This year, 2011, Schatzberg’s first film with Faye Dunaway will be honoured at Cannes. Schatzberg and Dunaway were both unknown in cinema when they made “The Puzzle of a Downfall Child” in 1970. The Cannes poster is based on a still photograph of Dunaway taken by Schatzberg. Both would grace Cannes as lovers in the early Seventies.
A film festival poster can say a lot more than the films on show. It is perhaps a reminder that an intelligent still picture can outsmart the moving image.
The Cannes 2011 poster is a very intriguing one in more ways than one, and the intrigue is a stamp of what Cannes embodies among film festivals worldwide.
The obvious disconnect is 64 for 2011. For graphic students a close look at “64” resembles the film spooling out of a can into the projector and the image magnifying outwards. That could be a testament for any festival.
But is that all? The poster is in black and white. Colour seems to be suddenly passé. It is also a signal for the cineaste to look back and view cinema in a perspective that recalls masters that Cannes once baptized and are now forgotten. The picture on the poster is of Faye Dunaway. The man behind the camera is Jerry Schatzberg. Jerry, who? Well, Jerry Schatzberg is an American, born in 1927, a still photographer and movie director. His still photographs of Bob Dylan are legendary, especially if you have seen the pictures in the book of his photographs “Thin Wild Mercury”. But it was Cannes that discovered and honoured him for the 1973 film that he directed called “Scarecrow.”
Many critics and cineastes might not recall this quaint but important Seventies film with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino in the lead. I remember seeing “Scarecrow” in 1975 when it played in the New Empire theatre in Mumbai to rather thin audiences. It was a film that had a brilliant script, great camerawork from cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and great performances. It had memorable conversation that I quote below between the two lead characters that makes you reflect on the meaning of the title of the film itself.
Lion: Hey Max, you heard the story of the scarecrow?
Max Millan: No.
Lion: You think crows are scared of a scarecrow?
Max Millan: Yeah, I think they’re scared. Yeah why?
Lion: No, crows are not scared, believe me.
Max Millan: The god damn crows are scared.
Lion: No, crows are laughin’.
Max Millan: Nah, that’s bullshit…
Lion: That’s right, the crows are laughin’. Look, the farmer puts out a scarecrow, right, with a funny hat on it, got a funny face. The crows fly by, they see that, itstrikes ’em funny, makes ’em laugh.
Max Millan: The god damn crows are laughin’?
Lion: That’s right, they’re laughin’ their asses off. And then they say, “Well, that ol’ farmer Jo down there, he’s a pretty good guy. He made us laugh, so he won’t bother him any more.”
Max Millan: The god damn crows are laughin’…
Lion: Ohh, they laughin’, woooo!
Max Millan: I gotta tell ya somethin’, that’s the most hare-brained idea I’ve ever heard.
Lion: It’s true, they’re laughin’ their asses off.
Max Millan: The crows are laughin’… I guess the fish are reciting poetry…
Lion: I guess so.
Max Millan: Uh huh… and the uh, pigs are playin’ banjo? And the dogs would be, let’s see, uh… playin’ hockey. And the uh… the uh…
Lion: Crows are laughin’.
Max Millan: Crows are laughin’, right. Ya know, in the joint I’ve heard some tales, oh boy, golly I’ve heard some tall tales. But at least those guys had the decency to admit that it was bullshit, you know what I mean? They actually took pride, pride in that it was bullshit. But the crows are laughin’ huh? I mean you’re not playin’ with a full deck man, you got one foot in the grave beyond.
But Jerry Schatzberg’s The Scarecrow was a box office failure. Many could not take in the spirit and the existential aura of the films subject. Cannes bestowed it the highest honour—the Golden Palm. The Oscars, as usual, ignored this important US film altogether. In contrast festivals in Japan and Denmark honoured the work as the most significant foreign film that particular year.
This year, 2011, Schatzberg’s first film with Faye Dunaway will be honoured at Cannes. Schatzberg and Dunaway were both unknown in cinema when they made “The Puzzle of a Downfall Child” in 1970. The Cannes poster is based on a still photograph of Dunaway taken by Schatzberg. Both would grace Cannes as lovers in the early Seventies. Forty-one years later the poster and the film will underscore why Cannes is different from the Oscars, why it is different from other film festivals, and why it has a niche of its own. It is paying tribute to an American director, a loner like Terrence Mallick, that the Oscars and many American critics have overlooked over the decades. Schatzberg and Mallick make films that are different from the average American Hollywood product.
Michel Ciment, the French film critic, said of Schatzberg’s cinema: In more than forty years of photography and cinema, Schatzberg has achieved a delicate balance between refined form of mise-en-scene and the rendering of true moments. He has a particular gift to restrain the emotions only to make their release more powerful and to avoid the obvious by suggesting rather than by underlining. He makes us feel, something that is too often missing in contemporary American cinema: an adult and mature artist, dealing with adult and mature themes and characters.
The 2011 Cannes poster captures it all. It is not just honouring movies, it is honouring the “power of the image.”