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At the beginning of Streetwise, Martin Bell's Academy Award-nominated documentary from 1984, we are introduced to two kids, Rat and Dewayne, who are panhandling the downtown streets of Seattle. Dewayne seems a decent sort: he has long thick hair, and if someone turns him down he simply moves onto the next person. Rat, on the other hand, is aptly named. He's small with narrow eyes, wears his Yankees cap backwards, and curses out pedestrians who don't give him anything. In one scene, in an attempt at cool, he spits but the spit merely dribbles down his chin. Wiping it off, he looks at it, angry and offended, as if it were somehow the spit's fault. Immediately I identified with Dewayne, didn't like Rat. But it's Rat who turns out to be streetwise.
Kids on the street
Academy Award Nominations:
"It's just a phase she's going through."
Other characters are introduced, including Patti and Munchkin, a street couple, Jack, Rat's middle-aged partner, and Shadow, who considers himself a playboy rather than a pimp, and who, at one point, comically dyes his hair black to look cool. An unnamed butch lesbian stalks these streets as self-appointed protector of the less fortunate. Pimps and religious fanatics engage each other in debate. Most notably, there's Erin, a 14 year-old prostitute with the fragile beauty of a young Diane Lane. The ends of her brown hair are dyed blonde, she revels in toughness, but she doesn't seem so tough herself. In fact she's rather conservative in her worldview. She calls her tricks "dates," and if pregnant she wouldn't get an abortion because "It's not fair to the baby."
Street morality is revealed. The girls look down on the boys for "dumpster-diving" for food while the boys look down on the girls for prostituting themselves. Rat lives with Jack in abandoned buildings, and we see him running a Shakey's scam: ordering a pizza, never going to pick it up, grabbing it out of the dumpster after it's been thrown away.
Eventually the camera pulls even further back and we get some sense of the family lives of these kids. Dewayne's father, a dumpy Dennis Franz-type, is in prison, and berates his visiting son. "What do you want to be a punk on the street?... You want to end up like me?" Erin lives with her alcoholic mother, a well-meaning woman who chillingly refers to her daughter's prostitution as "Just a phase she's going through." As a viewer you want to slap these people around, particularly with the specter of AIDS in the background. It's a harsh, hopeless life, and violence seems ready to break out at any time. Even when relationships develop there's more sadness than anything else. Rat and Erin get together but for what? Roller-skating in abandoned buildings? She's locked up in juvenile detention when he visits to tell her he and Jack are hitting the road. She tries to get him to wait until she's released but he refuses. "Women are a pain in the ass on the road," he says with a smile. "Check you out," she says, smitten by his tough guy act. But her pain is real when he leaves her behind.
Streetwise is based on the 1983 Life magazine essay "Streets of the Lost," by Cheryl McCall (writer) and Mary Ellen Mark (photographer), and it's essentially as plotless as a photo essay but just as stark and powerful. In the end there's death, the red neon of the "Public Market" sign from Pike Place, and the devil dancing in the street.
June 18, 2001
© 2001 Erik Lundegaard