Love in the Time of Heroin: Jerry Schatzberg’s THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK

 

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The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)

 

Since it started streaming on Netflix, Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park has been seeing a sort of resurgence among movie fans and cinephiles. Centering on the lives of two heroin addicts in love near New York City’s proverbial “Needle Park”, the film navigates the maddening desperation and hopeless attachment of this couple to showcase a grim underbelly of addiction in America.

Despite sounding a bit like the exploitative “poverty porn” you’d see on a TV primetime news special, the film deals with its subjects, and its audience, in a respectful and unsensational manner, highlighting humanity over depravity. It doesn’t manufacture grim atmospheres nor does it play up the debauchery of its subjects to exploitative ends. Rather, the film’s characters resonate with us as charismatic, congenial but also incredibly flawed and frustrating people who succumb to the worst of vices and eventually trap themselves in a cycle they can’t break out of. Both Bobby and Helen, despite having their relationship hinge on their dependency to heroin, do things normal couples would do: eat sandwiches in the park, talk about their life ambitions, get jealous, and stick up for each other.

That it’s bubbling up from the depths now to be discovered by a Netflix-streaming generation is rather fortuitous. While many of us may think we understand heroin addiction as an obvious social problem, the breadth of our knowledge is limited solely to the depiction of junkies as depraved and scary individuals. The academics among us will throw around data like the increased opioid overdose rates among teens and what percentage of those are heroin induced. Even those of us who empathize with the idea that an addict is someone who needs help, not punishment, can’t say much about the day to day experience of an addict beyond stealing money and getting a fix.

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The Panic in Needle Park shouldn’t be treated as some ‘be all say all’ of the junkie demographic (it is a work of narrative fiction after all, even if it presents its subjects unfiltered) but it does serve as one of Hollywood’s single most responsible documentations of the slow and painful collapse caused by addiction. That it filters itself through a love story, as we see the co-dependency that heroin entraps both of them in forcing them to drag each other down, makes it all the more devastating. Addiction within the film is not solely in the context of drugs, but also love and money. Helen’s dependency on Bobby for emotional comfort is reciprocated equally as Bobby begins to depend on Helen for his scores. His need for money turns their supposed loving relationship into a pimp-prostitute business contract. He continues to get jealous every time Helen sleeps with someone for money even though their desperation makes it a necessity. Despite the abuse and the perversion by which their relationship is defined, Helen can never seem to leave Bobby. Their arguments and fights and bouts of domestic violence are always outweighed by the knowledge that they are each other’s sole meal ticket to money and heroin.

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The central mutual self-destruction of two people who love each other makes The Panic in Needle Park easy pray to becoming a sappy sob-story which manipulates our emotions and draws out the tears. Schatzberg and his screenwriters Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne however, create incredibly multi-faceted characters who’s likability and unlikeability at different points throughout the film keep us empathetic but aware that we are not so far removed from them. There are things in our life, be it people, substances, or places, we keep going back to despite them being terrible for us. Attachment is a powerful thing. So is dependency. Addiction is a culmination of both and magnified ten-fold. In the end of the film, the whimpering and forced sadness we would normally feel in a “traditional” melodramatic Hollywood treatment of drug addicts is instead a practical understanding of Bobby and Helen’s plight, and if maybe not quite expected, an appreciation for them as humans.

A note on the acting: The movie’s claim to fame is that it is “Al Pacino’s debut role”, which is a false statement, though the film is the first role in which Pacino is the lead actor. Opposite him (Bobby) is the ethereal Kitty Winn (Helen), whose film career unfortunately only spanned six films (including The Exorcist) within one decade, after which she inexplicably retired from acting. If her performance in Panic in Needle Park, which won her the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1971, is any indication, we missed out on an actress who could’ve been at least as great as Ellen Burstyn or Sissy Spacek, her young 70’s indie contemporaries.

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Out of Memory and Time: The Cinema of Victor Erice

 

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The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)

As my generation trudges ever forward year by year, there is a creeping and growing sense of nostalgia that overcomes us with each passing birthday. The never-ending “90’s kid” retrospectives on the internet filled with pictures of old video game consoles, Toys R Us toys, commercials, movies, celebrities, and sports events don’t make reconciling with the fact that our childhood and innocence is gone for eternity and will never come back any easier. Is that too dark?

Nevertheless, nostalgia is arguably the strongest agent of emotion in human beings. What we’ve experienced and lived through is our deepest connection to ourselves. This is especially true for our childhood when we’re still shielded and safeguarded and it seems like life is a cool breeze of care-free afternoons, exciting summer vacations, and instant food anytime anywhere delivered by mom. The longing for the “simpler” or more innocent times is something humans do with social life as well as politics and art. How many times have you heard politicians talking about taking our discourse back “to a simpler time” before everything got all screwed up, or critics saying “they don’t make ’em [movies/tv/literature] like they used to!”. Some of these have more nefarious intentions than others, but in general, we tend to fall into line behind the idea that hindsight is twenty-twenty and the way things used to be was always in many ways ‘better’ than the way things are.

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In art, particularly cinema, this emotion of nostalgia is the most potent connection formed between filmmaker and viewer. Our longing for a particular time or place or general memory of an area or event is a human trait that great filmmakers observe and pick at with an incredible precision and good intentions. It is where melodrama, fear, joy, and pain are all extracted from and used to build connections with characters and places. A recent filmmaker who’s sparse but utterly brilliant body of work I recently became acquainted with is Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice. A filmmaker adroit in his ability to evoke a very overwhelming sense of time and place, Erice’s cinema is the ultimate embodiment of nostalgia in art.

Playing along the same wavelengths as Terrence Malick in regards to textures and themes of youth and abandonment, as well as a very personal connection to his home country’s culture, politics, and daily life, Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, regarded the world over in cinema circles as a undeniable masterpiece, centers around a small Spanish village in Francoist Spain in which a young girl name Ana becomes disturbed and entranced by her viewing of Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. A particular infamous scene in the 30’s horror classic features the monster and a young girl throw daisies into the river and the monster, fascinated by the idea of using his hands to “throw”, picks the young girl up and throws her into the water as well. She subsequently drowns and dies. The historical symbolism of this scene in the context of The Spirit of the Beehive‘s fascist Spain setting aside, the crux of the film’s power in Ana beholding this sequence comes from our own experience witnessing cinema for the first time. The first time we saw moving images in the form of a story, how were we emotionally altered by its presentation and what did it mean to us? I remember the first movie I ever watched was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it was the first time I truly became terrified and disturbed by a fictional character (the witch with the poisoned apple).

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As kids, one of the lessons we always learn is to “face our fears”. It is a necessity of growing up and every adult tells you it prepares you for the horrors of the real world. Many of the fears are actually much more elaborate, real world fears which we manifest in things closer to ourselves. This theme is repeated throughout coming of age tales, many times as symbolism for the turbulent political affairs of the country at the time. In Erice’s film, Ana is haunted by the interaction of the monster and girl, and the movie’s plot, though it’s really more of a loose string of painterly movements, focuses on Ana’s obsession with finally finding and confronting the monster from the film that haunts her dreams. It’s not inconceivable that Ana’s tussle with Frankenstein was meant by Erice to represent the Spanish populace’s ultimate reality of having to confront the fascist takeover by dictator Francisco Franco. Nostalgia often places these circumstances and events in a rose-tinted light. We do it all the time now in our political spheres, framing our upbringing under the Clinton and Bush administrations as times of much less political intervention despite the fact that even they were in perpetual war with foreign nations. The difference is, back then we didn’t have reason to care. Likewise, in The Spirit of the Beehive, the notion of Franco exists only in small clues such as the rationing of food, the opening scroll, the time-period of the film, and the encounter Ana has with a rebel soldier. But Ana is still very much shielded in her village from any notion of a fascist leader wreaking havoc and despair in his own country. Her preoccupation lies within her childhood experiences of make-believe, much like the young Ofelia in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

 

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El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983)

While Erice’s debut was concerned with the memory of fear, his second film El Sur (English: “The South”), much greater in my estimation and much more pronounced in its ability to evoke the passage of time and its nostalgic effects, focuses on the memories of family, or in particular, father figures. Reflective of his debut, the film centers around yet another young girl, this time named Estrella, in the backdrop of yet another tumultuous time in Spanish history, the Spanish Civil War. Estrella’s father’s disappearance to fight in the war shapes her view of him as she comes of age as a young lady. Her experiences of youth with him are a constant projection in the back of her mind, and her search to finally meet him again shapes the basis of the film. Erice’s ideas of memory are deeply rooted in the characters’ own thoughts and words, but his painterly depictions of Spain play as an additional vehicle of “remembrance” as if the world his characters inhabit is a Spain of a time gone by even for them.

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Perhaps the most quintessential sequences in El Sur center around Estrella going to bed and waking up. Many conversations about her father’s past, which she has with her nanny, and conversations of the Spain from before her time are recounted as relics which shapes her present life. The ideas of nostalgia can also be many times cruel, as Estrella comments on the war and the meanness of her grandfather towards her father. Perhaps then, the fondness we feel for our past is revisiting even the less than comforting events with a fresh set of eyes and confronting them with an added confidence. As Estrella’s nanny states, “even the wildest of animals tame with age”. Perhaps it is our nostalgia that does it.