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Monday, October 13, 2008

Indie Pick o' the Day: A Panic in Needle Park

Visiting 72nd Street and Broadway today, one finds the confluence of Sherman Square and Verdi Park. It's a nice little area, complete with statues, tasteful landscaping, and the occasional homeless person scattered among the yuppies and other usual upscale riffraff that haunt the UWS. There's a Gray's Papaya, a Burritoville, a few chain stores and a lot of nice buildings. Physically, it's not far from the area where they filmed exteriors on Music and Lyrics; architecturally, it is second cousin to Prague. In short, it's a nice, hip little street corner.

Thirty years ago, it was "Needle Park," a nasty little triangle of pavement where heroin users congregated to score drugs, hang out, and find johns. The buildings around it, now high-end condos, contained crash pads, flophouses, pawnshops, and cheap restaurants. In the hands of director Jerry Schatzberg, The Panic in Needle Park records this place and time, a moral no-man's land where escape is impossible, addiction is necessary, and there is no hope.

With a painfully sincere script by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, the movie focuses on Helen (Kitty Winn), a young homeless woman who falls in love with Bobby (Al Pacino), a charismatic heroin addict. Over the course of a few months, grinding poverty and her own neediness lead Helen into addiction, and her world shrinks to Bobby, herself, and her next hit. In the process, Helen follows a well-worn path into prostitution and betrayal, until she faces a decision that could mean the choice between her own destruction and her hope of redemption.

Through Schatzberg's lens, the audience descends into the narrow confines of a junkie's New York. It is a world of misery, grime, grit, and isolation. In Needle Park, it is always winter and every day is colder than the last. Early on, Alan Vint's Hotch, a sympathetic cop, tells Helen that, "Everyone in this situation will rat on someone else, always," but she chooses to place her faith in Bobby and her band of friends. Over the course of the movie, she and Bobby learn that they can only rely on each other and that, ultimately, every junkie is alone in his or her addiction.

Kitty Winn, probably most famous for her portrayal of "Sharon" in The Exorcist, received the best actress award at the 1971 Cannes film festival for her work in this movie. As the fragile, aristocratic Helen, she is fresh and playful; even as she descends into prostitution and addiction, she never loses her unfocused, dreamy look of hope. Pacino does a great job as the energetic counterpoint to Winn's shy outsider. His Bobby is all fast talk and hustle, a charismatic survivor making friends even as he picks pockets. Although three decades and a world of personalities separate Bobby and Michael Corleone, it's easy to see why Francis Ford Coppola hired Pacino on the basis of this film.

Panic in Needle Park never reaches the operatic excesses of Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream. Its depiction of heroin addiction is more subtle, more intimate, and ultimately more real. Its greatest horrors come in its quietest moments, in throwaway lines where the characters reveal the ultimate hopelessness of their lives and the subtle awareness that they will never escape the trap they've fallen into. Ultimately, the film is a classic tragedy, with a series of events that are foreordained and relentless; in their descent, Bobby and Helen show that freedom is, ultimately, only a dream.

1 comment:

Geraldo Maia said...

Hello Chris,
Du har en meget smuk blog, jeg kan lide det.
Hilsener fra Brasilien: