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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: How 'The Panic in Needle Park' changed...

Screen Grabs: How ‘The Panic in Needle Park’ changed drug movies

The 1971 film mixed stark realism with post-hippie disillusionment. Plus: Lorelei, Tailgate, No Ordinary Man, more

This Friday, July 30 marks an obscure anniversary no one seems to be noting: 50 years ago saw the LA premiere—I’m not sure when it got to SF—of The Panic in Needle Park, probably the best of that era’s anti-drug movies. And there were a lot of them. With the Summer of Love a disillusioned memory by the dawn of the Me Decade, it was clear that dependency issues were outweighing hopeful mind-expansion in terms of general societal impact.

Psychedelic “trip” scenes in movies were already a worn-out cliche, though arguably there wouldn’t actually be a good one (at least in a mainstream feature) until Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock in 2009. On the other hand, audiences were too wised-up to accept the Reefer Madness-style cautionary hysteria that prevailed though the 1960s, especially in depictions of LSD. Plus, movies themselves had matured, somewhat liberated by the MPAA ratings system; now harsher addiction unpleasantries could be depicted, along with more graphic nudity and violence.

So the new drug movies that briefly flooded the market were bleak, downhill trajectories, including Jennifer On My Mind, The People Next Door, Believe In Me and Dusty and Sweets McGee in 1970-71 alone. None of them were remotely popular (unless you count 1973’s TV movie Go Ask Alice, a stronger “just say no” statement than Nancy Reagan ever offered), and some weren’t even good. But Panic at least was a critical success, admired if not exactly liked for its fairly stark realism.

It was based on a 1966 book by James Mills, which in turn was based on his prior year’s Life magazine articles about junkies around Sherman Square aka Needle Park in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The book was billed as a “novel,” perhaps for legal reasons. But whatever liberties Mills took, it still reads like reportage, complete with a first-person authorial voice. He had embedded himself in that community of heroin users for some weeks in 1964, particularly glomming onto a couple: Helen, a prostitute in her mid-20s, and the slightly younger petty thief Bobby. They were in love, more or less, though smack was the dominating element in a de facto menage a trois, never more so when one or the other was trying (or forced) to get “clean.”

Directed by Bronx native Jerry Schatzberg, screenplay by the marital duo of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, produced by his brother Dominick, the screen Panic was full of new talent, with no familiar faces to break the illusion of quasi-cinema verite grit. Cast as Bobby, 31-year-old Al Pacino had already won a Tony and an Obie in his short stage career, but had only played one single small prior role on both the big and small screen. Drafted as Helen was Kitty Winn, who’d gone straight from college to American Conservatory Theater in its earliest San Francisco days, where she stayed for four years, playing in everything from Shakespeare and Moliere to Charley’s Aunt. Other then-unknowns in the film include Raul Julia and Paul Sorvino.

It was Winn who won an acting award at the 1971 Cannes Festival. Her performance is probably the most engrossing thing here now, as Helen gradually deteriorates, her character softened a bit by resorting to sex work out of desperation later—a shift from the book, where she’s a “pro” from the start, and Bobby is also more the principal figure. (It was not a great movie era for women’s roles, however, and despite a prominent part in The Exorcist two years later, Winn gave up acting for family life by decade’s end.)

Pacino’s turn, which must have seemed very fresh at the time, feels less so now, if only because it’s a full-on display of the blustery mannerisms that have since become over-familiar. Nonetheless, Panic won him the part of Michael Corleone (over Paramount’s strenuous objections—they wanted a bigger star) in The Godfather, a much more reined-in performance; it wouldn’t be until 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon that he’d be in aggressively streetwise, yell-happy form again.

Despite ads screaming “GOD HELP BOBBY AND HELEN,” and its moderate concessions to a tidier commercial narrative line than the book afforded, The Panic in Needle Park remains pretty uncompromising. It was shot entirely on location at a crime-riddled nadir for NYC, as well as a point when heroin was clearly emerging as the era’s biggest urban scourge, its reign unchallenged until crack came along. The film’s refusal to embrace melodrama, or flinch from close-up injections, is further underlined by its lack of any background music at all. (The esteemed composer Ned Rorem actually did create a score, but it was decided to go without.)

Those choices help make it a period piece that is strangely timeless; the once-hip stylistic excesses that now make a movie like the not-dissimilar Midnight Cowboy look dated are almost entirely absent here. Fifty years on, Panic is still not a fun watch, but it’s held up better than many more-celebrated films of its period. Streaming platform availability seems elusive at present, but it’s available on Blu-ray and DVD, with a fair number of the latter at San Francisco Public Library.

The Panic in Needle Park ends with one character going to prison. That particular type of tight spot, and some other kinds, beset the protagonists in several newly released movies:

Actually, the leading characters in two new dramas are introduced just getting out of long prison stints, a perilous moment when things can finally start going right, or start going wrong all over again. In writer-director Sabrina Doyle’s debut feature Lorelei, hulking Wayland (Pablo Schreiber, not-so-little half brother of actor Liev) walks out of the joint after 15 years, greeted at the gate by the biker buddies he took the fall for when barely out of high school.

After a night’s celebratory booze, babes and bonfire, he’s belatedly delivered to his church halfway house, where fortunately the nun in charge (Gail Egan) is a forgiving sort. So, in her fashion, is Wayland’s erstwhile girlfriend Dolores (Jena Malone), though she’s got a lot on her plate: Three kids by three different men (none of them Wayland), the youngest already manifesting a trans identity. They are wary of yet another man in mom’s life, particularly when he moves in. But as chaotic as the household is, and as overwhelmed as Wayland can be by that and other radical changes in his life, he may be better at this parenting thing than Dolores is. Because, frankly, she is terrible at it.

Lorelei flirts with being a sentimental, too-easy redemption tale, and the poetical ending did leap a tad far in that direction for my taste. (There’s also some over-precocious child dialogue, always a personal bugaboo.) But Doyle keeps things low-key, focusing on credible character dynamics (and very good performances) rather than dramatic contrivance, with a background of rural Pacific Northwest economic hardship and opioid trade keeping things grounded. This isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s still a rewarding, even somewhat endearing one. It’s in limited theaters and On Demand as of Fri/30.

Starting in a similar place but headed somewhere entirely different is another writer-director’s film. Orson Oblowitz’s The Five Rules of Success introduces its strapping protagonist (Santiago Segura, his character listed only as “X”) likewise exiting from the latest of the institutions he’s apparently spent most of his life in. But he is not about to let the street consume him: “I got goals. I can’t be around this shit,” he tells the reckless party-boy son (Jonathan Howard) of the restauranteur (Jon Sklaroff) who gives him a job. Even the wildly unethical provocations of his parole officer (Isidora Goreshter) do not sway his steely focus on the prize.

But what is that prize? Swerving between naturalism and gonzo-dom, uncertain whether it’s a crime thriller, character study, or black comedy, Five Rules is all flamboyant surface with little cohesive substance underneath. “X’s” dream of opening his own eatery culminates in a sort of performance-art gimmick (oddly reminiscent of a notorious sequence in De Palma’s 1970 satire Hi, Mom!) that has little connection with everything before it, while his titular life wisdoms (frequently recited on the soundtrack) come out of nowhere, too. As Segura plays it, his hero is so coolly self-possessed we can’t believe he’d let Howard’s berserker Danny constantly put him at risk.

Increasingly hyperbolic and implausible, the film piles on fantasy scenes, shock-cut flashbacks, slo-mo, fast-mo, strobe effects, and the proverbial kitchen sink. Oblowitz is so busy emptying out his bag of directorial tricks, any semblance of character logic or overall point get lost in the clutter. Its flamboyance and “intensity” may wow some, but as accomplished as it is in some ways, Five Rules is ultimately not “about” anything but being pretentiously flashy. It’s available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes as of Fri/30.

If the ex-cons above are trying to various degrees not to practice “toxic masculinity,” that is surely a lost battle for the principle nemeses in this Dutch film. Hans (Jeroen Spitzenberger) is a bossily impatient suburbanite driving his wife (Anniek Pheifer) and two young daughters to visit relatives. But his bullying behind the wheel picks the wrong target when he takes exception to the fast-lane slowpokedom of a man with a van. Ed (Willem de Wolf) may look like a harmless old fusspot, but that benign surface masks the grudge-keeping and murderous determination of Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. (And Ed, too, has a bulky cannister with a nozzle.) He is the ultimate scold, making fellow citizens “take responsibility” for their actions even, or rather especially, if it kills them.

Unquestionably well-directed, Lodewijk Crijns’ blackly humorous film may also recall Freeway, in that it’s got another determined Big Bad Wolf who gets to grandmother’s house first. There’s a little too much shrill hysteria, and the film’s verve can seem too mean-spirited; it works up such a froth en route that the ending feels too curt. Still, as a grotesque parable of man’s incivility to man, it does have currency.

A by-contrast exemplary husband and father is recalled in Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Jonyt’s documentary, which opens Fri/30 at the Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas. Unfortunately, that is not what Billy Tipton is chiefly remembered for—nor even his moderately successful career as a jazz musician and bandleader for over 40 years, starting in the 1930s. Instead, he became truly famous only posthumously, when paramedics discovered Tipton was “physically female” upon his death at age 74 in 1989. As this was apparently news to everyone who’d known him over the last half-century, it became a sensational media story, amplified by a Diane Middlebrook biography a decade later that portrayed the “jazzy gender-bender” as assuming a deceptive guise to succeed in a male-dominated music sphere.

That take has pissed off trans activists, who are sick of such “shocking reveal” stories, and suspect Tipton (who had “passed” as a man at least since 1940) was inhabiting a gender identity he felt was his true one, rather than pulling off some sort of careerist ruse. Of course, that kind of conversation barely existed in 1989, let alone during the musician’s lifetime. It arguably exists a little too much in this Canadian feature, which has latterday commentators lamenting that Billy Tipton’s talent and achievements have been so overshadowed by his “secret”—yet at the same time, almost no one here talks about his musicianship, either.

Instead, No Ordinary Man is primarily a discussion about the issues and significance of Billy Tipton in terms of the fast-evolving landscape of trans rights and politics, occasionally making room for input from his surviving adopted son and spouses (some of this via archival footage). All of which is interesting… but still, you may leave feeling like Billy Tipton still hasn’t been fully appreciated for who he was, and what he really cared about.

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