both directed by Martin Bell
Well this is an incredible, classic documentary and a pretty good narrative type companion piece, and both were filmed in Seattle and now that I saw them I wonder why in fuck’s name I took so long getting to them. The real winner of the two is STREETWISE, academy award nominated documentary about runaway kids on the streets of Seattle in 1984. The story behind this is that the photographer Mary Ellen Mark (web site) was doing a photo essay for LIFE magazine. At the time Seattle was considered one of the country’s “most livable cities” (imagine that) so she thought it would be the perfect place to photograph homeless kids. If it can happen in seattle then shit, it can happen anywhere. Well the photo essay turned out good so she decided to get her husband Martin Bell to direct a documentary about the same kids she took pictures of.
Watching this movie I thought about movies like KIDS that work because they have some amount of shock in them and at the same time they are closer to real life than what you usually get in movies. But here they found a group of people just as colorful but they’re actually real. It’s about a group of kids who all hang out in front of a grafitti wall between 1st and 2nd on Pike Street. You know, like a block away from where the tourists go to watch those guys throw fish.
The main girl is “Tiny” and like almost all the girls in the movie, she’s a prostitute. It’s pretty horrible to watch because this is a tiny little girl and you see her walking up to these cars. I mean I’ve been around some sick sacks of shit but when you watch this movie you just wonder what in fuck’s name is wrong with these people that they would even be TEMPTED to get with a little girl like that. This girl has a mom who she goes to sometimes, she’s a waitress so she gets Tiny food, but she’s totally passive about her situation. She knows her daughter is living on the streets and turning tricks but she just kind of has a defeatist attitude like, “how am I gonna stop her?” And the gal isn’t completely unlikable, she seems very nice, but she lets her daughter turn tricks! Shit, these permissive mothers of the ’80s, what are they gonna lead us into?
There are kids you follow as they spare change, dumpster dive, order pizzas to fake addresses so they can get them out of the dumpster, go to the doctor, get in fights, squat in hotels. There’s a butch lesbian gal named Lulu. It’s the ’80s and they have those hair styles so at first I thought she was a teenage boy. Anyway she’s sort of the neighborhood enforcer, she gets in fights with men for grabbing her friends boobs and shit like that.
There’s also this kid named Duane who looks about 12 but apparently he’s 16. In one of the best scenes in the movie he goes to visit his pop in the can. Dad is about to get out and he’s real excited to get back with his kid and try to make up for everything. He has big plans to start a thrift store. He kind of goes back and forth between being loving and scolding the kid, checking his arms for tracks and calling him a little punk. “Do you want to end up like me?”
The craziest part is the kid asks if there is a guy named such and such in there with his dad – his dad looks surprised, because it’s a guy he actually knows. “Tell him I said hi.”
Well the sad thing is the dad never gets the chance to make it up to the kid, because the kid hangs himself in juvy a couple days later. And you actually see the dad at the funeral, with almost nobody else there except the guards that escort him.
I mean there are some incredible scenes in this movie. One of the minor characters is this pimp who the hooker girls are pretty wary of, they talk about how cruel he is. But then there’s a scene where his mom and grandmother find him on the street and give him money for food and try to talk to him. He turns into a shy little boy and won’t look them in the eye.
If you live in Seattle like I do it adds an extra dimension to the movie because it’s a pretty amazing time capsule. Most of this takes place on very recognizable blocks that everybody knows. Look at the picture I used on the bottom of the “VERN’S AMERICA” page. That’s the block that most of this takes place on. The grafitti wall they hang out at was right across the street, about where I was standing when I took the picture. That “Liberty Loans” sign with the rifle is there today and it was there in the movie in 1984. I chose that block for the picture because it’s one of the sleaziest looking blocks downtown, but right in the middle of a tourist area, bookended by t-shirt shops. It has been slightly gentrified in the past year. I think they closed down the drug clinic. There used to usually be about a dozen of my type of fellas standing there hanging out. The billboard on the other corner was always some kind of hard alcohol, and that’s not a coincidence.
I figure the runaways and teenage prostitutes must hang out in some other part of the city. I don’t see them there.
Anyway if you’re from Seattle you might even recognize some of the people in this movie. There’s a guy with a long beard playing a steel guitar on the beginning of this movie. That’s Baby Gramps, he’s a well known street musician. You only seem to see him at festivals these days but he used to be around with a two-headed antique teddy bear and he’d sing songs in his raspy voice about palindromes and shit. I never knew he used to have a brown beard! There’s also a guy in a wheelchair, I’m not sure but he looks like the vietnam vet that sells roses outside of the Bon every day.
So it kind of feels like spying on ghosts or something. After watching the movie you find yourself trying to calculate how old these people would be now and guess if they’re still alive. Would you recognize them if you saw them walking around somewhere? I figured somebody must’ve followed up on what happened to these people so I did some research. All I could find was that Tiny is a welfare mother and Lulu was killed in a knife fight 2 years after the movie, and her last words were supposedly “Tell Mary Ellen and Martin Lulu died.”
Lulu does get to live on as a supporting character named Freddy in the drama AMERICAN HEART which Martin Bell made 8 years later. Somebody told me it was gonna be basically the fictional version of the documentary, and that’s not the case. But it’s obviously inspired by the relationship between Duane and his dad in STREETWISE, if Duane had lived to see his dad get out. The story is about Jeff Bridges getting out of jail where he finds that his pesky son Edward Furlong wants to live with him. At first he tries to ditch the kid but they end up greyhounding it to seattle and living in a shitty apartment, one sleeping on the mattress, the other on the springs.
There are other connections to STREETWISE. Both have a couple songs by Tom Waits. The character of Freddy is obviously based on Lulu, she looks alot like her and has the same sort of role in the neighborhood. Edward Furlong seems like Duane or Rat in STREETWISE and although he has a home he hangs out downtown with a group of teenage prostitutes and drag queens very similar to the kids in the documentary, but now it’s 1992 so their clothes are even worse. Sadly somebody added the element of a boombox blaring heavy metal type guitars whenever the kids hang out, and that makes the whole thing seem phoney. But sadly we know from STREETWISE that the situation of the little girl selling her ass and her mom not caring is realistic.
The biggest connection to STREETWISE is one of the main themes: Jeff Bridges tells his kid “You keep me straight, I’ll keep you straight” which is the same thing Duane’s dad told him. What works about the movie is the relationship between father and son. It really is sad how little capacity this fuck has to show his son he cares. I mean to a certain extent he really does care but he sure doesn’t know how to show it and in the end what’s the difference, if you don’t care enough to show it then you don’t care enough. There are some good uncomfortable scenes like when he brings a gal home and pays his son to leave so they can get it on. That didn’t seem to be a big turn on to her, though.
That reminds me the one pretty phoney aspect is the love Bridges has for a gal he met through the “American Heart” penpal magazine while in the joint. Nice try martin but you are not gonna get a gal that is good looking and well adjusted through prison penpals. If that really happened even once in the history of prison penpals you shoulda done a documentary on that because that’s bottled lightning there pal. sorry but i gotta call it like i see it. Oh well, I guess we didn’t want to see Jeff making kissy faces at a grizzled hag with a black eye coughing up cigarette loogies. (sorry.)
But other than that the movie feels very true to life. In the end you get the emotional connection you want between dad and son but it’s not to forced. He doesn’t suddenly turn around. They both fuck up pretty bad but they also both take a genuine step to be together.
I recommend AMERICAN HEART but I demand that you see STREETWISE. I really don’t have anything smart to say about it but I bet you will, so just shut yer yap for now and go see the fuckin thing. the end.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.