The time is right for racing in the streets
And the makers of movies looked down upon Saturday Night Fever and saw that it was good. They would descend unto the cave-places, the ghettos and the barrios and they would fashion themselves a folk-hero from among the last potent males left in
North America. They would dress him in full array of tribal panoply and parade him in all manner of motor vehicle along the boulevards. Let there be violence, they decreed, and lo, there was violence, and a certain amount of pubescent sex. They would cash in. Or would they?
Three years ago a major Hollywood studio wouldn’t touch a gang picture: they were “marginal” or “depressing”
or, worst of all, “racist.” Now, suddenly, there are nine theatrical films featuring rebellious youth of varying degrees of ethnicity scheduled to hit the theatres in the next year, plus a featurelength TV docu-drama with genuine gang members as its stars. Meanwhile, the producers are rushing to deny they are making “gang movies,” to pretend each is the one and only.
“What’s a gang movie?” asked Eric Pleskow who, with Arthur Krim, Mike Medavoy, Robert Benjamin and William Bernstein, formed the think-tank that split off from United Artists last year to become Orion Pictures. Orion, regarded as the most acute production company in Hollywood today, was the first to announce a gang project, The Wanderers. In fact, Orion is banking on yet another youth-oriented film, Over the Edge, which also smells— to all but studio brass—suspiciously like a gang movie. “A gang movie deals with gangs,” Pleskow explained from company headquarters at Burbank Studios. “The territorial imperative is what distinguishes them—you can’t have a gang movie without a rival gang.”
There are rival gangs aplenty in The Wanderers. Directed by Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) from a screenplay by his poet-wife Rose and based on a first novel by Richard Price, this is the most purely nostalgic of all the gang films. It is American Graffiti set in the Bronx before it became the war zone it is today. The Wanderers are an Italian gang in a tough, lower-middle-class, mixed-races high school. They are rowdy but essentially harmless. They exist in armed truce with their rivals, a black gang called the Del Bombers, until the Ducky Boys, a vicious out-of-neighborhood gang that predates the stunted urban punk killers of A Clockwork Orange, fix the Wanderers’ imprimatur to some anti-black graffiti within the school. Gang war turns to race war; the Wanderers and Bombers arrange to have it out at a football match but the Duckies invade and the match turns into a massacre. The enemies unite against a common foe but their heavy losses signal the end of the old ways. At once the most affectionate and humorous of the new gang films, The Wanderers is a period piece, not an attempt to sentimentalize the acute and inescapable depression of the slums. “This is a coming-of-age story,” said Kaufman on location in New York, “a whole memory of a time when teenagers had their ways that were not combined with an awareness of a larger world. That came with Kennedy’s death and with Vietnam. I ran with a gang myself then, with older guys who just wanted to go on being Wanderers for the rest of their lives. White gangs as we knew them really stopped around 1963—that’s when drugs came in and teen-age life changed radically, probably for the better. But there’s a tremendous nostalgia, seen in Grease and the Fonz and the acting of Marlon Brando. It all has a kind of wounded innocence.”
The quality of violence is not strained in The Wanderers: there’s plenty of it, some pretty graphic, as when the owner of the Paradise Lanes bowling alley drops a ball on the hand of a hustler (who is played by Richard Price—he thinks it a much greater feat than writing the novel). But, on the whole, it has a self-parodic twist that can by no means be mistaken as glorification. The same cannot be said of The Warriors (Maclean’s, Feb. 26), in which the violence appears to be glossed over and sensationalized at the same time. Producer Larry Gordon describes the film as an “action-adventure piece with a street-gang background.”. Gordon (responsible for such gory efforts as The Driver and Dillinger) says, like a doctor telling a child that this shot won’t hurt: “The violence in The Warriors is popgun violence. It’s not scary,because it can’t happen to you.” A statement thoroughly contradicted by the murder committed in the lobby of a California theatre by a teen-ager who had just seen the film and the Warrior-inspired gangs now roaming U.S. streets.
A furore erupted in the Chicano community of East Los Angeles when Walk Proud went into production last May. Gifted (and not-so-gifted) Latin actors were outraged that the first major studio movie to portray the Chicano experience should do so with Anglo actors Robby Benson and Sarah Holcomb in the leads—Benson’s blue eyes masked with brown contact lenses that scratched them so badly shooting had to be suspended for 10 days. Many, too, objected that the premise of the script by Evan Hunter, the author of The Blackboard Jungle, is racist. Then real gang warfare broke out on the set when extras who were gang members were brought into a rival high school to film. But Walk Proud, according to director Robert Collins, is simply a modern-day, believable Romeo and Juliet. Sarah (read Juliet) of the ritzy, yachty Marina meets Emilio (read Romeo) of the greasers’gang in the parking lot of the high school that (presumably thanks to busing) they share. A West Side Story without the music.
Collins is a 40-ish director from a TV background (Police Story, Police Woman). Walk Proud is his first crack at features and he made compromises to do it. “It’s not the straightforward love story I had in mind when I started out,” he said, adding wryly that he expects to get attacked for everything when the film opens in early summer, “for being too sentimental, for being too mild, for using Robby Benson.” But Pepe Serna, one of the film’s Chicano actors, puts it bluntly: “The studio needs a bankable star. If they hadn’t cast Robbie, none of us would be working today.” Collins has endeavored to give the admittedly
gloppy story line a hard edge by shooting in the style of his TV police docu-dramas: “Everything will be very hard, crisp, and clear.” But like Warriors, Walk Proud appears to have been laundered for mass consumption, so much so that the obligatory big fight scene between the two rival gangs has been deliberately left out. The over-all impression is that of a TV movie accidentally slotted into theatrical release.
If the message transmitted by Walk Proud seems to be “Hey, guys, it’s all right, they’re just like you and me,” the truth of the barrio or ghetto or inner city is something quite different, says film-maker Gary Weis, who recently completed the TV film 80 Blocks From Tiffany ’s among the gangs of the South Bronx: “It’s the most incredibly
counter-culture experience I’ve ever seen.” The counter-culture feeling also comes across strongly in Boulevard Nights. Written by Desmond Nakano, a young Japanese-American whose family suffered through the internment camps in World War II, the script translates some of his anger into the same culture supposedly explored by Walk Proud. Its hero is Raymond Avila, a bright, hardworking young Chicano who is growing away from his Varrio Kobra (car club) with the help of his upwardly mobile girl-friend, Shady, reminiscent of the Karen Lynn Gorney character in Saturday Night Fever. Unfortunately, Raymond (played by Chicano actor Richard Yñiguez) has a vato loco (bad dude) brother, Chuco, who keeps dragging him back to the streets.
Boulevard Nights is really a samurai film. It stresses the values of pride, loyalty and physical bravery, but with an almost primitive stoicism that in the end renders it far more heroic than its glossier and somewhat overblown counterpart, Walk Proud. Director Michael Pressman says Boulevard Nights could never have been filmed in conjunction with “major studio machinery. We entered the culture we were photographing and became part of it. Our office was on the main cruise drag, Whittier Boulevard, and anyone could walk in and ask for a job. We made a point of using as many of the neighborhood kids as possible, avoiding fights by involving the community. We did have some camera equipment stolen one night, but a homeboy found out who did it and made him put it back. Then he kicked the kid off the set.” Director and writer are careful to say that the film is basically the story of a brother conflict set against a gang background, but “if the others say they’re not doing gang pictures, then we are!”
The upper-middle-class suburban milieu of Orion Pictures’ second gang picture, Over the Edge, seems lightworlds away from the ghetto. And Me-
davoy and Pleskow argue that it shouldn’t be considered in the same genre at all. “It’s really about the relationship of these children with their parents, the preoccupations of the parents with surburban living and their refusal or inability to give enough to their kids,”argues Orion producer Bob Sherman. “It debunks the myth of the suburban milieu as the ideal environment for raising children.” Over the Edge is certainly as bleak as any inner-city tale. It centres around the misadventures of Carl Willat, a good kid who moves into a posh new condo development. Carl has problems with his father, an ambitious, Caddy-selling city planner who is
spearheading efforts to sell the ground intended for youth recreational facilities to a wealthy group of investors. Through force of circumstance, Carl becomes leader of a pack of kids who fight against the deal.
Strictly speaking, the movie is docudrama: investigative journalism highly spiced with commercial entertainment values. Screenwriters Tim Hunter and Charlie Haas began the script in 1974, when a rash of newspaper articles on teen violence in the affluent northern California community of Foster City first appeared. Says Haas, “We wondered how something that was, on the surface, the American Dream come true could produce so many tensions in so short a time.” But Over the Edge is far from cinéma vérité. A futuristic look is created by the outré fashions of the kids (most wear their own clothes) and the ultramodern architecture of the Denver locations, which approximate Foster City (whose citizenry vetoed filming for fear of more adverse publicity).
Numerous attempts to depict the
gang behavior of the female of the species have failed to get off the ground because of studio reluctance to portray violence in the gentler sex—though its existence is undeniable. Now David Putnam (Midnight Express) is producing Foxes, starring Jodie Foster as one of four 16-year-old girls from the San Fernando Valley, a bedroom community like that of Over the Edge. “It’s a passage-piece,” he says, “a contemporary Little Women combined with Rebel Without a Cause. The girls find their peer relationships stronger than their troubled families. One character gets killed and another gets married, but the movie is about feelings rather than
events.” Putnam, who is British, originally wanted to do a film about the high teen suicide rate in Beverly Hills: “When I first arrived here, the juxtaposition of suicide and all that wealth fascinated me.” He couldn’t get any studio to touch it. Foxes, he says, is close.
The only one of the crop willing to call itself a gang film is a real gang film—80 Blocks From Tiffany's.)The other features scheduled for release in the next year are Boardwalk, about kids scarifying old folks in Brooklyn, Defiance, set in New York, and one Martin Scorsese plans, The Gangs of New York.) Based on Savage Skulls, an Esquire article by John Bradshaw, the film enters the bombed-out South Bronx of today without passing judgment on it. Weis, whose 90-minute film will be aired in NBC’s Saturday Night Live time slot, has already suffered some buffeting from the networks who are afraid that his refusal to judge will be viewed as advo-
cacy of gang violence, a how-to class on the making of beer-can bazookas. “Actually, we don’t show any violence,” says Weis, who mixed real footage with re-enactments of stories told him by the gang members who were his stars. “Just a little stealing, a little torching, a kid getting a drop on a cop with a gun. But it’s far less sensational than any film that uses a strong dramatic narrative.”
The current gang craze can be reduced to its elements: a unique combination of ’50s tribal rites, the buddy film and the underdog appeal of the prison picture. But one has to ask, why now? Why 1979? Is it social confluence or random selection? If the ’60s were about college kids, the ’70s—and possibly the ’80s—are about teens and preteens. For adults who lived through the heyday of the gang era (some of them now Hollywood decision-makers) gang films are a means of revisiting their unruly youth. For contemporary teenagers, they’re a means of experiencing a youth they never had. “Even though they’re more enlightened than we were, I think young people today miss the kind of teen-aged world that had its own boundaries,” says Philip Kaufman, whose 14-year-old son “found” The Wanderers in novel form. “How do you miss something you never had? Well, why do we miss the West? Why do we have a nostalgia for the future, as in the films of George Lucas. Maybe it’s a kind of race-memory.”
Evan Hunter thinks that America is still an adolescent country. It is perhaps closer to the truth to say that America is an adolescent country forced to grow up overnight through the economic and social pressures of the ’70s. Survival, a recurrent theme in gang films, has also become the obsession of the moviegoing middle classes: the Bee Gees aren’t the only ones “stayin’ alive.” The more responsible of the films—Boulevard Nights, The Wanderers, Over the Edge—tag the current sense of irrevocable social change through the experience of growing up. But they also transmit the peculiar security of living in a framework pared down to basic questions of getting a job and getting laid. Your gang brothers are bound to take care of you through all the increasing insecurities of the times. And the singlemindedness of the teen-age male is a relief to a society fatigued with the grey areas of sexual role-playing (although it’s argued that the gang itself is a homosexual bond): hence the bombshell appeal of John Travolta’s masculinity.
It’s a form of slumming, certainly a sign of our decadence, to invade subcultures once considered deprived in order to sup their vitality. Significant, perhaps, that the other “wave” of 1979 is Dracula pictures. Ah, the ’70s. What’s left to expect of the ’80s?^