Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Two from Joan Diddion at Anthology

The Panic in Needle Park (1971) - Anthology Film Archives

Has drug addiction become date movie fare in the 21st century? Last night's screening at Anthology of Jerry Schatzberg's grim portrait of a heroin addicted couple was packed with couples, both gay and straight, seemingly prepared for the story of a romance put through its ups and downs, but triumphant in the end. By the credits roll, all couples were stumbling out of the theater, unsure of what they just saw and why they saw it. While Sid and Nancy has a kind of romantic rock and roll allure to its sordid true life story, Panic in Needle Park is one of the worst relationship movies of all time. The cryptic final shot is the perfect coda to both a harrowing journey through the sordid world of addiction and the story of a perfectly mismatched couple who can't seem to kick each other.

Helen (Kitty Winn) and Bobby (Al Pacino) "meet-cute" through a pot purchase by Helen's boyfriend (Raul Julia), who has just forced her to have a back alley abortion. When she goes to the hospital for internal bleeding, the boyfriend splits, Bobby visits her, and the two begin a flirtatious, whirlwind romance. Helen goes from blissfully ignoring Bobby's heroin use, drug dealing, and petty thefts to becoming actively involved in all three illicit activities; her introduction to heroin is wholly self-guided, in an effort to get closer to him. Things go from bad to worse as she turns to prostitution, with Bobby's approval, to earn money for their next fix (Paul Sorvino plays a john, Sarno regular Joe Santos a vice cop), and a kindly detective offers to look the other way on a vice charge if she helps him capture Bobby in a sting operation. A rather straight-forward narrative is made more vivid by verite cinematography, most effective in the harrowing scene of Bobby's OD (a scene that Tarantino clearly borrowed elements from for a similar scenario in Pulp Fiction), and gritty locations, including the notorious Needle Park itself on the upper west side and the sleaziest rundown apartments and hotel rooms you've ever seen.

Al Pacino may have gone on to The Godfather, and he delivers a great performance here, but the film belongs entirely to Kitty Winn as Helen. Known primarily today for her rather thankless role as the family friend in The Exorcist and its ill-advised sequel, Winn won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her work here. Somehow she was passed over for an Oscar nomination. What makes Winn's performance such a winner is the personality she brings to a character that is actually criminally underdeveloped. We care about Helen, despite the fact that she has another addiction problem: men. She simply cannot be without a man in her life, making the transition from one boyfriend to the next out of necessity for companionship and a roof over her head. As bad as things get with Bobby, she just cannot bring herself to leave. Hardly a feminist figure of the early 1970s. What is going through this woman's head? We never really know, but ultimately it doesn't much matter, as the viewer feels for her entirely, hoping for her escape from both unhealthy habits. Winn's performance was named one of the 100 best-ever by Premiere Magazine. I would agree. It is a singular piece of dramatic work that deserves more attention, and should have led to a more lucrative career.

Play It as It Lays (1972) - Anthology Film Archives
Never has a mental disintegration been as self-indulgent and narcissistic as in Play It as It Lays, adapted by Diddion and husband John Griffin Dunne from her novel of the same name. While the novel has received rave reviews over the years, critical consensus on the film version is that the story of film star Maria Wyeth Lang's whirlpool descent into herself is not as effectively told. Considering the novelist herself wrote the screenplay, perhaps what should be taken away from both works is there is little of substance in either of them. Maybe this is the precise point, as Diddion's tale takes place in the superficial world of Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, but there should be at least some suitable depth to these characters if we are to care enough about them to continue watching. Most everything Maria and her confidante, B.Z., say is in prolonged monologues, supposedly giving their words weight when in fact it gives us time to realize they are saying absolutely nothing.

Tuesday Weld, continuing to break from her sex kitten roles from years before, reunites with her Pretty Poison co-star, Anthony Perkins, as Maria and B.Z. Boy I wish their second collaboration was as good as Noel Black's film. While they still have superb chemistry together, and the final scene between the two of them is the closest the film comes to drawing an emotional response, one still doesn't much care for these two pampered Beverly Hills nitwits. Now, one doesn't have to like characters in a film, but it helps if they are compelling enough to hold interest for an almost 2-hour production. Weld is charismatic and attractive, but her performance is inconsistent, as is the characterization. Tammy Grimes has much fun as Perkins' wife Helene, and it's interesting to see biker-movie regular Adam Roarke as Maria's egotistical misogynist director husband (his frequent exploitation co-star Jeremy Slate was in fact Grimes' ex-husband at the time).

It was films like this, The Last Movie, and A Safe Place (also with Weld) that rang the death knell for independent productions of the 1970s, and frankly when presented with those three misfires, it's no great loss. Only John Cassavetes really continued making films on his own, while most of the film school generation (De Palma, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Bogdanovitch) would graduate to bigger and better things with the studios. Play It borrows its editing style and prose from the films of BBS, the original bad boy independents of the late 1960s-early 1970s, which by this time was old hat and frankly not as original or provocative as it was wannabe-hip. Director Frank Perry, so great with his previous literary adaptations (1969's Last Summer and 1970's Diary of a Mad Housewife), was probably the wrong choice for this project, with its slow pace and toying with chronology and memory. There are sublime moments to be found in Play It as It Lays, but they are so infrequent that it's tough to remember them in the wake of the surrounding mess.

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