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.


Chris C. said...

Nice work, once again. Been looking forward to checking this one out since I enjoyed The Driver. As a friend of mine, and a regular reader of your blog (goes by Trip), so eloquently put it, it's "proto-Mann." I can't get enough of those street lights at night, and the 80s reveled in that neo-noir mood. You may have an answer for this somewhere in the depths of your writings I haven't quite reached yet, but are you a fan of Ferrara? I ask because all of this talk of the 80s and neon lights and whatnot brings him to mind.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Thanks, Chris; I agree that "proto-Mann" eloquently describes it. As for Ferrara, he's a subject for further research for me - a blind spot - as I've only seen "King of New York" and "Bad Lieutenant." Of course, I liked both, with the former especially strong in my estimation. And, I suppose, with the promise of more '80s and neon lights,' I imagine I'll get around to exploring his work sooner rather than later.

Chris C. said...

Ha, well, I hope you enjoy what you see. I'm anxious to read some reactions to his latest from Venice. What I wouldn't give to be there!