Jerry Schatzberg’s Early Career in Fashion, Heroin, and Telling the Truth

Our current Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, has a very curious relationship with reality. Its entire narrative about a young fashion model (Faye Dunaway) who’s chewed up & spit out by her industry is filtered through its protagonist’s distorted perception of real-life events. There’s a dissociative effect between the audio of Dunaway’s narration and the logic of the events depicted onscreen, to the point where she becomes entirely unreliable for parsing out what’s “true” and what’s fantasy. This is largely because the Patriarchal pressures from her personal & professional life drive her to a complete psychological break, so that she can’t even trust her own recollection of her life’s events. As subjective as her memories are and as experimental as the film can be on a sensory level while expressing that unease with Truth, however, Puzzle of a Downfall Child still somewhat traffics in verisimilitude. The original inspiration for the film was a series of interviews director Jerry Schatzberg recorded on reel to reel tapes with fashion model Anne St. Marie, who he had formerly collaborated with as a photographer. Screenwriter Carol Eastman then reinterpreted those interviews into the semi-fictionalized narrative seen in the film, so it’s difficult to determine how much of the final product is true to St. Marie’s version of the real-life events without studying her recorded interviews for comparison. So, then, we’re left with a film that’s both true & untrue, fact & fiction, with an undeterminable balance between reality & madness.

Although Schatzberg’s follow-up feature, The Panic in Needle Park, didn’t derive from a real-life oral history like his debut, it seemed much more invested in conveying unmitigated Truth in its own narrative. The Panic in Needle Park steps back from the subjective relationship with reality Puzzle of Downfall Child explores by filtering the real world through the distorted perceptions of Anne St. Marie. Featuring a cowriting credit from journalist Joan Didion, The Panic in Needle Park is more of an intellectually-distanced docudrama than its predecessor, an experiment in the cinema verité style of its 1970s era. Its central tragic romance (performed by Kitty Winn & first-time lead Al Pacino with great dramatic weight) is entirely a work of fiction, but the film strives to remain honest to the real-world subculture & locales it depicts in all other ways. The ”Needle Park” of the film’s title is an actual location in NYC, known officially as Sherman Square at Broadway & 72nd street. In the film’s era, that small park had become a notorious haven for heroin addicts, and Schatzberg make a point to stage large portions of its action on-location there, including many real-life junkies & hangabouts among its extras. Released the same year as The French Connection, The Panic in Needle Park is cited as the first mainstream film to document the real-life preparation & injection of heroin on the big screen – trivia that hints to how honest & raw Schatzberg was hoping the film would come across, depicting real-life junkies as they lived. Whereas Puzzle of a Downfall Child experiments in replicating the dreamlike state of a psychological break, The Panic in Needle Park took pride in supposedly presenting the tragedy & grime of the real word as it truly was. Its own narrative was entirely a fictional creation (based mostly on a novel by James Mills), but it somehow seems less affected by subjective interpretation of the truth.

For all practical purposes, The Panic in Needle Park feels less like a shift away from the subjectivity of Puzzle of a Downfall Child for Schatzberg than it does a direct response to the melodramatic youth-culture romance of Love Story, released just a year prior. Love Story’s own depiction of a doomed young couple’s tragic downfall maintains a certain romantic detachment in the way of teen-marketed melodrama. The Panic in Needle Park, by contrast, feels entirely disinterested in appealing to anyone. Its story of a young small-time heroin dealer who falls in love with a homeless woman and ruins her life with addiction and subsequent survival-based sex work is devoid of romantic escapism. It’s brutally honest & relentlessly grim, only truly worth its discomfort if you’re already on the hook for its era of cinema verité morbidness. The attention to detail it pursues in recreating authentic-looking track marks via Flexible Collodian effects and then covering them up with long-sleeve shirts at the height of summer is almost perversely fixated on “reality.” Its title even refers to a real-life phenomenon that occurs within junkie communities: a “panic” of users turning on each other when supply is low. The theft, prostitution, ratting to cops, jailtime, and overdoses that define a junkie scene in the middle of a panic guide the ups & downs of this film’s tragic couple, leaving very little room for joys or victories, no matter how brief. Even the film’s casting of then-unknown Al Pacino in the central role can be read as an attempt at conveying realism in all things, as the much more famous Jim Morrison was initially considered for the role. Even as a fictional romance, The Panic in Needle Park is absolutely fixated on staying true to reality, and its interpretation of reality is that it is nothing but death & misery.

Because Schatzberg seems to equate reality to relentless misery, I can at least report that Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s looser relationship with verisimilitude is somewhat easier to digest than The Panic in Needle Park’s cinema verité morbidness. However, the Faye Dunaway fashion industry drama does often hit equally grim notes in its own tragic downfall story, especially when you keep in mind that it was inspired by a real-life fashion model’s severe struggles with mental illness. I’d also argue that it probably gets to a larger truth about the inner life of woman in that model’s position than The Panic in Needle Park does about the inner lives of heroin addicts, since its immersion in her subjective interpretation of reality is much more personal & distinct that the journalistic distance of that latter work. In either case, Schatzberg’s earliest films both experiment with an interesting balance between truth & fiction, and both likely deserve to be represented more often in critical discussion of the auteur boom of the early 1970s.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last weeks look at The Neon Demon‘s subversion of its traditional power dynamics.

-Brandon Ledet

One thought on “Jerry Schatzberg’s Early Career in Fashion, Heroin, and Telling the Truth

  1. Pingback: When Faye Dunaway Fought Couture | Swampflix

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