Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
The United States of America
As I wander through the halls of my local movie theater, I sigh in despair as I glance at the movie posters. It’s gotten to a point where I don’t even bother to read the posters or learn the titles of the coming attractions, because they’re all the same: big, loud, chaotic action films with CGI monstrosities getting more screen time than the actors. Call me jaded or a snob, but I see a distinct pattern: producers are relying more on special effects and spectacle than on actual filmmaking techniques. In a recent review, Roger Ebert bemoaned how the techniques and cinematic methods developed and perfected over nearly a century by filmmakers is being forgotten and blatantly ignored in favor of hacks that have no concept of how to frame, shoot, and edit pieces of film. It seems that there is no room for artistic integrity in Hollywood these days.
But it wasn’t always like this. There once was a time where films carefully crafted by loving experts not only made money, but were celebrated. It was a time when cuts lasted more than 3 seconds and directors were not afraid of stillness and quiet. It was the time of the Hollywood New Wave. Inspired by the rise of independent filmmakers and developments in European cinema, particularly the French New Wave, the Hollywood New Wave stretched from the late 60s to the late 70s and produced many of the films which to this day are heralded as the greatest ever made. It was the era of Scorsese, Coppola, Penn, Altman, Polanski, and Bogdanovich. It was the time of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), Rocky (1976), and Taxi Driver (1976). Truly it was a Golden Era.
But among these, there was a distinct group of films that did more than entertain. These were films that delved into the psyche of America itself. Films like East Rider (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Five Easy Pieces (1970) dared to capture the country in a tumultuous time of change and transformation. They stared directly into the existential wasteland of progress and change and studied the individuals trapped by the currents. And though they were some of the most influential films of the movement, most have been largely overlooked. Masterpieces of self-reflection like Drive, He Said (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Fat City (1972), and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) are all but forgotten except among the most devoted cinephiles.
Among these lost treasures is a movie that can only be described as a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is a film about finding your place in a society that left you behind. It is a film of desperate dreams, dashed hopes, and cheated destinies. It is known simply as Scarecrow.
The film follows two drifters as they travel from California to Pittsburgh. The first is Max Milian, an ex-convict fresh out of prison. With a cigar perpetually hanging from his lips, he scribbles away in a notebook, counting the pennies that he earned and saved while in prison. With the tenacity of a bulldog and the stubbornness of a mule, he is determined to open a car wash in Pittsburgh and literally has all of his expenses worked out to the last cent. He is a bomb with no fuse, lashing out and attacking those who offend or confront him. On a lonely road under a bleak, overcast sky, he meets Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbuchi, an ex-sailor who had been at sea for five years. Lion is Max’s complete opposite: childish, joyful, outgoing, and friendly. Originally repulsed by Lion, Max is won over when Lion offers him a match to light his cigar. United through a communion of tobacco smoke, Lion and Max strike up an unlikely friendship.
Lion agrees to become Max’s partner in his new car wash on one condition: they need to stop off in Detroit so he can meet his estranged wife Annie and his child whom he has never met. Lion holds a white package under his arm containing a present for his child. He explains that when he bought it, the salesperson asked if it was for a boy or a girl. Lion laughs and said that he had no idea.
In fact, Lion laughs a lot in this film. Through the years, Lion has discovered that he can get out of any problem and defuse any situation by using humor. He explains to Max that he got the idea from scarecrows. He believes that scarecrows don’t actually scare birds, but instead amuse them, making them leave. Max responds by calling him full of shit.
Their friendship develops slowly as they trek across the United States. They stop in Denver and stay with Max’s sister. They get into a fight and get thrown into prison for a month. They get mad at each other, sure, but in the end they always reunite. They seem to realize that not only do they need each other; they complete each other on almost a kind of subconscious level. Lion attempts to crack away Max’s rough exterior. He asks him why they can’t set up the car wash in, say, Detroit. After all, there are dirty cars in Detroit, too. Max responds slowly and deliberately that he has made his plans and intends to keep them. Max is cold and angry at the world. He complains that while he was in prison, the world moved on without him. In a sense, he embodies the spirit of an older America; the America that survived the Great Depression and came home weary from World War Two desperate for some sense of normalcy. Max represents the old mentality that if you work hard enough, you can achieve whatever you want. Lion, then, represents the new America: laid back and less serious. Just like how his generation protested against involuntary service during the Vietnam War, Lion would rather avoid fights then jump into them head-long like Max. Max and Lionel represent two Americas trapped at a crossroad, desperate for reconciliation, but clueless as to how to proceed. Even their actors reflect this conundrum. Max’s actor, Gene Hackman, represented the old Hollywood guard and their tried and true methods of screen acting. Lion was played by a young Al Pacino. A devout method actor, his performance style represented the future of screen acting that would eventually leave men like Hackman behind in the dust.
As could be expected, over time, they change as individuals. Lion grows up and becomes more mature and manages to get Max to loosen up. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Max takes a page from Lion’s book and defuses a bar fight by performing an impromptu strip-tease to the sound of “The Stripper” coming from a juke box. And finally, Lion mans up and calls his wife. His wife is horrified and offended to hear his voice after so long, as he had abandoned her while she was pregnant because he needed to get out and see the world. When Lion asks about their child, she performs one of the cruelest actions that I have ever witnessed one human being do to another: she lies and says that their child was dead. Even worse, she says that it was his fault that their child died at birth, claiming that she fell down on the front porch when it was icy and nobody was there to pick her up. As she stares at their young boy, she spits venom into the telephone. In one final blow, she reminds him that because their baby was unborn, it cannot go to heaven. That’s right, Lionel. Our baby is in purgatory and can never go to heaven. And it’s your fault.
Folks, I won’t cheat you out of Pacino’s reaction or the subsequent scenes. I may have done too much by describing the phone conversation. All I will tell you now is that Max comes to realize that Lion means more to him than a car wash in Pittsburgh. Max’s final sacrifice is one of the most tear-jerking moments that I have ever encountered in film, right up there with Bruno’s fate in Stroszek (1977), Selma’s death in Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Oscar’s final farewell to the Schindler Jews in Schindler’s List (1993). And trust me; I do not make these comparisons lightly.
Scarecrow is a staggering film of artistic genius. It is a slow moving film that is not afraid to take its time. It does more than just present you with great performances; it revels in them. The film examines Max and Lion with all the love, care, and compassion of a Cassavetes film. It is frequently called an actor’s film. But to say that is to miss much of what this film accomplishes. It is a metaphor for America’s transformation during the Sixties and the people caught in the middle. It is an essentially American film. It is, in a word, an American masterpiece.