PUZZLES OF DOWNFALL CHILDREN: A JERRY SCHATZBERG CRIBSHEET

Think of this guide not as an explanation of what each Jerry Schatzberg film means unto itself but rather what they mean to each other comprising a grander entity – the overall – a body of work that repeatedly underlines, in definitive strokes, the signature of Jerry Schatzberg.

Who is Jerry Schatzberg?

On June 26, 2017, Jerry Schatzberg will be 90 years old. Over the course of his adult life, the Bronx-born Schatzberg has worn many creative hats:  iconic still photographer (whose celebrity portraits, fashion layouts and street reportage set international commercial trends while oft-times slyly commenting on them); NYC club owner; and, inevitably, director of TV commercials and feature films. All of Schatzberg’s works are lightning in a bottle – intimate, introspective, respectful, poetic and abstract representations of each era of post-WWII 20th century.

The Schatzberg Look

As an American film director, he has predominantly utilized the talents of European cinematographers: Bruno De Keyzer (Reunion, 1989, The Day the Ponies Came Back, 1990), Adam Holender (Puzzle of a Downfall Child, 1970, Panic in Needle Park, 1971, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, 1979, Street Smart, 1987), Pasqualino De Santis (Misunderstood, 1982/84), Robby Müller (Honeysuckle Rose, 1980) and Vilmos Zsigmond (Scarecrow, 1973, Dandy, the All-American Girl, 1976, No Small Affair, 1984).

Despite not acting as his own cinematographer, Schatzberg’s visual style is extremely consistent.

Lighting is kept primarily naturalistic. On symbolic occasion he’ll nudge characters into darkness, usually before a major dramatic arc. For example: in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Tynan (a Democratic senator played by Alan Alda, who also wrote the script) has been enticed by his party to head an investigation into an issue (segregation) that puts him in a position to oppose a Republican senator (and personal friend) who expects Tynan’s support. Once it is clear that Tynan, in his rapid grab at power, will formally oppose his friend at the expense of that friendship, Schatzberg reveals Tynan emerging in silhouette from a backdrop of complete darkness then “reconstituting” once bathed in the light of the senatorial chamber. This visual transformation clues the audience that they have just been witness to a metaphoric transformation. Tynan is no longer who he once may have seemed to be.

Perspective and proximity are also carefully controlled. No doubt this is a by-product of his formative years as a fashion photographer, where he gained an understanding that abstract point-of-view and subjective proximity sells. Schatzberg usually firmly places the audience (the camera eye) at a point as close to the characters as they are to one another in the frame. It’s a low-key yet powerful formula, allowing the viewer to become complicit in the (sometimes morally questionable) action alongside the characters. Good examples run throughout Scarecrow, which: 1) builds the relationships between characters by constantly tightening their (and our) proximity to each other and 2) does so playfully, within a 2.35:1 screen ratio. This technique is cleverly asserted in the opening title sequence where Gene Hackman’s character Max is first seen stumbling into one side of the frame – a long extreme wide shot with no cuts. At the polar opposite of the frame is Al Pacino’s character, Lion. Both men will be revealed to be loners and drifters, literally and figuratively drawn to each other, while simultaneously running away from and towards their respective pasts. As the characters close in on each other, so do we, until, as the story progresses, perhaps too close for comfort. For example: the scene where Lion is in prison and given up on the stubborn Max and has put his trust in another inmate, Riley (played by Richard Lynch), only to have that trust taken advantage of as Riley brutally sexually assaults him. Equidistance from character-to-character-to-us insures our involvement, our compassion, and our culpability.

The Schatzberg Beat

For the first ten years of his film career (1970 – 1980), Schatzberg exclusively collaborated with Evan Lottman when editing his films. Lottman was a gutsy NYC-based editor (his work includes Paul Newman’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, 1973 and Friedkin’s The Exorcist, 1973) whose elastic, unorthodox approach to narrative temporal form and creative detail in sound work was a perfect match for Schatzberg’s own willingness to reshape conventional, commercial narrative stylistic boundaries. His first film, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, put this union into practice by presenting a fragmented, jagged, disorienting portrayal of a once top fashion model (embodied by Faye Dunaway) and her spiraling downwards into self-destruction. Downfall Child’s editorial structure presaged (influenced?) how Schatzberg’s contemporary, choreographer-turned-director Bob Fosse would morph his style from a relatively straightforward Sweet Charity (1969) into the fragmented with Cabaret (1972), Lenny (1974), Star 80 (1983) and All that Jazz (1980).  The last three, like Downfall, were also pseudo-biographical mosaics of real-life celebrities. Jazz, especially, recalls the “interview” interjections of Downfall, replacing the interviewer of out-of-control “has been” model Dunaway (portrayed by Barry Primus) with Jessica Lange as the Fosse-surrogate’s interviewer/angel of death. Jazz also carries over Roy Scheider from the Schatzberg film (he’s one of Dunaway’s cretin boyfriends), this time as the Fosse-surrogate on the brink of self-obliteration.

As his career progresses, Schatzberg straightens out his narrative structures so that they can be more accessible to less abstract-minded (i.e. mainstream commercial) audiences. By 1989 (post-Lottman), with Reunion, Schatzberg’s fragmentation is no longer fueled by the editor’s near-improvisational rhythmic instinct for the abstract as much as it is by a highly structured Harold Pinter screenplay that contrives the time fragmentation in an obsessively precise conscious order.

Schatzberg and Lottman pull off unusual structural experiments in Honeysuckle Rose, where a country music singer’s daytime family drama is continuously interrupted by time spent performing on the road. It’s a creepy implication that the songs he sings in concert of love gained and lost are actually blueprints for a present and future “country music” lifestyle, rather than an emotional comment of regret for past infidelities. Also creepy is how a love song he duets with his wife will mean something totally illicit and disreputable later in the film when sung with another woman he’s sleeping with (a woman half his wife’s age). Schatzberg and Lottman treat the live performances as crucial to the unfolding tensions between characters. The songs are poised as ironic monologues and dialogues in a drama that’s transformed into a psychological operetta of sorts.

Another device that Lottman and Schatzberg utilize is to dissolve between every shot in a sequence, usually one that denotes the main character’s temptation and seduction (or discussion of such) by an idea or obsession. This occurs in both Dandy, the All-American Girl and The Seduction of Joe Tynan to name two.

Schatzberg is also big on a final, abrupt, blackout “punchline” to end his films. These are always spring-loaded with cruel irony and a sense that the characters’ lives are going nowhere on a treadmill – nothing changing for the better, because they have no idea how to move forward, away from past mistakes.

The Schatzberg Score

Schatzberg’s use of musical underscore may be read two ways: 1) most obviously, as a typically functional generator of underlying mood or 2) in a deceptively psychological manner. It usually appears when the main (and most delusional) character experiences a total lapse from reality. It’s as if the character is so distanced from the “real” world that he could hear the film’s soundtrack in his head. One example is in The Seduction of Joe Tynan where Tynan is trying to find a private place to further his affair with a young female underling (Meryl Streep). It’s played for laughs as everyone at the chosen resort recognizes him (and mistakes his paramour for his wife)! The score is also played for lighthearted amusement as he drives all over the resort in a golf cart with her in a desperate attempt to find that privacy. The juxtaposition of the “wacky” music over the audience’s complicity in Tynan’s affair is subtle, yet profoundly unnerving, I find it most logical to assume that Tynan, by now, obviously seen as a conniving sociopathic wastrel, is actually “hearing” the score the audience hears in his own head. In other words we hear the score because it is actually Tynan’s internal lighthearted soundtrack rationalization of a despicable moral breach regarding his marriage.

Sometimes Schatzberg uses an existing pop song in an ironic manner, such as in Scarecrow, where “You make me feel like a natural woman…” signals a sharp subjectivity with it’s main character – and a rather condescending subjectivity at that, during the comic sexual coupling between a Frenchy, desperate aging floozy (Ann Wedgeworth) and an insatiable Max (Gene Hackman). Schatzberg repeats the use of the song 14 years later in the sex scene between Kathy Baker’s lonely, aging prostitute and Christopher Reeve’s self-serving journalist in Street Smart. Both uses emphasize the crushing irony between the song and the “reality” it supposedly augments. Similarly subversive, ironic song “commentary” is forefronted in No Small Affair, where Demi Moore’s attempt to perform her personal modern-day (for 1984) Dale Bozzio-esque musical expressions fall dead on audiences. When she sings an “old-fashioned” crooner-style arrangement of “My Funny Valentine”, then and only then does she prove her potential for commercial breakthrough as a performer. In Honeysuckle Rose, Schatzberg links the endless self-absorbed touring of Buck Bonham (Willie Nelson) and his band with his brief returns home to his yearning, monogamous wife (played by Dyan Cannon) and son with Nelson’s song “On The Road Again”. Subjective irony is sutured to the main character’s simplistic epiphany found in escaping from a domesticated existence. Even darker is his wife’s bleak revelation of life as a country music star’s doomed devoted spouse through her song, “Two Sides To Every Story” (which reasons that actually only one of those “two sides” is true). Schatzberg’s most fascinating soundtrack choice is the one for Panic in Needle Park, his second and best-known film (a grim and graphic account of two heroin addicts in NYC  – played by Al Pacino and Kitty Winn — in the early ‘70’s) for which there was no musical underscore at all – only the sounds of the city to emphasize that a bigger world continues to exist and function outside of this small cluster of lost, dysfunctional inhabitants.

The Schatzberg Character

Here is a brief overview of qualities for nearly all of the central characters in a Jerry Schatzberg film (in variable degrees and in no particular order – I’m sure the list is expandable): romantic (or bromantic); schizophrenically dependent and independent; sociopathic; self-centered; self-absorbed; absentee parent (or a product of one); irresponsible; immature; obsessed with an obscure object of desire or an impossible dream; defensive (puts up thick barriers between him/herself and reality); addictive; self-destructive; potentially dangerous to those close to him/her; seductive and seduceable; foolishly philosophical; charming; delusional; capable of deception and lies — even to those who love and care for him/her.

The Schatzberg Road

Schatzberg has been grouped in with Dennis Hopper, Terence Malick, and Monte Hellman as one of the premier authors of “road movies”, especially during the late ‘60’s/70’s. He also shared a stylistic adventurousness (narrative complexity, poetic imagery and editorial ambiguity) that intrigued intellectuals and critics and alienated mainstream audiences in equal measure.  To Schatzberg, the “road” is a life half-lived, despite open spaces and “destinations”. While it should metaphorically indicate an eventful journey whose beginning, middle and end render overall “meaning”, “value” or “epiphany” to the central characters, in a Schatzberg film, the opposite is, tragically, often true. Most of the time his characters never seem to learn from life lessons and move beyond mistakes and pitfalls. Instead they all get stuck and sink in a claustrophobic quicksand of their own making. The very least that can be said is that they each deserve some respect for their attempts at a positive outcome to their journey, even though their emotional and psychological shortcomings constantly forbid success.

The Schatzberg Street

If Schatzberg interprets the “road” as a purgatory for lost individuals who have difficulty aligning their lives in a new, sensible direction, then his idea of Hell is the streets of the city. As evidenced in Panic in Needle Park, Dandy the All-American Girl, No Small Affair and Street Smart, the “street” is where the damned collect, conspire and combust. It is a modern day Sodom of violence, vice and corrupted innocence. Salvation is rare. In Dandy, Vurrla Kowski (played by Stockard Channing) is a homeless, compulsive car thief who will do anything (including stealing and selling the same car over and over from/to unsuspecting dupes) to raise enough cash to legitimately buy a spanking new Ferrari Dino. She’s convinced herself and lifelong friend, Edmund (played by Franklyn Ajaye, who, ultimately, is thanklessly and brutally sacrificed due to her recklessness) that she is a “professional” who knows the ins and outs of the “street”. Vurrla is a typically delusional, dangerous ego-centric Schatzberg anti-hero who couldn’t commit to a “normal” life even if promised all the Ferraris in the world. Her so-called expertise about the “street” extends only to day-to-day survival, but not to moving above and beyond to a “better place”. Her caste in life is no more promising than those of the junkies in Needle Park, the pimps and prostitutes of Street Smart or the seemingly well-to-do but frighteningly obsessive teen photographer in No Small Affair. Each is forever doomed to an existence of self-punishment for his/her careless egocentrism.

The Past, The Present, The Future

Schatzberg embraces the façade of an era. Having only made one intentional period piece (Reunion – which skips back and forth in time between “modern day” – in the film, 1987 – and pre-WW2 Germany), Schatzberg allows styles and fashion and music of that moment in time to deliberately “date”. He respects each era — the details of the decade (culturally, socially, sexually, politically) providing no-holds-barred authenticity to signpost from where his cast of misfits and miscreants have emerged. Once more, it is easy to see how Schatzberg’s experience as a fashion photographer gave him the confidence as a filmmaker to preserve a moment in time, depicting a subject within “historical” context in order to feed metaphorically off that context.

Infidelity

Last, but not least, ALL of Schatzberg’s films are predominantly concerned with infidelity and betrayal/truth and consequences. This makes for some seriously uncomfortable, unpleasant situations. His two films that deal explicitly with marital infidelity, The Seduction of Joe Tynan and Honeysuckle Rose, are deceptively lightweight entertainments. Tynan appears to be a satire about the cost of one’s ethics when “seduced” by the prospect of political power. ROSE represents itself as a serio-comic drama in the country music community and its own seductions and ethics violations. The wives suffer in both these films because they married men who have given in to the temptations of their respective careers: fame, power and adoration. They suffer because of disillusionment, but neither one allows herself to be victimized by the affairs. The younger women in both Joe Tynan and Buck Bonham’s lives (Meryl Streep and Amy Irving) are simply toys of the trade – available (both are up-and-comers themselves who realize the danger of being “the other woman”) and disposable. Ellie Tynan (Barbara Harris) and Viv Bonham (Dyan Cannon) still find a form of survivalist power in sticking with their unfaithful husbands. Both films deal with the public face of celebrity relationships and how important the appearance of a solid, loving married couple is for success. The wives, for better or for worse, are equally seduced by a different brand of power – the power to publicly destroy the facade their husbands have carefully built. The shots of both wives at each film’s conclusion speak miles in their ambiguity and the horror at the dynamics of their revised relationships.

It is with Reunion (the director’s second to last feature film) that Schatzberg finally shows honest redemption and a mature path to an optimistic future through tragic revelations about history – politically, culturally and emotionally. A true story about two friendless teenage boys in 1932 Germany, one an aristocrat’s son and the other, a Jew, and how one seemingly remains faithful to his country as it becomes seduced by the power of rising Nazi-ism and how the other is destroyed by that betrayal of friendship. Schatzberg and his scenarist Harold Pinter cap this film with no ambiguities, just reconciliation and closure. For the surviving main character, his road is equally dark but his demons have been confronted and the truth has exorcized them.

The Schatzberg Experience

Ultimately, when all is said and done, a complex offering of work that positions the viewer in close proximity of “flawed” misfit characters and intimately involves them in learning lessons that the characters, themselves, are often unable to discern.

 

THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK screens with SCARECROW on Sunday and Monday, June 4 and 5

HONEYSUCKLE ROSE and THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN screens Sunday and Monday, June 11 and 12

NO SMALL AFFAIR and DANDY, THE ALL-AMERICAN GIRL screens Wednesday and Thursday, June 21 and 22

 

Scarecrow

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