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December 15, 2020

Puzzle of a Downfall Child

puzzle of downfall child.jpg

Jerry Schatzberg - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Especially for those who were not around at the time, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a perfect example of the "New Hollywood" film. Shortly after the unexpectedly massive success of Easy Rider, Universal, usually the most conservative of the major studios, scrambled to sign up a number of younger or more independent filmmakers, including Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Monte Hellman and Milos Forman. The filmmakers general were given free reign on modest budgets. What connected these films was a kind of eclecticism the borrowed from the French Nouvelle Vague, experimental films of Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger, among others, and cinema verite. The films, some of which have attained cult or classic status over the years, never brought in the audience that the studio suits were banking on. Universal was financially saved with the release of the squarest film of 1970, Airport.

The film is not really a puzzle, but it is extremely fragmented. Bookended as a photographer recording the memories of a former top model in her Long Island beachside home, the film not only weaves out between past and present, but also with images that may be disconnected with the model's narration of of her life at a given moment. The photographer, Aaron, and the model, Lou Andreas, were loosely inspired by the real life friendship of Schatzberg with 1950s model Anne St. Marie. Lou Andreas is the self-chosen professional name, possibly inspired by Lou Andreas-Salome and her sense of independence. A couple of Vogue magazine covers indicate Lou's appearances in 1954 and 1955, while a scene taking place in a bar that includes a televised boxing match seems to be from the early Sixties. Belying the appearance of a free-wheeling approach to time and reality, Schatzberg, in his feature directorial debut, wrote the screenplay with Carole Eastman, credit with her pseudonym of Adrien Joyce. Again, circling back to the "New Hollywood", Eastman was the screenwriter of the moment with the critical and commercial success of Five East Pieces that same year.

The film is also a showcase for Faye Dunaway as Lou. Some strands of autobiography are here as Schatzberg and Dunaway had a very public relationship a few years earlier. At age 28, Dunaway still looked passable as the younger, naive Lou navigating her way through her first professional shoot where she is upstaged by a falcon. Where Schatzberg misjudged was having Dunaway also appear as the fifteen year old Lou in flashbacks. Serving as a verbal counterpoint to the seeming freeform structure of the film is how Dunaway speaks her lines with measured, deliberate cadences during the interview. It is as if Lou, following a life that spirals into a descent of near self-destruction, has control of her life by parsing a few words that slowly emerge as a completed sentence. Even at that, with the film told from her point of view, Lou is the unreliable narrator.

Character actor Barry Primus was officially introduced here in the role of Aaron. Roy Scheider, just a year away from his star making turn in The French Connection appears as Mark, Lou's jilted fiance. Viveca Lindfors plays an older fashion photographer who may have been partially inspired by Inge Morath. While Schatzberg had his own ideas of how his film should look, he collaborated with cinematographer Adam Holender on three more New York City based films. Following this first film, Schatzberg subsequent work has been more conventional in story telling. His best decade critically was the Seventies with Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow, both with Al Pacino, with The Seduction of Joe Tynan closing that decade with one of his few commercial successes.

The commentary track by Daniel Kramer and Bill Ackerman primarily covers the pre-production history of the film and the collaboration of Schatzberg with Holender and editor Evan Lottman. Puzzle was Lottman's second credit as editor, working again with Schatzberg up through Honeysuckle Rose, and impressing uncredited producer Paul Newman enough to be tasked with editing Newman's film of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. There is also discussion of Faye Dunaway's film career and how Puzzle anticipates her own being aged out of starring roles. A brief interview with Schatzberg, done remotely by video, has its high point in featuring several of the fashion photos Schatzberg had shot between 1957 and 1960. A brief "Trailers from Hell" segment with screenwriter Larry Karasweski is also included. There is also the studio imposed opening credit sequence which attempts to make Lou appear as a victim rather than allowing the viewers to draw their own conclusions. The blu-ray comes almost to the day that Puzzle was originally given its theatrical release fifty years ago. I had initially seen the film theatrically when it was already six years old and was curious as to if it was as good as I had remembered. Puzzle was a critical and financial failure at the time of release in the U.S., finding its audience in France as well as a handful of cinephiles here. Hopefully, this new blu-ray will help broaden the film's critical reputation.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 15, 2020 06:19 AM