Saturday, March 31, 2012

Headlining the New York City Scuzz Festival

The other night I watched a film called Jennifer on My Mind, which was so bad it should have been introduced by Leonard Pinth-Garnell. Softheaded in its conception, amateurish in its execution, it told the story of a doomed young couple in Manhattan in the early 1970s. Jennifer is a rich young heroin addict, Marcus is a wealthy young grandson of a Jewish mobster, and that’s the sum and substance of their characterizations. She dies of a heroin overdose – which isn’t a spoiler, since she’s dead in the opening scene - and the film flashes back and forth between Marcus' attempt to dispose of her body and the tragic tale of their courtship. Why Marcus thinks it would be less suspicious to be discovered with a dead body in his car trunk than to have a girl OD in his apartment is never explained.

Maybe the thing that drove me most crazy was that neither Jennifer nor Marcus had anything else going on in their lives, nothing that would either get in the way of their love story or turn them into actual human beings. They’re both rich enough to not need to work, old enough to not need to go to school, and blissfully free of parental involvement – his are dead, hers are absent. Al Pacino didn’t have a job in The Panic in Needle Park, either, but he also didn’t have food much of the time. Jennifer and Marcus are so free of constraints of any kind that they meet in Venice, hang out in New York for a while, then decide to go back to Venice, for no real reason. The whole setup struck me as incredibly lazy.

That kind of fuzzy thinking was matched by the ineptness of the filmmakers. There’s a scene where Marcus is running with a friend through Central Park and discussing how to get rid of Jennifer’s corpse, still moldering in his apartment while he takes timeout for a jog. Hey, removing dead bodies is important, but so’s staying in good shape. The whole scene is dubbed so poorly that it’s often hard to tell which character is talking. It’s like watching a cheapo Italian horror movie.

The film is most notable for an early appearance by Robert De Niro as a speed-freak gypsy cabdriver. He’s in the movie for about two minutes, and is the closest the film ever comes to a recognizable human being. (Incidentally, while I saw this thing on Netflix Streaming, the whole movie appears to be available on YouTube as well. Help yourself.)

It’s all my own fault, of course. I am a sucker for any movie shot in New York City in the early to mid-1970s, roughly from Midnight Cowboy to Taxi Driver. Not only do I have an unhealthy interest in and great affection for the culture of the early 1970s, but I love seeing the city in all its filthy glory, with the dirty blocks of nothing but bodegas and wig shops, all encased in metal bars. (The French Connection is especially good with this kind of scene.)

Jennifer on My Mind
does not skimp on these things, with that scene of a lovely, unkempt Central Park. Plus at one point Marcus decides to move across the Hudson to a high-rise in Union City – no, it doesn’t make sense, since he was living in a huge Manhattan apartment all by himself before - and there’s a gorgeous vista of the West Side from his balcony.

So I’ve had kind of a long-running New York City Scuzzfest going on, with another heroin-facing obscurity cued up for me on Netflix Streaming: Born to Win, from 1971, with George Segal, Paula Prentiss, and the inescapable Robert De Niro. Drug/crime movies tend to work best for this sort of thing, since they want to portray the city in all its unruly grime, not unlike the opening titles to "Welcome Back, Kotter."

Here’s a list of the movies I’ve seen over the past few years that fall into this category; Marshall tells me The Hot Rock belongs here as well. Feel free to add your own choices to the festival:

Midnight Cowboy
The Landlord
The Panic in Needle Park
The French Connection
Mean Streets
The Godfather
Across 110th Street
Death Wish
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Dog Day Afternoon
Marathon Man
Taxi Driver


  1. Tom, I don't recall many exterior shots other than early on dog poop scenes, but one of my favorites is Little Murders.

  2. I knew there had to be an Elliott Gould title for this list!

  3. Interesting corollary: Circa-1990 (and on up) of "Law & Order" episodes, as you know, were the only routine exterior shots of the city. So, now, one actually can watch a TV show that seems vaguely recent and mutter (in an elderly-guy manner), "Of course -- that corner used to have a Woolworth."