The Panic in Needle Park
There's good news and bad news. The good news is that the film
really takes the time to develop its characters, so that you really
feel that you know them. The bad news is that you'll wish you didn't.
They're junkies, so they spend their time doing what junkies do:
hustling anything for dope, ripping one another off, shooting up, and
I'm not finished with the bad news. It's one of those ugly slice-of-life
films made in that brief window of time after the studio system era but before
the blockbuster era. It was an epoch when
filmmakers felt obligated to have as little plot and structure as possible,
and as much gritty realism as they could possibly create. Back in that era we
felt that slick technical filmmaking was selling out to the man (whoever he
was, probably Dick Nixon), and that a coherent narrative structure was the
cinematic equivalent of your father's Oldsmobile.
So ... the film has a film verité aesthetic, has no beginning or
ending, and features Manhattan junkies acting exactly like real junkies. That
had some merit in 1971 because we suburban types didn't know what the lives of
real junkies were like, and this film laid everything out in painstaking
detail, including close-ups of needles entering veins. It was shocking then
and its realism could cause people to turn from the screen. Watching it now
can be a painful experience in a completely different way. We've seen it done
better so many times since 1971 that this pioneering film seems tedious,
obvious, painfully limited by the clichés and mannerisms of its time. It was
probably hip back then, but now it's about as hip as the Keystone Kops.
And a lot less fun.
There are some interesting aspects of the film, primarily personnel
The film was entered at Cannes, and the young female star, Kitty Winn, got
a heady welcome to the world of cinema when she was
chosen as the festival's best actress in her film debut. It was her first movie, but she was no
stranger to the acting profession. Like Annette Bening some years later, Winn
had been discovered by a film director while she was performing with the
American Conservatory Theater group. She starred with that troupe from
1967-1970, and it was her performance in Saint Joan that attracted the
attention of producer Dominick Dunne, who invited her to California for a
Needle Park audition. She got the part and the kudos at Cannes, but her career
never took off. She married in 1978, and never worked in another film
after her wedding, committing to family life instead.
Fortunately for film nudity historians and aficionados, the political
mandates of the counter-culture produced more than just meandering scripts. An important corollary of the anti-establishment attitude
was that nudity was de rigueur in the era. It was another way of
thumbing one's nose at society's uptight and hypocritical conventions. Right on,
man. Power to the people.
Thus, Kitty Winn's first film also provided her only screen nudity.
Kitty's young co-star didn't get any special attention at Cannes, but he
went on to a somewhat more impressive career than Ms. Winn. I think you've
probably heard of him. Guy named Al Pacino. His performance in Needle Park
made an impression on a young director named Francis Ford Coppola, and the two
of them would soon enter the A-list together as the director and star of The
Godfather, Pacino's very next film.
A few captures