(This poster is not a good representation of the style or tone of Scarecrow, but it was was too cool to pass up. Watch the trailer instead and you’ll get a better idea)
Scarecrow (Dir. Jerry Schatzberg, 1973)
“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.” – Colum McCann
“To do so would be a breach of intimacy.” – Nathaniel Rich
So I was sitting on the 1 train yesterday and I couldn’t help but overhear the girl and guy sitting next me. The dude was wearing a ripped pair of blue jeans and black t-shirt with a picture of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin on the front. The girl was in sleek looking business attire, a sweater and suit pants. They were discussing in rather loud voices, professional wrestling. Now, I don’t really know anything about professional wrestling (I once watched a match at a sleepover in elementary school. The night ended with me taking an elbow drop to the dome and crashing into a plate of deviled eggs.) Anyway, the conviction with which these two fans discussed professional wrestling was awe-inspiring. I couldn’t help but get into it. Their conversation culminated with the guy standing in the middle of the crowded subway car and putting the girl in the same neck hold he’d seen on a recent match. That kind of fandom, that kind of unabashed passion is exactly what I get when I see a great film…
(Sidenote: As I was searching through YouTube for wrestling clips, I noticed that wrestler’s seem to get winded very easily. Their fatigue doesn’t seem proportional to the amount of energy they exert. In all the clips, the wrestlers took a long time to move across the ring. Or one guy would spend like ten minutes hanging onto the rope just breathing heavily. You’d think for guys in peak physical condition, even after taking a couple hits, they’d be able to move a little faster. I mean they’re big dudes, so I’m not expecting football speed, but the way they lumber around you’d think those banana hammocks were made of lead.)
…It’s why I was, and remain, that guy who yells “What?!”, much too loudly when someone tells me they haven’t seen certain movies. It’s a reaction I can’t control. It’s a mental knee-jerk. It’s my equivalent of putting my friend in a sleeper hold on a crowded subway car. I find some movies so good, so elemental, so necessary, that they must be seen, and discussed with fervor. And it’s one of the most satisfying experiences in the world to sit down in a theater and unexpectedly be captivated by a brilliant movie. That’s exactly what happened a few days ago when I saw Jerry Schatzeberg’s Scarecrow at Film Forum. This is a movie that must be seen. It’s not perfect, far from it. But it is very, very great. If I were the President, I’d pare down my State of the Union address to three minutes, and then broadcast Scarecrow to all of America for the rest of my allotted time. The people would be grateful. I mean even if the Prez just cut down on the incessant clapping he’d have enough time to show a film.
Anyway, Scarecrow was released in 1973 and directed by Jerry Schatzberg. You may remember I reviewed Schatzberg’s Street Smart a few months back. That movie was so mediocre that I felt I should give Ol’ Schatzy (my nickname for him) another chance. And like I said, Good God, what a difference a decade makes. At the time of Street Smart, Schatzberg was entrenched in the churn and burn 80’s studio system, but in 1973, he was an “edgy” fashion photographer trying to make a name for himself in a Hollywood culture that wanted to cultivate anti-establishment, outsider credibility. And Scarecrow has a strong pedigree. It won the Palm’d’or at the Cannes film festival in 1973. It stars Gene Hackman and Al Pacino at the peak of their acting greatness. In fact, Gene Hackman said it was his favorite role.
Max (Gene Hackman) and Lion (Al Pacino) are two drifters moving across the early seventies. Lion just spent five years at sea and Max recently got off a six year stint in San Quentin. They run into each other on the open road and decide to become business partners. Max wants to open up a car wash in Pittsburgh. Lion agrees but he first has to visit his wife and son in Detroit. So begins their roadtrip across the working class roads of middle America. Is there anything more romantic than a flat capped drifter rolling down a windy western road in the back of a pickup? That image, and ones like it, are so ingrained in the structure of American myth that it’s hard to utilize them without too much sentimentality. But for my money Scarecrow does it.
If you’re a regular reader of these posts and haven’t noticed by now, I tend to love films where the hands of the director and editor are visible in invisible ways. (There are a million exceptions of course, the hyper-stylized world of Blaxploitation or Spaghetti Westerns are what make those films great). But Scarecrow benefits from a director who is acutely aware of when to just let the camera roll. There’s a scene at a diner near the beginning where Max and Lion are getting to know each other. All throughout their conversation the waitress is taking their order, a eavesdropper is hovering behind them, Hackman is going from happy to manic and back again, and it’s all done in an unbroken four minute shot. The steady camera soaks up all the nuance and interplay of the scene. The immobile frame itself becomes integral as characters disappear, Hackman yells to people off screen, and so on. This is the kind of thing Hollywood in 1973 wanted, two “regular” characters unmanipulated, free to plum the depths of their situation.
As expected, most of the praise Scarecrow receives are for the two anchor performances by Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. And it’s true. What begins as a strained partnership develops over the course of two hours into an honest to God friendship, all because of the work down by the two stars. Scarecrow has brutal scenes of violence, rape, meditation, and one of the funniest strip teases on film, all synched up through the genius of the two stars. Especially in the small moments. I know I always say it. But the sublime is achieved in those small moments when humanity breaks through all the artifice and presentation of film. One standout small moment in Scarecrow is about halfway through as Max is yelling at Lion because the hobo jungle where Max used to camp has been covered by a factory. Max is frustrated at the situation, and at the world, so he chews out Lion. And Pacino, in a whisp of dialog, says “Max, why are you yelling at me?” as he rubs his cheek against the red ribbon of a present he’s been carrying for his infant son. Fucking heartbreaking.
There are of course flaws in Scarecrow, and I wouldn’t be a critic on the internet if I didn’t point them out. The most unfortunate being: the title: Scarecrow. The word has a direct relationship to a story Lion tells in the film, in fact, Lion mentions scarecrows so much that it calls attention to itself. And that got me thinking, why are Scarecrows inherently goofy? I suppose it started with The Wizard of Oz and the scarecrow was typecast from then on. Even attempts to make Scarecrows actually scary have gone poorly. Maybe it’s the straw coming out of the arms and the neck? Maybe it’s the bucket hat? Whatever the reason, the scarecrow as goof peaked with Michael Jackson in The Wiz.
It’s a little unclear why Scarecrow hasn’t lived on the same way other 60’s/70’s road trip films like Easy Rider, Two Lane Blacktop, or even Midnight Cowboy, have. It’s true that Scarecrow is decidedly more intimate than those movies. Also, for better or worse, the film feels a little more timeless. While the backdrops and homes are recognizable as of the 1970’s, it doesn’t hold fast to a particular moment in culture the way Easy Rider does. Pacino and Hackman hitch on the back of old farm trucks, they drink in crappy bars. They don’t ride motorcycles or drop acid. A review in The Independent said Scarecrow was reminiscent of Of Mice and Men which is a pretty spot on comparison. While Pacino isn’t mentally handicapped, he is the childish Lenny to Hackman’s hardened George. In that way, Scarecrow at it’s best is like a great novel, where the narrative waxes and wanes at the whims of the characters and not the other way around.
– If Max spent six years in San Quentin and the film takes place in 1973, that means Max was in San Quentin during the Johnny Cash performance that makes up the album At San Quentin, recorded in 1969. I hope he was at least present for Carl Perkins performance of Blue Suede Shoes.
-Is it just me or have the last couple posts been less funny? I hope to change this disturbing trend next month with what promises to be a classic, Death Wish 3. Prepare accordingly.