Thursday, October 25, 2018

Planning Ahead

Once it seemed like I was on a straight path but that feeling went away long ago. Too much has gotten screwed up, there have been too many detours. Right now it feels like I got off at an exit because of construction and can’t find the way back on. That’s when the drifting happens, I guess, hoping that some new sign will go up to lead you back on the main road. Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW is about that drifting, about refusing to face the reality of what’s right in front of you, because all you want to do is move on to the next thing. Released in 1973, the film teamed up Gene Hackman and Al Pacino during their first rush of superstardom and it’s one of the most 70s films imaginable; rough and scrappy, boozy and smoky, in some ways half formed but with moments that are so rich you can feel yourself right there in the scene. Sharing the Palme d’Or at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, it’s still maybe not quite top tier since, after all, some of the other films featuring these guys from the period include the likes of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE GODFATHER but it’s an indelible character piece and tough to shake. Now available on a gorgeous looking Blu-ray from Warner Archive it deserves to be looked at as a key part of that decade and the legacies of those involved.

Ex-convict Max (Gene Hackman) and ex-sailor Francis (Al Pacino) meet by chance on a country road in the middle of nowhere and the two drifters quickly strike up a friendship with Francis, quickly dubbed “Lion” by his new companion, tagging along to go to Pittsburgh where Max says he has money waiting for him to open a car wash business. Lion, meanwhile, is on his way to Detroit so he can hopefully reconcile with the wife he left behind and finally see the child he’s never met but Max also talks him into partnering up on his car wash once they get all this taken care of. On the way they stop in Denver where they meet Max’s sister Coley (Dorothy Tristan) and her best friend Darlene (Ann Wedgeworth) both of whom would like it if the two men stuck around for a while but even though Max is insistent on reaching his destination it’s still not going to be easy for them to get there.

There are things you remember about SCARECROW. That deserted country road of the opening scene as the credits quietly flash by, the two of them sizing each other up, waiting to see who’s going to get a car to stop first and it’s almost as if they can’t keep going until they finally team up here. They become friends simply because one gives the other a light, Francis wearing down Max’s wall of distrust in the process and there’s no other reason, it just happens, almost as if they both somehow know they need each other out there. Francis, nicknamed Lion by Max who doesn’t want to keep saying his real name, offers up his theory about how crows are actually laughing at the scarecrows used to keep them away so he does the same in life, getting people to laugh along with him, and it’s a theory Max rejects without even realizing that’s exactly what already happened between the two of them. But he refuses to admit anything, sticking to his notes and his plan of getting to Pittsburgh, never seeing the obvious let alone that the term Scarecrow is eventually going to apply to him whether he likes it or not. Director Jerry Schatzberg’s previous films were PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD and PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (that one also with Pacino), both of which almost feel as if they’re about the magazine layout depictions of their misery as much as anything else but SCARECROW digs into the personalities of the two leads and, with Panavision cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, is a widescreen look at their journey via freight trains and thumbed rides, just trying to keep moving without getting weighed down. It’s not about the beauty that they encounter out there in the middle of the country but the sprawl, about how long it really takes to get from one point to another and how far apart people can become even when they’re close by. Zsigmond gets the foreboding beauty of the landscape, the feel of why you’d want to stay out there but also why you shouldn’t, closely observing the camaraderie as the two of them stay near each other in the frame when they walk down those endless train tracks, that breakfast scene where they get to know each other with the bond quickly growing as their food comes. Max insists that he doesn’t trust anyone at the precise moment he lets this guy in, never realizing how much he’s going against his own creed.

Written by Garry Michael White, SCARECROW has a rambling vibe, jumping over key moments whether their first real conversation or talk of finding a job that immediately cuts to them being thrown out of the place. Though it obviously plays as something from the post-MIDNIGHT COWBOY period in what we generally think of as the aimless road movies of the early 70s, not to mention any OF MICE AND MEN thoughts, the whole Lion and Scarecrow thing makes me look at it as a sort of inverted WIZARD OF OZ, maybe with that lamp Lion carries around for the child he’s never met serving as the tin man’s heart and every woman they encounter versions of Dorothy who have already found their home with no need to wander anymore. In this case it’s the guys who don’t know where they’re supposed to settle down in anything they can call a home. Dialogue indicates Max’s sensible sister Coley, now making a living as a junk dealer, has already done a good amount of drifting with him and I wonder about that backstory which is only hinted at but she’s clearly had enough of it all while Max is still out there, looking for what was and what he thinks will be ahead of him, getting into fights that he’ll claim he didn’t start at the first opportunity. He’s focused solely on his goal of starting a car wash in Pittsburgh and every cent he’s put into the plan all itemized out but it still sounds vague as if his supposed determination is going to solve everything, no plan for what might go wrong. He answers, “Home cooking” when asked what he missed the most while in prison but it doesn’t seem like he’s ever had a home at all, never really knowing what he didn’t have.

Pacino’s Francis ran away from the responsibility of adulthood to join the navy, a backstory that sounds a little like Freddie Quell in THE MASTER, and much as he wants to make things right he’s still just that scared kid. All he seems to remember of his service is what dawn looked like from a ship and all he thinks of when he meets someone new is how to get them to laugh. If Max is about to get into a fight, he’s the one who knows how to stop it by making a joke. One thing the two guys definitely have in common is how they’ve both been sending their money somewhere as if in preparation for the future they hope for as if that excuses their present. Each of them thinks things are always going to be the same, no matter how long they’ve been gone and Lion insists that he’s headed for something big as if he’s just going to stumble into his destiny. There’s a vague feeling that they’re both romanticizing their situation a little too much, creating these myths in their heads but they’ve just left wreckage and pain, something they refuse to ever face up to.

Set in an America of working class bars that open early, it’s a product of the early 70s with long takes, scenes that are never in a rush and bluesy riffs on the soundtrack by Fred Myrow who did something similar for the opening of SOYLENT GREEN the same year but it’s not quite about the period the way certain other films are which makes sense because these guys seem out of time anyway after being away so long. It’s the women they encounter who all seem to be left waiting for the men to accept responsibility and even Ann Wedgeworth’s Frenchy who ruins that home-cooked dinner and claims she doesn’t know where she got the nickname seems to have her feet on the ground at least a little, as if she’s waited too long for a few too many guys to finally wise up. At one point when Max is out on the dance floor in a bar with her, Aretha Franklin playing on the jukebox, as she looks at him he suddenly seems overwhelmed by all that possibility and is ready to make this move, you can feel the choice bubbling up inside of him. But the moment soon passes with another fight out there to start, just as when Lion makes a key choice near the end it’s a reminder that he’s still afraid, that both of them will never be prepared to face the reality without losing who they think they are. The plot takes a prison detour as the two of them are hauled in after a bar brawl which is frustrating since I just want to see them on the road but in a way this section is the closest the movie gets to showing the normal work of the real world, with its own rules, hierarchy and soul deadening horrors in the form of Richard Lynch in his first film ready to make his own demands of Lion. Certain characters are discarded at one point which is also frustrating but that makes sense too, considering how determined Max and Lion are to keep going. And things take a turn after the prison stay with Max realizing how much he needs Lion, even doing an impromptu striptease in a crowded bar to prove that he’s becoming a scarecrow too. But Lion is so totally damaged after what’s happened to them and all those laughs not being enough that there’s a haunted look in his face, one I understand.

The biggest criticism you could make about SCARECROW is that it feels like a series of meandering but well-shot acting exercises more than a full narrative with a firm spine to it. It’s no surprise that it’s worth it just to watch these two guys dig into their characters and they’re both absolutely on fire here with moments that are indelible to understanding them. But it all still keeps us at a distance with the vague feeling that Schatzberg has let DP Zsigmond completely take over the visual approach to the film, not that I blame him, at one point shooting a crucial beatdown from a distance when it might be more satisfying to be up close. There’s even one shot during the prison sequence containing a lens flare that offers such exuberant perfection within the frame that you imagine the cinematographer viewing it in dailies and deciding this one shot is why he was put on this earth. But the lack of real payoff means that the film feels like it’s building to big scenes that never quite come, simply dwelling on how they sort of listen to each other’s stories and the way the camera half catches the people in the frame. Even what might be Pacino’s biggest moment during a phone call late in the film keeps him mostly off camera as if it’s willingly holding back on the real connection. Without that catharsis, in some ways the film is a FIVE EASY PIECES only without any equivalent of the chicken salad scene to latch onto and totally understand these guys. Sure, there’s a very funny bit in a department store where Max asks Lion to create a diversion so he can steal a purse but it goes by way too fast. The moments that stick in your brain from SCARECROW are the little things, the way you sometimes remember people no longer in your life, the gestures certain characters make as they reach to someone else almost in desperation after being convinced that they’re going to be alone forever, realizing it’s all too late. You see it in Pacino’s eyes when Lion is pretty much told that he’ll never be a man and it’s what makes him crumble most of all. Hackman’s final moment almost acts as a protest at the very idea of being forced to care, trying to keep himself together by putting the straw back into the scarecrow he’s become. It may not work, but he doesn’t have a choice anymore.

So much of it is really about how Max and Lion go together mixed with that visual style and you feel the two actors connecting with each other as the characters reach for that connection. Gene Hackman has sometimes named this as his favorite film and it’s certainly one of his most atypical roles, his natural intensity always on the surface but you feel the anger simmering inside him, you see that desire to not answer to anyone always on his face and within that characterization is a freedom almost unlike anything else he’s ever done in his career. Al Pacino plays the total innocence in Lion, not a mean or cynical bone in his body almost in denial of what’s all around him with the growing awareness of the world around him bubbling up that in the end he doesn’t know what to do with and where he goes with that knowledge in a climactic scene shot on location at the Belle Isle Fountain in Detroit is utterly devastating. Dorothy Tristan as Max’s sister offers such a sensible nature that I wish there was time to explore that relationship a little more while Ann Wedgeworth, given a movie star entrance meant to catch Max’s attention, is like a heart and soul that the movie almost doesn’t know what to do with. Eileen Brennan has a memorable bit as a barfly who Max goes home with and Penelope Allen who as Pacino’s wife unrelentingly lays into him when she turns up. She later played the head bank teller in DOG DAY AFTERNOON so the scene now plays like a connection to that film and oddly when Lion goes to a church to pray late in the film I can’t help but think there’s a snatch of the GODFATHER melody stuck into the score. Maybe I’ve just seen some of these films too many times by now.

The look of this film is what Blu-ray was seemingly made for, giving clarity to the widescreen imagery and those washed out 70s colors, letting us focus on the characters and their relationship to each other so the Warner Archive disc is essential for any fans of these actors or road movies from that decade. SCARECROW might not always have the payoff we’re looking for, even as far as downbeat 70s movies go, but it’s still extremely rewarding as a character piece as well as a look at just being out there on the road, putting off the truth for as long as possible. It’s a film about how sometimes you have to know when to stop but you just can’t help yourself. Even when there’s nowhere left to go and you’ve done all you can do, you just keep going. You have to. It’s all you know how to do.

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