directed by Walter Hill, 1979
Watching this movie was a long-delayed fulfillment of an adolescent desire. When I was in junior high and high school, the movie played on late-night tv constantly. All the cool kids were allowed to stay up to watch it, and it was a sort of generational touchstone - catch phrases and worldviews came out of it which I absorbed somehow not ever having experienced the film myself. I'm happy to say that I watched it for the first time the other day, and it was pretty much what I expected it to be a couple decades ago.
This is an exploitation movie, plain and simple. It shows a New York City overrun by multicultural teenage gangs, the sort of representation that sank so deeply into the public consciousness that it got Giuliani elected mayor years later. Of course, most voters didn't envision the sartorial splendor of these hoodlums...
Yes, one of the most memorable parts of the movie is the costume department's conceit of having each of the many rival gangs dress up in different matching outfits. Each more ludicrous and more impractical than the last. It reaches a dizzying apex with the group of thugs who where Yankees uniforms and clown make-up.
Then again, there's no particular desire to remain grounded in realism here. Ibsen this ain't. What this is: male teenage anxieties writ unwieldly large. No wonder everyone in high school couldn't stop talking about it. I'm actually kind of glad I saw it as a (slightly) mature adult - for one thing I can see the misogyny for the cartoonish fear-exploitation that it is.
The most entertaining aspect of the film for me was the decision to show a New York in which adults don't exist. The gang members in the movie roam freely over a landscape nearly devoid of grown-ups. Those that do show up are shown in very brief glimpses, often faceless. They are obstacles to be avoided like subway turnstiles. At no time is there a sense that these kids are part of the community around them - that there's a human being driving the subway train that they wreck, that the driver might be the uncle of one of them. There are no obvious reasons why these kids would be in gangs in the first place, even. It's taken for granted that if you are in the right age bracket and live in the five boroughs, you will join the local gang.
This feeds on the paranoia of us older adults (that youth are on a rampage, and worse: that we are irrelevant). And it feeds on the paranoia of teenagers (that the world is dauntingly big, and worse: that they have power within it) at the same time. On that level, it's quite an achievement. Of course, none of that really amounts to anything in the end, except a general mood of fear and anxiety.
Fun piece of film, when you're feeling like something silly.
June 30, 2007