Jerry Schatzberg:
Filmmaker Without a Signature,
Filmmaker of Truth


As Jerry Schatzberg tells it, there was one film that he really wanted to make, and he spent four years getting it to happen: his first, the extraordinary Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970). From that point, after early success in Cannes, projects tended to come to him (in several different nations), and he went with the flow of whatever he thought he could direct well. This gave his career an unusual shape and character.


On the one hand, he survived throughout the 1970s and ‘80s to a prolific extent that many other talented filmmakers (such as Monte Hellman, Arthur Penn, Richard Rush or William Richert, not to mention Barbara Loden, Charles Burnett or Elaine May) were sadly unable to match.


On the other hand, Schatzberg did not strive to create a signature – thematic and stylistic – across evidently personal projects, in the way that Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Alan Rudolph or Brian De Palma did. As a result, Schatzberg is today less recognised and less honoured than his compatriots. Very unfairly so.


He is sometimes quietly left out of the heroic history of American cinema in the 1970s, even though two other films at the beginning of his career – Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Scarecrow (1973) – are classic examples of everything we associate with the innovative vitality and inventiveness of the breakthrough productions in that period.


Schatzberg is a director who has adapted himself to specific projects – usually scripted before he came on board – and to diverse genres. In the 1970s, the dark, feminist tale Sweet Revenge (aka Dandy, the All-American Girl, 1976) and the superb comedy of political manners The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) threw the auteurist critics off track: they asked, where was the coherent personality in this string of films?


Only (as far as I am aware) the contributors to Positif magazine in France kept faith with the distinctive qualities of each new Schatzberg film, judging each on its own terms rather than trying vainly to include the director as part of some fashionable, collective movement.


In the 1980s, Schatzberg could ride the waves of the teen movie (No Small Affair, 1984) and urban crime thriller (Street Smart [1987] and Clinton and Nadine [aka Blood Money, 1988]) with more ease and assurance than Altman, Paul Schrader or Stan Dragoti did. (I place to one side the family melodrama Misunderstood [1984], which was fatally tampered with by its producers.)


But a certain anonymity was the price that Schatzberg paid for this professional facility and creative openness. Only an even less-known figure today, Floyd Mutrux, was able to match such fluency and fluidity: compare his vibrant rock’n’roll portrait, American Hot Wax (1978), with Schatzberg’s magnificent record of contemporary country’n’western music in Honeysuckle Rose (1980).


At the end of the 1980s, Schatzberg followed the call of Europe: for the Harold Pinter-scripted Reunion (1989), the pilot episode of a French Audiovisual Encyclopedia in 1992, a brief contribution to the anthology Lumière and Company (1995), and what would seem to be his final completed project, The Day the Ponies Come Back (2000).


Intriguingly, it is only in this last, scattered period that his output reveals unmistakeably personal themes and concerns: Jewishness, cross-cultural and cross-national identity, fraught family bonds. Or maybe these threads were there submerged, all along, waiting for us to find and ferret them out?


In their epic 50 Years of American Cinema tome, Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier (both of whom died within the early months of 2021) tried to find the hidden figure in the carpet that might make sense of Schatzberg’s filmography as a whole. They wisely proposed the figure of Rip Van Winkle: the person who awakes to find the world around them irrevocably changed.


This idea, taken further, indeed suggests a curious, engaging paradox. When Schatzberg’s characters are most inside the political or media system (as for Joe Tynan, or Christopher Reeve as the TV reporter in Street Smart), they are beset by temptations, errors of judgement and unfortunate circumstances that throw them into hard-to-control situations, compromising their central power or influence.


Conversely, those who seem on the margins of society – like the homeless dreamers of Scarecrow, or the wandering, domesticity-shunning minstrels of Honeysuckle Rose – are the ones who, beyond their own self-understanding, provide the truest and surest glimpse of what is sometimes called Deep America: the everyday (but momentous) life of ordinary (but extraordinary) people.


More important and lasting than any specific subject matter is the chameleonic style that Schatzberg brought to each different film. Although he achieved high fame in the 1960s as a distinctive fashion, advertising and celebrity photographer (see his official website), he chose not to impose a single visual template upon the cinematography of his films. Rather, he placed his trust in the best – Vilmos Zsigmond, Adam Holender, Robby Müller – to help shape the unique look of each individual project.


Through it all, however, Schatzberg concentrated his filmmaking skills in three particular areas: creating an atmosphere of authenticity in the social setting of each story; shaping a dynamic editing strategy for its total structure; and guiding his actors to reach a blended ensemble tone, whether they be seasoned stars (like Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino and Meryl Streep) or untrained naturals (like singer Willie Nelson). To score consistent success on these three levels is no small achievement for any director.


The editing of Schatzberg’s films deserves close attention. Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a virtuosic montage construction that is, in some sense, representative of its cinematic era: Petulia (Richard Lester, 1968) and Performance (Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg, 1970) are among the many examples of films from that time that skip around different periods in the characters’ lives, and employ subjective or free-associative inserts. Puzzle reaches the height of this experimentation in its exploration of split-second mood changes and suggestive dramatic undertones and overtones through editing – it’s Eisenstein in Hollywood, filtered through the glamorous, psychedelic culture of the 1960s.


Beginning with Panic in Needle Park, Schatzberg’s concern with grasping and conveying the reality of grittier social environments (the world of drug addicts, or vagabonds in Scarecrow) instantly leads to a lessening of this high-voltage montage effect.


And yet the editing is never less than dazzling in all his other films, once we become attuned to it. Take Honeysuckle Rose. It is full of wonderful montage sequences that take off from a song performed either on the soundtrack or live on stage. These sequences may show one scene in fragments (such as a party, game or practical joke on the bus), intercut with forward-tracking glimpses of an entire phase of the band’s tour. But Schatzberg – aided in this instance by Aram Avakian, formerly a regular collaborator of Arthur Penn, and also a director himself – includes still more.


He may return to show a little more of some scene we have previously viewed, in order to draw out an underline the emotional undercurrents blooming between, for example, Buck (Willie Nelson) and his best friend’s daughter, Lily (Amy Irving). Or he may choose to leap off the road altogether, in order to remind us of the situation back home of Buck’s wife Viv (Dyan Cannon) and son Jamie (Joey Floyd) – and to compare these very different ways of life, settled and itinerant. So much complexity – and yet it all flows so easily … Little wonder that Honeysuckle Rose is among the very few films of the 1980s that Jacques Lourcelles chose to include in the 1992 edition of his epic Dictionary of Films.


To this set of skills we can add Schatzberg’s wise tendency for understatement and indirection. He forever tries to avoid the cliché way of staging and presenting big dramatic moments. This principle holds whether he is dealing with climactic acts of violence, or gestures of hard-won emotional acceptance. On the violent side, look at how he treats the key scene of pimp Fast Black (Morgan Freeman) menacing the hooker Punchy (Kathy Baker) in Street Smart: no fancy editing, no overheated musical underscore. Just the stark facts of emotional abuse.


On the redemptive side, see how Lily and her father, Garland (Slim Pickens) finally reconcile in Honeysuckle Rose: not in close-up, but in the depth of the frame, with their backs to us, when they are far from the camera. A simple arm around a shoulder, seen at this distance, can prompt our warm tears. Many of the greatest moments in Schatzberg’s cinema are delivered to us in this understated way.


Michel Ciment said it well, in words that Schatzberg includes as the biographical statement on his website: he “has a particular gift of restraining emotions only to make their release more powerful, and of avoiding the obvious by suggesting rather than by underlining”.


There is something more that Ciment puts his finger on: an overall calm, refined, balanced classicism of style – the kind we associate today with Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen or Tim Hunter – can always make room, in Schatzberg, for strong moments of emotion, searing moments of truth. And it is this truthfulness, this depth, that will keep us returning to and rediscovering his films.


© Adrian Martin October 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search