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The Panic in Needle ParkEvery town seems to have its own film festival these days. And every film festival seems to have its own theme. And many of these film festivals screen their films in nothing more than an old bingo hall or church gymnasium. Many of them don't even show independent films, instead choosing to feature gala premieres of studio funded mega-pics. Some don't even show new films. And some are even free! Now, finally, after great demand, I've created my own film festival. Now please, calm down for a second. I know this is exciting, but please stop a minute and catch your breath. You can't run out and buy tickets for this new festival. This festival is not playing at your local theater. This is a do-it-yourself film festival. It's the latest thing. Here's how it works... I program the festival. I pick the films. You go out and find them. You bring them home. You invite your friends over. They bring offerings of beer and food. We have a film festival. Sounds easy? It is.

The first leg of my do-it-yourself (or myself, actually) film festival focuses on drug trafficking films of the 1970's. Yes, I know. Maybe it's not the feel good subject matter you were expecting, but hey, we all have our tastes. Now, I've sifted long and hard through films of this subject and feel like I've filtered out all the average material and narrowed it down to three essential films, probably best viewed in the order I'm recommending, and easily watchable in one pain-inducing, misery-loving evening.

The first film to pop into the vcr is Jerry Schatzberg's 1971 drama The Panic in Needle Park. In the film, a young couple (played by Kitty Winn and a pre-Godfather Al Pacino) meet, fall into a relationship, then quickly sink to the depths of heroin addiction faster than you can say Sid and Nancy. Bobby (Pacino) is a small time crook and street hood who meets Helen (Winn) while selling a bag of heroin to her artist boyfriend Marco (Raul Julia). Marco isn't very compassionate about the back alley abortion Helen's just had and in fact splits on her shortly after. Bobby visits Helen in the hospital and the two quickly become buddies and eventually lovers. It isn't long, however, before Bobby is casually using the junk he deals. Helen's curiosity gets the better of her as well, and soon enough both are wandering the Sherman Square area of Manhattan (commonly known to the junkies of 1971 as "Needle Park") with the common goal of getting high. Their timing however, is rotten, as one of the biggest "panics" in history is about to hit the streets. A "panic" being any prolonged period of time where heroin is scarce. Soon enough, the couple is burgling, prostituting, and doing anything they can to get their fix.

An accomplished photographer in his prior career, director Schaztberg, in only his second film, painted an alarmingly realistic portrait of heroin addiction, with graphic shooting-up scenes that, in my opinion, have yet to be topped. The extended takes, handheld camerawork, and gritty foundation in reality make this film the polar opposite of last years "Requiem For a Dream", which relied heavily on ambience, camera tricks, and editing to create the same nauseating drug nightmare. The performances are uniformly strong, with Pacino showing exactly why he'd go on to greater heights. Winn is also terrific, with many of her best moments coming in her quiet reactions to Pacino's nonstop rambling. Richard Bright, as Bobby's burglar brother, and Alan Vint, as a cop, are also strong in supporting roles. Many have sited last years "Requiem" as the first film to really paint heroin in a truthful, non-glamorous manner. This one did it first, thirty years ago, and should probably be required viewing for junior high school anti-drug seminars.

For movie number two, I'd get ahold of the 1972 Kris Kristofferson/Gene Hackman starrer Cisko Pike. Kristofferson plays the title role of Cisko Pike, an ex-rock star who had a couple minor hits a few years earlier, then faded into obscurity. Now, Pike lives with his girlfriend Sue (played by Karen Black) in a cramped apartment in Venice Beach where he is desperately attempting a comeback. Over the past few years, he's become better known in the L.A. music scene as a dealer of high grade marijuana than as a musician. In an early scene, Pike swings by a friend's recording sessions to drop off a demo tape. The friend pays little attention to his songs and is clearly more interested in getting a hold of some of "that good stuff". Despite the financial rewards and minor celebrity status of being a dealer to the stars, the combination of pressure from his girlfriend and two busts make Cisko decide to go straight. His new plan consists of concentrating on his comeback with former singing partner Jesse Dupree (Harry Dean Stanton).

However, before Cisko can finish telling his loyal customers to do their shopping elsewhere, the square cop who busted him, Leo Holland (played by a creepy Gene Hackman), shows up on his doorstep with an offer, or more like a blackmail. Leo, fed up with the low pay and daily beaurocratic bullshit he faces as an officer of the law, has just made away with 100 kilos of high grade pot from a recent bust. If Pike can sell it all over the course of that coming weekend, he can keep the profits after $10,000. Forced into the deal, Pike reluctantly agrees and immediately begins contacting the clients he just spent a week trying to get rid of. To complicate things, Pike's ex-partner Dupree shows up on the same weekend to help plan their singing comeback, except he's brought along a nasty addiction to heroin and pills. Basically, you'd be right to think the weekend doesn't go as planned for any of the characters involved.

Thanks to the "I'm fucked" script and the hilariously spaced-out performances of Stanton and ex-Andy Warhol actress Viva, this film contains considerably more humor than The Panic in Needle Park or any of its 1970's drug culture counterparts. Also, Kristofferson is astonishingly good in his first film role (his two seconds in Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie" notwithstanding) and, being in nearly every scene in the film, has the presence to consistently hold your interest. However, despite solid reviews and a fairly decent following, the film was never released to home video and is, even now, amazingly difficult to find. Thankfully, the cable channel Encore has taken to showing the film occasionally over the past few months. Take the time to check your local cable guide and find it. It's worth it.

Who'll Stop the RainWell, after the hopeless misery of "Panic" and the backed-into-a-corner shrug of "Cisko Pike", you'll definitely want to see a movie that will release your anger and pent-up frustrations. Look no further than the 1978 Nick Nolte starrer Who'll Stop the Rain, recently released to DVD in a glorious widescreen transfer. Michael Moriarty plays John, a photographer covering the latter half of the Vietnam War. A few days before returning home to his wife Marge (Tuesday Weld) and young daughter in Berkeley, John stumbles into a great deal on two kilos of uncut heroin. Apparently morally bankrupt from the war and seeking adventure (John says in the film, "This is the place where everyone comes to find out who they are"), he buys the heroin and convinces his buddy Ray Hicks (Nolte), a marine with his own one man marijuana smuggling operation, to carry it into the States for him. Hicks, sensing his friend is out of his league, is reluctant, but eventually agrees. Once safely in the U.S., Hicks finds John's plans for unloading the heroin to be as ridiculously dim-witted as he feared. John's wife, completely in the dark on the smuggle, was, according to John, going to give Hicks his cut upon delivery. In truth, she is totally clueless of the entire operation. To make matters worse, John seems to have been set up, as a viciously corrupt cop (played by 70's villain staple Anthony Zerbe) and his two chess-playing henchmen (Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey) move quickly to try and seize the dope. It isn't long before the violent Hicks and confused Marge are on the run to Los Angeles, with Hicks making his own plans for unloading the drugs on some friends in Hollywood.

Based on Robert Stone's gritty source novel "Dog Soldiers", which won the National Book Award in 1975, "Who'll Stop the Rain" sums up the frustrations of a generation with its naive plan-gone-awry story. The direction by former film theorist Karel Reisz is particularly strong. Nolte, in only his second starring role, pushes his way through the film with the force of an crazed buffalo. And the ending, while by no means upbeat, will give you satisfying closure to an exciting evening of drug-fueled 1970's American misery.

As for who was releasing this downbeat anti-authority stuff in that great decade, "The Panic in Needle Park" was put out by 20th Century Fox, "Cisko Pike" by Columbia Pictures, and "Who'll Stop the Rain" by United Artists. Hardly in the mold of the current studio fare, or even much of the independents. It really makes me sigh in relief, to know that the state of filmmaking wasn't always as grim as it is today. Wait, actually, it was pretty grim - grim in content, not in the quality of films, which is how it is today. Oh, you know what I mean. Happy viewing.

-- Paul Kermizian


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