Overlooked and Undervalued, the Films of Jerry Schatzberg

Forgotten auteur of 70s skepticism and American waywardness

Recently, Julian Schnabel has navigated a relatively successful transition from the art world to the movie world. But in the 1970s, the photographer turned filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg had a much tougher go of it—at least here in America.

It was Schatzberg who took some of the most iconic photos of the young Bob Dylan (including the cover of the Blonde on Blonde album), as well as unusually candid, vibrant shots of other rock stars, actors, and models for the likes of Esquire and Vogue. That was the milieu which, in 1970, provided the impetus for Schatzberg's debut feature, Puzzle of a Downfall Child (screening as part of Anthology's six-movie Schatzberg retro), a jaundiced view of haute couture starring Faye Dunaway (in one of her best performances) as a former supermodel flashing back on a life filled with superficial glamour and busted-up relationships. As her past rushes before us in dizzying narrative fragments, Puzzle feels like a series of still photos projected in rapid succession—the settings always different, but Dunaway's alabaster cheekbones and distant, mysterious gaze the unassailable constant.

That film was embraced by European (especially French) critics and largely ignored or dismissed by American ones—in her review, Pauline Kael barely so much as mentioned Schatzberg's name, targeting her criticism entirely at screenwriter Carol Eastman. But Schatzberg followed it up quickly with two films that, along with The Godfather, gave moviegoers their earliest glimpses of a diminutive New York stage actor named Al Pacino: The Panic in Needle Park, an unsentimental portrait of Manhattan junkies; and Scarecrow, one of those lyric stream-of-consciousness road movies that only the '70s seemed able to produce, with Pacino and Gene Hackman as two drifters traversing the highways and byways of the American West. For the latter film, Schatzberg won the Palme d'Or at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival; when it opened in the U.S., New York Times éminence grise Vincent Canby deemed it "aimless" and "phony."

What all those films have in common is a first-hand feel for wayward American lives and the lost idealism of the '60s. Or, as the Positif critic Michel Ciment has said of Schatzberg: "He makes us feel, something that is too often missing in contemporary American cinema."

Schatzberg floundered a bit in the '80s, with the slight but enjoyable Willie Nelson vehicle Honeysuckle Rose and the voyeuristic romance No Small Affair, but he was back in top form with the journalistic thriller Street Smart (the movie that prompted Kael's famous rhetorical question: "Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?") and Reunion, the story of two Stuttgart schoolboys—one Aryan, the other Jewish—who find their friendship tested by the encroaching shadow of the Third Reich. Five decades later, the Jewish man (played by Jason Robards), now a naturalized American, returns to Germany to discover what became of his boyhood chum. Adapted by Harold Pinter from Fred Uhlman's autobiographical novella, this deeply moving portrait of individuality at odds with groupthink—again presented in Cannes, again barely released in America—is one of the great unknown movies of the 1980s.

 
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