' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Scarecrow (1973)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Scarecrow (1973)

Although Jerry Schatzberg’s “Scarecrow” is firmly in the tradition of 70’s road movies, it often feels apart from its era, as if its pair of hobos could have existed just as easily during The Great Depression as Vietnam. That is underscored by the film’s astounding introductory shot, one that may as well be John Cox’s glorious Grey & Gold, a painting dated to 1942, come to life, heavy storm clouds assembling on the horizon as a few trees cower in the foreground. It’s Anytime, USA, and Max (Gene Hackman) wanders out of the frame, out of whimsical Americana and into the real world, two places that have long shared an uneasy alliance.


As with any road movie, the destination is both completely the point and not the point at all. The mythical journey’s end is Pittsburgh, the Steel City as Emerald City, where our principal duo intends to open a carwash, a venture Max has got figured down to the penny in a little Moleskin notebook that he waves around with the authority of any cocky CEO. “For every car, there’s dirt,” he proclaims in a platitude that is awe-inspiring for its utter worthlessness. He says this to Francis (Al Pacino), a polite, semi-knucklehead whom he ropes into being his business partner. Francis buys Max’s pitch not exactly hook, line and sinker but because, well, what else has he got going on? He says he’s been at sea the last few years, an explanation that might suggest a Naval stint, but just as easily suggests an itinerant. His only other aim is to deliver a lamp to the child he’s never seen in Detroit, the child of the mom he ran out on five years ago, and he clutches that gift like the hopeless chunk of symbolism it is.

You half-wonder how Francis has survived this long and you can tell Max half-wonders the same thing. Consider the mid-movie vignette inside a working prison where the duo gets sentenced for thirty days on account of some churlish behavior. Convinced it’s all the fault of Francis, which it isn’t, Max decrees that he doesn’t want to speak to his ally for the whole month. Francis obliges, more or less left to his own devices, becoming friendly with a fellow inmate who seems like a good guy until he isn’t, physically assaulting Francis. When Max finds about this, he sets the record straight with his fists, as he’s prone to do, demonstrating himself as a kind of self-imposed volatile guardian angel of Francis.


This entire sequence also speaks to the film’s vibe, one that routinely stops being what it’s “about” to be “about” something else for awhile instead. It also speaks to the characters and their supposed intentions, for as much as Max goes on and on about his foolproof scheme to clean cars, to get where he wants to be and do what he wants to do, all he really wants to do is prattle on about his own perceived genius and get in fights. It’s a film set on the road but it’s not about two people not really getting anywhere. It’s about two people, as we come to realize with each delay and each impulsive setback, that don’t want to get anywhere, that would rather be left to wandering.

And that’s why it’s so awful when they do get somewhere, back to Detroit to deliver the lamp, that absurd totem. And with a life’s worth of aimlessness brought to bear, Francis goes bonkers and then catatonic, a moment played perfectly by Pacino with escalating tension and then what’s less a release than a rapid deterioration. It speaks to Now as much as Then, and probably even Before, probably even For All Time. It’s the moment when the yellow brick road ends not in the promised land but pretty much where you knew it was going to end up the whole time.

The closing scenes are emotionally linked to the remarkable shot in Schatzberg’s previous film, the stunning “Panic in Needle Park”, that finds Kitty Wynn’s character strung out, all alone, on a park bench. Sometimes filling yourself with heroin doesn’t look any different from sweetly wrapping up a lamp and going out to find the American Dream.

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