The Cinema of Rural Despair: ‘Scarecrow’ and 1970s New Hollywood

Al Pacino and Gene Hackman star in Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973)

“A crow isn’t afraid of a scarecrow. It laughs.” ~ ‘Scarecrow’

Hell hath no fury like a 1970s New Hollywood film. The production code had met its demise, The Vietnam War was raging, and Richard Nixon’s lies were plaguing a once patriotic nation with disappointment, distrust and despair. Rape and murder, as The Rolling Stones prophesized, were just a shot away. Fear and paranoia spread from the noisy streets of Manhattan to the quiet suburbs of New Jersey. Everyone, it seemed, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. They were all losing their minds.

It is this cynical sentiment that is captured in New Hollywood cinema. Filmmakers had something to say and were not afraid to confront audiences. The Godfather (1972) equated American capitalism with organized crime; Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) depicted the disintegration of the American family through divorce; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) feared that individualism was mistaken for insanity. These films, and many more like them, are cinematic milestones. They represent the best that American cinema can offer, and while some cinephiles of a certain age still consider the silent era or the classical era to be the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking, there are others who believe that American film reached its peak in the 1970s.

One of the best and most underappreciated New Hollywood films is Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973), which stars Al Pacino and Gene Hackman as two drifters who form an unlikely friendship. The premise is similar to Midnight Cowboy (1969) and other New Hollywood classics, but history has not been as kind to Scarecrow, and the film is rarely acknowledged by cinephiles today. This is a shame because Scarecrow is one of the most emblematic works of the decade.

Scarecrow is a buddy film, and is specific to the time period for its focus on two male protagonists as social outcasts. Max (Hackman) is a meandering ex-con and Lionel (Pacino) is a mentally ill homeless man. Like most male characters in New Hollywood cinema, they are anti-heroes portrayed by two of the most prominent character actors of the decade. Their friendship is indicative of their low status in the social hierarchy.

Consider the opening scene in which Max and Lionel meet for the first time. They stand on opposite sides of a dirt road as each man attempts to hitchhike. Neither man is successful. The scene shows Max and Lionel’s powerlessness. For some reason — and we are not entirely sure why when the film begins, though we later learn it is because of the characters’ financial instability — Max and Lionel are unable to travel by automobile. In order to move from place to place, they must rely on the help of others.

The opening scene of ‘Scarecrow’ establishes the main characters as social outcasts

The first few minutes of Scarecrow successfully establish Max and Lionel’s misfortune with little dialogue. An automobile represents mobility, freedom, and affluence, and this is precisely what Max and Lionel lack in their lives. Their progression from one place to another is literally out of their control and in the hands of the individuals with a higher status.

The fact that Max and Lionel are not offered a ride conveys everything we need to know within a matter of seconds. Society doesn’t care about them, and as they drift through the dusty roads in the middle of nowhere, Schatzberg visualizes their seclusion from society with creative camerawork. Schatzberg places Max and Lionel side by side in a wide shot as they try to hitchhike, and the framing of the scene emphasizes their isolation from the world. They do not have anyone else.

When Max fails to light a cigarette and Lionel offers him his last match, the two form a friendship. Similar to the pairs in Easy Rider (1969) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), Max and Lionel come together out of desperation. At long last, their lonely souls find companionship.

A harrowing scene toward the end of the film further shows how far removed from society Max and Lionel are. They congregate near a fountain, and Lionel, the clown of the bunch, attempts to cheer up a group of children by splashing around in the water. This seemingly joyous scene turns chaotic when Lionel is afflicted with an attack that causes a disturbing scene. Max, observing Lionel’s vulnerability, bears ostracism from the crowd and comforts Lionel. Max’s social sacrifice to stand by his sick friend is reminiscent of Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight) tenderness toward toward Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) as he lays dying at the end of Midnight Cowboy.

Max stands by Lionel, his only friend, in a powerful scene in ‘Scarecrow’

This scene is a turning point for Max and Lionel. Most significant is the internal realization Max comes to when he decides to stick with Lionel. Max is stronger and more put together than Lionel, just as Joe Buck is mentally and physically healthier than Ratso, but he is still a social outcast, and he know that Lionel is his only friend. The decision to swallow his pride and accept his place in society is a sacrifice he must make if he wants to escape a life of loneliness. Companionship for Max is worth a few uncomfortable moments of public embarrassment.

There’s a rough road ahead. If Midnight Cowboy chronicles the cinema of urban despair, Scarecrow reflects the cinema of rural despair. Combined, the two films show that social outcasts are unable to find a place in 1970s America. Disillusionment with the American dream, coupled with capitalism’s harsh caprice, stifle Max and Lionel’s ability to succeed. This is why they are drifters and outcasts to begin with, why Max has been in and out of prison, and why Lionel has been homeless.

A typical Hollywood film might condemn characters like Max and Lionel, but New Hollywood filmmakers try to situate their struggles within a larger socioeconomic context. Bonnie and Clyde rob banks because times are tough in the Great Depression; Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo steal food because New York City employment is difficult to come by; Max and Lionel lash out because people will not let them atone for past mistakes. In Scarecrow, Max and Lionel are victims of a cruel capitalist system.

Max dreams to open a car wash in Pittsburgh, and the money he hides in his boot is literally the small glimmer of hope on which he walks every day. He plans to use that money to start his business.

Of course, there’s a conflict. In the final scenes, Max faces a moral dilemma. Lionel becomes catatonic after the attack at the fountain and may not recover. Max wants to stay by Lionel’s side, but doesn’t want to deviate from his business plan. What will he do?

At the ticket booth, Max purchases a round trip ticket. The ticket costs more money than he has in his pocket, so he uses the savings in his boot. Typical to New Hollywood cinema, the film ends ambiguously, and we do not know if Max returns after Pittsburgh, or in what state Lionel will be when does.

Some may claim that the ending is optimistic, since Max makes the financial sacrifice to buy the round trip ticket, which can be read as a symbolic promise of friendship, but I find that hard to believe. An optimistic ending would undermine Schatzberg’s decision to end the film ambiguously in the first place. If all was going to be okay, he would have given us a happy Hollywood ending.

However, all is not okay in New Hollywood cinema, and one of the ways filmmakers convey the cynicism and bleak uncertainty of the decade is by ending their films before things get worse. Even if Max returns and Lionel recovers, they will continue to struggle and fall behind in a country that shuns the social outcast.

And what else should we expect? The Chief may have thrown the sink through the window at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the wounded soldiers may find the strength to sing “God Bless America” in the final scene of The Deer Hunter (1978), but these personal victories do not negate the crushing constraints of the system.

In the early scenes of Scarecrow, there’s a brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in which Max and Lionel hitch a ride with a hippie couple in a Volkswagen. The young couple is kind, but the sounds inside the van are not of rock music or laughter, but of crying babies in the backseat. The dream of the 1960s had ended, and what took over was the grim reality of the 1970s.

The article has been modified from a previous version published in The Artifice.

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