have come to define Schatzberg's film work. Panic in Needle Park (1971) is a searing portrait of drug addiction that introduced the world to Al Pacino. Scarecrow (1973), in stark contrast, is a road movie about two drifters. the film was made between Pacino's star-making appearances as Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films, and also stars Gene Hackman, fresh from his Oscar-winning performance in The French Connection (1972).

Panic in Needle Park, whose title is taken from a square in uptown New York that was popular amongst drug addicts, is one of the most intense films made about drug addiction. It continues a trend that began with Otto Preminger's 1956 drama The Man with the Golden Arm, in its explicit detailing of the destructive impact of heroin addiction. In terms of its representation of New York life, it falls somewhere between John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969) and the more corrosive Taxi Driver (1976) in recording the city's descent from purgatory to some kind of hell – on film, at least. Al Pacino, who plays Bobby, acts with a freshness that stands in stark contrast to his later, more mannered performances. In his first major role, he is surprisingly comfortable in front of the camera. Schatzberg allows him the space to explore Bobby's constantly changing personality, whilst never losing the intimacy he creates between the characters and audience.

Scarecrow is more lyrical, particularly in the interplay between character and landscape. Ostensibly a road movie, the film moves from jocular interplay between Pacino and Hackman's characters, before turning darker, as one of the men's mental instability consumes them. The film picked up the top prize, the Palme d'Or at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, worthy recognition of the film's power and Schatzberg's place as the cinematic laureate of the downtrodden.

Ian Haydn Smith
AFF English Daily Editor

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1 Comment

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