Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Movies: Midnight Cowboy and The Panic in Needle Park

Nothing will bring you down quite like the combination of hustlers and heroin addicts, except for the combination of wanna-be hustlers and heroin addicts. In these two films, naivete and big dreams bring bright-eyed kids to the city, which promptly chews them up and spits them out. In the kind of public isolation only New York can inspire, love becomes synonymous with desperation, and the somehow, the only alternative is despair.
Midnight Cowboy, Schlesinger's 1969 classic, stars Joe America Jon Voight as Joe Buck, who gives up a shitty dish-washing gig at a roadhouse diner in his home state of Texas to make his fortune in New York City, providing wealthy old women with the service of his body. Unsurprisingly, he's conned by everyone he meets, including the woman he thinks is his first client, and the greasy grimy cripple Ratso/Rizzo (the ever-brilliant Dustin Hoffman). With no connections, he spends his days wandering the streets looking for clients, and the women of Fifth and Madison, furred and hatted, look the same as they do today, peering into shop windows and hurrying their lapdogs along the Avenue. When he runs out of money and is kicked out of his hotel, he spends his nights wandering the streets as well, this time the glaring, gritty 42nd Street, dotted with dozens of others in his trade, playing the gay market. In one of his most poignant moments, he buys a coffee at a diner and sits at a table with a woman and her son, asking if they're going to eat their Saltines. She is non-responsive, absorbed in the rubber rat she pulls from her thick black hair, clearly on some kind of a drug trip. Joe squeezes ketchup onto his crackers, disgust and disbelief driving him to look and not look, and the ketchup lid pops off, a giant glob staining his only pair of pants.

Joe finds Ratso/Rizzo in another diner, and though he wants to strangle him to death, the cripple is quick-witted enough to save his skin. He invites him back to "his place" (a shambles apartment in a condemned building), and Joe, somewhat warily, does spend the night there, clutching his transistor radio—his last possession aside from the clothes on his back and the boots on his feet—in his sleep. Having nothing and no one each of them, they become friends, tenderly abusive of each other as an Odd Couple in their own right. Ratso/Rizzo is particularly critical of Joe's cowboy look ("straight-up fag stuff"), but Joe nevertheless brings him along when he's invited to a Warholian soiree (as one of a hundred assorted weirdos scouted out in the streets). It's at the party that Joe has his first hit of marijuana, spinning him into a classic drug/dream sequence, while Ratso/Rizzo stuffs his pockets with free cold cuts and barks "Don't touch me!" at seductive women. Joe lands his first paying client in a $20 deal brokered by Ratso/Rizzo, only to find himself in bed with a young Liza Minnelli look-alike and a bout of erectile dysfunction. She shames him into hardness with accusations of homosexuality, and the next morning, not only pays up, but arranges a meeting for him and one of her friends. It appears that his career is finally about to begin.

Joe comes home, though, to find Ratso/Rizzo in bed, shaking; he's had a hideous cough for as long as we've known him, and passing winter after winter in a condemned building without heat in frozen New York with no health care is hard on anyone, particularly a malnourished cripple, but now he barely has the strength to walk at all, and his face is beaded with sweat. Intense fear swims in his eyes. He begs Joe to take him to Florida. To raise money for the bus tickets, Joe goes back out to 42nd Street, and picks up a dapper older gentleman; they go back to his apartment. The man has a fit of conscience and asks Joe to leave, paying him ten dollars for his trouble. Joe says he needs more money, but the man won't give it to him. Joe beats him bloody and senseless, raging with uncontrollable need and fear and disgust, and takes the money he needs from the man's wallet, leaving him to recover or die; we won't ever know. Joe takes Ratso/Rizzo to the bus station, and they board for Miami. Ratso doesn't make it alive; his body turns cold within five minutes of the city, after all of his fantasizing and Joe's planning, and Joe is again alone in a new city.

If that didn't get you down, no worries. The fact of the matter is that The Panic in Needle Park is so grim and gritty that it makes the lurid technicolor dreamscape of Midnight Cowboy look like nothing worse than Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland. I live in what used to be Needle Park (well, not the park itself, of course, but the neighborhood, around the corner from the park), so despite my revulsion of needles, and heroin use in particular, I was itching to see this movie. My grandfather lived higher up on the Upper West Side, and I remember not feeling safe there in the 80s, and despite the extreme gentrification of my neighborhood, I do see the occasional few Needle-Parkers hanging around Gray's Papaya, or under the perpetual scaffold on the corner past Starbuck's. Many of them are old enough to be the originals, and probably are; they've certainly been immobile for the two years I've lived here.

Maybe Needle Park is grittier because 1971 was worse for New York than 1969, or maybe it's because Joan Didion and hubby John Gregory Dunne had a better sense of human drama and suffering. I think it's because heroin is the worst thing that can happen to a person, ever; it's worse than being alone, worse than resorting to prostitution, worse than sickness, and worse than death—probably because it leads to all of these things, without the peace of the sweet hereafter.

And there is no peace for Kitty Winn's sad and lovely and hideous Helen, once she's submitted. As the picture begins, she's left her small-town Midwestern home for New York and is living the Bohemian life, shacked up with an artist/lover; she's an artist as well. Her boyfriend's dealer comes over to the apartment one day that she's feeling sick and dreadful; she's just had "a free scrape," and the botched abortion has left her bleeding and depressed. The dealer—Al Pacino as Bobby—is instantly taken with her, and gives her his scarf to help her keep warm; when she later checks into the hospital, still bleeding, he sneaks into her room for a visit. From that point on, the other artist is history, and she's Bobby's girl. He has the sweet and reckless madcap attractiveness you saw in Jared Leto's Harry in Requiem for a Dream (the entire cast and crew of Requiem, I think, must have studied Needle Park fairly carefully; the television that Harry repeatedly steals from his mother and pawns is an exaggeration of the television Bobby picks up off the delivery truck and pawns to pay for his first date with Helen). She is clean and windy, in corduroy and knits, but somehow not intimidated by his petty theft, his career as small-time heroin dealer, his thuggish older brother, or his assorted junkie friends. She holes up in a filthy prewar studio (looks like mine!) with ten of them while they shoot up and pass out, and the camera offers us the longest shot of a needle crudely shoved into a vein in all of film history, I'm certain. If you're anything like I am, your eyes are squeezed tightly, you're writhing in your seat, and your guts are turning over.

It isn't long, of course, before Bobby goes from "chipping" to shooting up with a lot more regularity, and one night while he's sleeping, Helen—lonely and curious—does to herself what she's seen everyone around her doing. Not long after, Bobby is picked up by the cops, and while he serves time in prison, no one is there to take care of Helen, now a certifiable junkie with an eighty dollar-a-day habit. To service her needs, she services the sexual needs of whomever will pay, including Bobby's own brother. Bobby comes out of the clinker clean only to find the girl he loves has become filthy. Verbal abuse ensues, but it isn't long before they are together again, now hustling with a one-two punch con in which Helen brings home a trick, and Bobby come in early, smacks him around, and takes all of his money. Are you sick and sad yet? Bobby gets a deal with a big-time dealer, and the young lovers are excited at the prospect of having all the smack they've ever dreamed of, but heroin addiction knows no bounds. The cops pick up Helen for trying to sell some pills on the street, and to buy her way out of prison, she agrees to set up Bobby. At the movie's end, she meets him outside the prison doors the day he gets out. At least they're both still alive. For how much longer, we don't know. My expectations are low.

No comments: