A Woman’s Point of View
In effectively her first film, since an uncredited glimpse in Dennis Hopper‘s Easy Rider (1969) hardly counts, third-billed Snodgress carries the picture. Her contained simmer — a mostly quiet anger and exhaustion laced with confusion — underlines the effect of those moments when she does blow up. She struck audiences who weren’t used to unsatisfied and belittled housewives starring in a film, or to the concept of such people existing. She was nominated for an Oscar and got two Golden Globes instead; maybe that’s the equivalent. Famously, her performance inspired Neil Young to write “A Man Needs a Maid” for his Harvest album (1972), and this led to their personal involvement.
In their commentary, writer and producer Larry Karaszewski, filmmaker Howard S. Berger, and writer and producer Steve Mitchell, discuss Eleanor Perry’s career, how closely the script follows Sue Kaufman’s novel, what are the differences, and most intriguingly, how Frank Perry put in different scenes for the television version, which couldn’t have this version’s nudity and profanity. That alternate-universe edition would have been a fascinating bonus for comparison, especially since it offers different facets of Tina’s character.
Finally, a shout-out for Stan Cappiello. He’s the “scenic artist”, a credit popping up often at this time. That’s not the production designer (Peter Dohanos) or set decorators (Robert Drumheller and Sam Robert), nor the propmaster (Thomas Wright), but he had to work with these people. I’m prepared to be corrected, but I think the scenic artist creates the modern art hanging on the walls in many scenes, and this guy’s output is dazzling. He was clearly based in New York, and a retrospective of his work would be a knockout.
Cappiello worked with the Perrys on A Christmas Memory (1966) and The Swimmer (1968); Sidney Lumet on Bye Bye Braverman (1968) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975); Ulu Grosbard on The Subject Was Roses (1968) and Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me (1971); Francis Ford Coppola on You’re a Big Boy Now (1966); Newman and Woodward on The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972); Bryan Forbes on The Stepford Wives (1975); on Cy Howard’s Lovers and Other Strangers (1970); and the “New York is hell” comedies Little Murders (Alan Arkin, 1971) and A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971). Connections, connections.
Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Jerry Schatzberg (1970)
The first thing we see is a gorgeous autumnal landscape marked by tall brown grass and a lonely house, Edward Hopper-like, sitting on a hill. As the commentary track points out, it’s also a reference to Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World (1948) without Christina. The woman in the grass will be added later in the film.
Meanwhile, we overhear a man and woman discussing whether this conversation is being recorded. We gather that a woman is being interviewed for background material for a film. This level of self-consciousness and division between sound and image marks the whole film, as does the increasing division between reality and fantasy or creativity, or simplicity and complexity.
Ironically, such a fantastical and untrustworthy film as Puzzle of a Downfall Child is based on reality. This is the debut film of Jerry Schatzberg, a famous fashion photographer for Vogue. The film is inspired by a model named Anne St. Marie, whom he recorded in conversation for over two hours. That tape inspired screenwriter Carole Eastman, who would receive an Oscar nod for Bob Rafelson‘s Five Easy Pieces this same year. The tape also inspired Faye Dunaway, who adopts a distracted, affected, stylized performance that perfectly conveys this character and which is different from any of her other roles.
The character is Lou Andreas Sand, a name she confesses she stole from a famous person. Her real name is Emily, perhaps as in Dickinson, as we see her trying to write a Dickinsonian poem later. Her namesake was Lou Andreas-Salomé, a formidably intellectual, educated, and unconventional pioneer who was among the first woman psychoanalysts and a diverse writer. She was also famous for knowing and/or sleeping with a bunch of famous people, which is important as a mark of her sexual liberation. Perhaps the surname is meant to remind us of French writer George Sand, an equally liberated and unconventional woman.
Unfortunately, the film’s Lou doesn’t nearly have things as together as these role models. As a fashion model, her purpose is to be in sharp focus for everyone’s superficial gaze, to be a fantasy object, a prop for consumption. She’s invented a name and also invents memories to make herself seem more interesting, because something in her needs that gaze and interest for self-validation. This pathology leads to amphetamine and alcohol addiction and even a mental breakdown.
All this sounds like a serious trudge and a clearly spelled out diagnosis, but the viewer can only begin to grasp these things after the film is over, for its presentation is anything but straightforward and not even excessively serious. It prefers to be playful and deceptive, like Lou. “I wasn’t lying in Paris, I just made it up,” she explains at one point. Now she’s in isolation at the beach house, away from cameras and makeup and other people, to figure out what’s real and who she is.
We get an early clue during a flashback to her first professional assignment, where she met her interviewer, photographer Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus). As the camera pans around the studio to men who aren’t paying the slightest attention to Lou, as though she’s a bit of furniture in the corner, we hear her voice with typical extravagance: “All those men were staring at me like they were some kind of lunatic sex maniacs.” Clearly, we’re to take the image as reality while her interpretation reveals her diva-like hunger for attention, self-dramatization, for others’ desire.
However, we’re deceived if we think the Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s codes are that simple and consistent. At first, the narrative style reveals Lou’s delusional and unreliable character in this way, to inform and warn us, but somewhere around the halfway point, the visual presentation of flashbacks begins to shake things up. Some flashbacks are fabricated or revisionist, as an extension of a narrative idea in Richard Lester‘s Petulia (1968) with Julie Christie. That’s appropriate since Christie won an Oscar for playing a fashion model who tells lies in John Schlesinger‘s Darling (1965).
One redeeming and revealing detail about Lou is that she more than once shows an aptitude for creativity and control. Her frustrations may relate to being on the wrong side of the camera, the side where everyone else controls her look and movement. We sense that Lou might make a good photographer, perhaps the one Dunaway would play in Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978).
Two special collaborators are photographer Adam Holender, best known for Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), and editor Evan Lottman, who went on to the aforementioned The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and, more famously, The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) and Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982). Holder’s camera, sometimes panning or slowly moving in, offers beautiful composition in a variety of lighting styles, as you might expect working with an ex-fashion photographer. Lottman’s editing is crucial, since the continual disjunctions must seem smooth and be bridged with the free-floating sound mix.
The structure isn’t linear but jumps in time according to memory and rhymed images, sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks. The film is set in a largely timeless 1950s and ’60s; a clip of the 1964 Clay-Liston match, unless I mistake it, is the only moment that can be dated exactly.
Foregrounded themes are psychiatry, analysis, and unsatisfying sex, since she prefers it with strangers and fears intimacy or commitment. Another is the representation of glamorous women, with much talismanic use of Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong. Truly names to conjure with.
Although Lou’s life is apparently glamorous, unlike Tina’s tiresome ties to housework and family, Lou shares with Tina an existential dissatisfaction. Lou complains that her life is “so boring, so ordinary, it’s the story of everyone’s life,” and she may not be wrong.
Also in the film are the always intelligent Viveca Lindfors as a brittle photographer, Barry Morse as her husband, and Roy Scheider as the man Lou almost marries. He’s the object of the most disjunctive memories. For example, Lou in the beach house models her wedding dress in white then flashes back to the wedding when the same dress is black.
In a bonus interview, Schatzberg recalls how his talk with Paramount’s Bob Evans fell through when Evans realized he wasn’t getting another film like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). Schatzberg went to Universal, where his silent producing partners became…wait for it…Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward! The more you examine these New American Cinema films about gender roles and reality and madness, the more it seems like only a handful of people created this movement, though I think it’s more that everyone knew and followed each other’s work.
Now get this: Shirley Rich is casting director on both this film and Diary of a Mad Housewife. Her non-prolific film output includes four we’ve mentioned: Rachel Rachel, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, which shows she worked with Newman and Woodward several times. Connections! She handled another Dunaway picture, Three Days of the Condor (1973), and two little items known as Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1978) and Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979). We deduce she was based in New York.
Puzzle of a Downfall Child also has a scenic designer: Murray Stern, whom I presume is responsible for Lou’s Edvard Munch-like portrait, perhaps a self-portrait.
Filmmaker Daniel Kremer and historian Bill Ackerman provide commentary comparing this film with Play It As It Lays, which they call a “sister film”. They trace the cinematic trend in women’s existential ennui to Anne Bancroft’s performance in The Pumpkin Eater (Jack Clayton, 1964), a British film scripted by Harold Pinter from Penelope Mortimer’s autobiographical novel. Truly, such themes were in the air and water and whatever people were eating and smoking. We find them everywhere once we decide to look, including several Jean-Luc Godard films.
And now, we can find Diary of a Mad Housewife and Puzzle of a Downfall Child in these Kino Lorber Blu-rays with rich spiffy transfers. Let’s hope some of the other elusive films we’ve mentioned will emerge into the digital daylight. They deserve it. To quote an old cigarette ad of the era, they’ve come a long way, baby.