Director/ Martin Bell
Watched at Beacon Cinema (Seattle)
Streetwise, a discreet classic of American documentary cinema, is a relentless portrait of clashing sensations: vulnerability and bravado, tenderness and confrontation, immaturity and mortality. It presents us with teenagers, some of them very young teenagers, playacting the roles of grownups in a drama of their own design. Yes, they are street kids, victims of abuse, neglect, alcoholism and the many other fucked up things unworthy parents do to their young, but they embrace their circumstances with theatrical gusto. They talk like world-weary drifters, ex-cons who’ve seen it all, smart-assed and streetwise; Oliver Twist ragamuffins as written by Charles Bukowski.
But they aren’t written. And they’re not pretending. The dangers they face are real. And all are maybe a few months on from their first period or just a year out of junior high school. Some still go home (if you can call it that) now and then for a hot meal or some spare cash. They make for great characters because they practice all day long: For the meeting with the probation officer, the hassle with the cop, the panhandle with the tourist, or the filmmaker with the camera.
When director Martin Bell and his wife, the magnificent photographer Mary Ellen Mark, returned to Seattle in 1983 to film the same homeless runaways she shot for an earlier Life magazine series, they were able to jump right into the action. Staking out street corners, railroad yards, ferry piers, alleys and abandoned buildings, they captured a remarkably vibrant shadow world of young hustlers, hookers, drug addicts, and petty thugs. But rather than a pedantic documentation of societal ills in one of the most livable cities in America, they revealed something else: Love affairs, friendships, arguments, hopes, dreams, gossipy cliques and sensitive, sometimes even wise counsel and advice from one kid to the next. Even the occasional parent shows up trying to offer love from their own damaged perspective. In other words, these are the same transitory details of any adolescent life, except these kids are growing up hard, with little interest in the kind of safety nets most of us took for granted when we were young.
Bell and Mark followed a few of the kids home, a couple of them to a health clinic, and one to visit his sad sack of a father in jail. They hung out and hung back, filming kids with a long lens, their voices recorded by wireless microphones or offscreen boom mics. Bell has a brilliant eye for composition, and the way he caught expressions or profiles, caressed by the late afternoon sun, lends his images a melancholy ache. They interviewed some of the kids, but we never see their talking heads, their voices instead serving as an audio scrapbook of reflections and observations. The movie is muscular and commanding, yet free of manipulation.
There are none of the rote commercial signposts of contemporary documentaries. No onscreen text identifying locations or characters, no experts or statistics, no aerials or tracking shots, no narrowing of perspective to one kid’s plight or goals; no plotted structural arc. And it was shot fairly quickly, I’m sure of it, because the kids all look the same from beginning to end in the consistently perfect-for-filming sunny weather that can only be counted on a few months out of the year in the rainy gray of the Pacific Northwest. There is nothing predigested about the film, yet it pulses with a cinematic energy, as if we’re watching the buildup to a great reckoning, as if indeed these are characters performing a rite of passage for our benefit.
I called Streetwise a discreet classic because it had been all but forgotten among the other great documentaries (Don’t Look Back, Salesman, Sherman’s March). But now it has been rescued and restored by Janus Films into a new 4K version that is beautiful to behold.
Streetwise is a triumph of engaged, acute, aware documentary filmmaking, the rare kind that never announces itself, yet it is quietly profound and technically perfect. It is a masterpiece.