Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Walter Hill's Streets of Fire (1984) & the Dystopian Recursion of the 1950s

Walter Hill's Streets of Fire (1984), from a screenplay by Hill and Larry Gross, closes the director's exceptionally rich first decade of productivity - one of the finest of any American filmmaker of Hill's "Silent" and New Hollywood generations - with one of the more zeitgeisty efforts of the perennially under-appreciated 1980s. Presaging Robert Zemeckis's multiplex masterpiece Back to the Future (1985), Hill's rock-and-roll fable mythically interlaces the sleek material culture and "juvenile delinquent" generic form (Richard Brooks's Blackboard Jungle, 1955; Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) of the filmmaker's adolescence with neon-saturated, pop-futurist aesthetics of the latter era. What results is a world that while neither the 1950s nor the 1980s exactly - Streets of Fire features both 1950s and 1980s fashions as just one totem of its anachronicity - nonetheless preserves the spirit of each; Hill's film, even more than Zemeckis's, interprets the contemporary moment as an especially troubled reappearance of the postwar decade.

Hill's mid-1980s likewise maintain continuity with the previous decade, as well as with his earlier corpus, with the mobile street-gangs of The Warriors (1979) reappearing in Streets of Fire's no-less dystopian, geographically fictionalized urban present. Headed by Willem Dafoe's characteristically wide-eyed Raven Shaddock, the head-to-toe leather-clad Bombers biker gang abduct Diane Lane's Ellen Aim at the conclusion of her opening, power pop-brand musical number. Saving her from Raven's "Battery" lair, situated inside a dilapidated, Gowanusesque warehouse in which a rockabilly outfit performs beside a fish-net wearing stripper, are a semi-disreputable pair of ex-soldiers: Aim's ex-lover Tom Cody (Michael Paré) and his new, platonic female acquaintance and sidekick, McCoy (Amy Madigan). In a measure of Hill's ever-present Hawksianism, McCoy assures her John T. Chance, go-it-alone companion that she is "plenty good enough," offering to serve as getaway driver in another internal reference - The Driver (1978) naturally - to Hill's outstanding late 1970s work. With Cody consequently facing off against Raven and his gang in the picture's Western-encoded action climax, Bill Paxton's pompadoured bartender friend organizes the defiant city-folk as a vigilante para-military force in the former's defense. In this respect, Hill additionally reprises the social vision of Howard Hawks's supreme masterwork, Rio Bravo (1959), with the community coming to the individual's aid.

Back on stage, Hill presents a set of consecutive musical numbers with the Sorel's R&B rendition of "I Can Dream About You" especially prefiguring Back to the Future (and the Starlighters) once again. Ellen Aim follows-up the African American quartet with Fire Inc.'s "Tonight is What It Means to be Young," providing a more resolutely 1980s feel and fashion-sense on the neon black-lit stage. In both of these concluding performances, Hill works with the semantics of the concert film, as his camera circulates throughout the typically low-key venue. However, in the previous on-screen number, inserted in the midst of Streets of Fire's narrative - and visualized both on television screens and indistinguishably from the diegetic world of the film itself - the iconography, and indeed even the percussive visual syntax refer rather to a much newer form: the musical video. In this early set-piece, Hill's film again proves very much of its early to mid-1980s moment, a time that was witnessing the infancy of the new audio-visual form - as well as the dystopian (though of course also nostalgic and even romantic) recursion of the 1950s.

With Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011) about to premiere on American screens at the time of this writing, it would seem that Hill and his present are making cameos of their own, in the reappearance on the one hand of the filmmaker as an essential inspiration for the Danish auteur - though I have not yet seen Refn's ostensibly Hill-influenced latest, I would argue that the elder director was formative for Bronson (2008), through Hard Times (1975), and Valhalla Rising (2009), conjugated in the latter case with Andrei Tarkovsky-style modernist art cinema - and in the social and economic environments on the other that the director perceptively inscribed beginning with Hard Times and continuing to at least Streets of Fire. Right on schedule, in other words, we are experiencing a rebirth of Hill's late 1970s, early 1980s moment.

Streets of Fire currently is streaming on Netflix Instant.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Now Playing, Coming Soon

Longtime Tativille readers will know that this site sees very little action this time of year, and that it officially has remained a one-man endeavor since its inception in 2005. Well, both of the above are about to change. As to the latter, let me be the first to welcome long-time collaborator, Mrs. Tativille Lisa K. Broad (pictured - okay, perhaps not... sorry Lisa), as Tativille's latest "contributor," just in time for the 2011 New York Film Festival. For those of you who fear the prospect of a second Tativille 'contributor,' let me be the first to reassure you of not only Lisa's exceptional ability as a film scholar and reviewer - those of you who are longtime readers already will be well aware of both - but also of her extraordinary credentials: Lisa is a rising seventh year PhD candidate in the Cinema Studies department at New York University, where she also holds an M.A. in Cinema Studies and a B.A. in Philosophy. Suffice it to say that Lisa's future contributions will only improve what is now 'our' little site.

As to the promise of increased future posting, Lisa and I will be covering this year's NYFF on an equally official capacity, beginning next month. For those of you who are perhaps less than fully versed on the exigencies of international art cinema (Tativille's primary, though not exclusive focus) distribution in New York, basically this is how it works: the best in world cinema of each calendar year more often than not begins to arrive in late September with the commencement of the NYFF; subsequently, the next eleven months tend to see the commercial releases of most of those titles, as well as first-runs of works that were passed over by the festival, sometimes more deservedly than others. 2010-2011 has been no exception to this pattern, with the the majority of early 2011's best titles being holdovers from last year's event: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, Raoul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon, Cristi Puiu's Aurora, Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas, Michelangelo Frammartino's Le quattro volte, Mike Leigh's Another Year (released in Connecticut this past January), Frederick Wiseman's Boxing Gym and Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men. As I saw the first six in 2010, again at the NYFF, and the last three in the first quarter of 2011, it should become apparent why posting on this site can become a bit sparser as the summer months progress - and why there is also reason for optimism as September nears.

Of those 2010 films not screened at last year's event, noteworthy 2011 releases and festival premieres have included Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil, Jia Zhang-ke's I Wish I Knew, Na Hong-jin's The Yellow Sea and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's A Screaming Man. Here, I have less excuse for my more recent lack of production on Tativille - save for the fact that this is hobby and that I do happen to be writing a dissertation on film - with only the Herzog prompting a post. However, I would add that none of these films, in my estimation, quite matched the Ten Best Films I saw last autumn (including the first six listed above, in order of preference; as well as a certain Tony Scott film that recently took an unwarranted beating from a good friend of this site). As for actual 2011 premieres and releases, I thus far have seen two films that will merit mention when I account for the best of the year this coming December: Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky's The Turin Horse (the one film that I've seen on the 2011 NYFF slate - and let me assure you, it absolutely is not to be missed) and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. That's two more premieres of a very high caliber than I had seen at this time one year ago. Here's to the promise of 2011!