Street Trash

Street Trash was released in those Halcyon Days of socially acceptable violent outbursts, cool apathy and female free-range bush (all three cultural identity hallmarks are on full display in the film). Again, whether that was the actual day-to-day reality for the residents of Greenpoint, Brooklyn circa 1987 or an exaggeration is not the point. This was the NY that called to me from Midwestern UHF towers. I was informed – at a very young age – that this NY was a setting for bold storytelling of any/all genres. From vigilante Justice (Death Wish) to post-apocalyptic battleground (The Ultimate Warrior, 2019: The Fall of New York) to the decision maker nerve guts of celebrity (Sweet Smell of Success) to the zero-sum Finance grapple (Wall Street) – Gotham was the canvas that caught the splattered zeitgeist of a world tottering between incredibly awesome and absolutely horrifying.

For the record, I’m not a fan of the term “hyper-reality”. It’s the loose application – the wide subjectivity of the term – that tries to encompass everything from VR to Metal Gear to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that colors me suspect. I’m just not comfortable (compatible?) with all that’s been broad-stroked with this particular schematic short-cut. But the mere existence of Street Trash begs for a re-assessment of my personal bias proclivities. I can’t find any other conceptual verbiage that fully explains the semi-disjointed, ninety-one minutes of frenetic, Purgatorial weirdness that Jim Muro subjected the VHS rental community to in 1987 via his masterpiece Street Trash. (To be fair there was a “limited” theatrical release, but the chances that the film was ever destined to be anything more than a fourth-grade sleepover cult fantasy were always hovering between “low” and “nil”. And yet… there is something inherent in the film that WANTS to transcend all the borderline cusp-of-puberty proto-testosterone.)

The pacing and characterization of the people and settings in Street Trash represents an idealized NYC in hyper-drive. Shit goes real wrong real fast – a City implosion of reality and moral behavior – a super-charged Caligula for the “Gomorrah-on-the-Hudson” set. BUT, lets be clear: this is a Platonic representation – not a reality-based NYC, anymore than Streets of Fire or Planet of the Apes would be…. So, for the purposes of this seemingly objective analysis I’ll resort to the Baudrillard “Simulacra and Simulation” definition (also see PK Dick’s 1972 We Can Build You).

The film opens literal and (almost) tranquil: Interspersed with the basic opening credit lull (remember when movies DID NOT start up with the kinetic frenzy of an unmanned super-collider?) are shots from a meandering camera hanging low on a Greenpoint corner (STREET) languid in its tumbling refuse rhythms (TRASH). The garbage blows, scurrying aimless across a frontier expanse as bleakly American as anything John Ford ever committed to to camera. We rise with the swirling rubbish and follow its beckon to that ultimate repository of all urban detritus – the liquor store. This is not some romanticized Leaving Las Vegas neon fever dream. Like everything else in Street Trash, this place structure is purely functional, appearing as part storefront/part place of residence. It’s here that we are introduced to what passes for the protagonist in the film – Freddy, a youngish bum whose theft of a bottle kicks the film into overdrive. It only takes 1:40 to realize that this movie is going to exhaust you. In hot pursuit after the theft of his wares is the store owner who is joined by an enraged citizen as well as another bum out to collect a debt that Freddy owes the leader of the homeless mob – a deranged ‘Nam vet named Bronson who lords over his homeless minions in a junkyard (a sort of Col Kurtz for the Beastie Boys crowd). The chase scene offers up spectacular exteriors of a community war zone. (It took me a minute to realize this was the same Brooklyn scene – Calyer & Lorimer, Norman & Humboldt – that I was living/roaming less than 8 years after filming. I had to give Giuliani his due.) The film’s version of NY is established at this point. There is no chance for misunderstanding – the angered civilian avenger hunting down wrongdoers, the man-made shit-strewn streets, the casual full-frontal day-fucking that Freddy interrupts as he crashes an apartment via fire escapes and open windows – all hint at the free-for-all mentality that permeates all aspects.

And if you haven’t gotten it yet, the full intro to unstable, homeless ‘Nam vet Bronson (played with degenerate rage perfection by Vic Noto who you might recognize as an uncredited BIKER raising hell towards the end of Death Wish 3) sleeping on his garbage throne with what looks like a nude cadaver sprawled across his lap, will shoot you in the cock with a harpoon.

The depravity wasn’t a 3 minute trailer gimmick – this shit is unrelenting and it’s at this point that a choice needs to be made whether or not to go through with whatever comes next. I must admit that I hesitated here. I could handle the desolation, thievery and violated sexcapades – but the seemingly dead woman across this maniacs lap (was she fucked to death? Was she actually alive?) gave me pause. I had signed up for a horror movie with maybe some zombies or mutated Lower East Side punks killing in the name of bad liquor. But this was a bit too REAL. I wanted Romero’s Night of the Living Dead but was getting Hector Babenco’s Pixote…. I took a deep breath, recalibrated my expectations and poured a second, stiffer bourbon and decided I was along for the ride come what may.

The film basically resets itself at this point (the ten minute mark but it feels like I’ve been through much more – I remember the same shock-induced time displacement with Cannibal Holocaust. Freddy robs another liquor store, there is another chase scene, and Bronson appears again to disturb any sort of preconceived enjoyment vibe when he randomly pulls a dude out of his car and bashes him to death against his own windshield. But I am all in now. I can accept this pacing and settle in for what shows promise of being an extended Bum Fights, sleaze and maybe some ‘80s anatomical intrigue (in the form of pouty boobs and hairy bush).

It’s at this point where the “Real” gets “Hyper”. Turns out the booze Freddy swiped (the perfectly named “Tenafly Viper”) has gone REAL bad. The Viper is stolen from the hapless Freddy by a severely thirsty hobo who proceeds to drink it down with gusto before melting into a pile of pastel goo. This transformation underpins the rest of the movie. Bad (or at best sad) people horribly dying in spectacular fashion from poisoned hooch. I found myself eagerly awaiting the next dissolved beggar in much the same way one anticipates the imminent stabbing of a penis-seeking “Slasher Film” coed – and if that was all the rest of the movie was, Street Trash would be worthy of its place on that genre’s storied annals. But director Jim Muro, maybe sensing that this would be his one and only shot at directing his vision on film (it was), turned it into a horror show pastiche, the kind of statement piece that weaves together every known film (and social) taboo in an effort to, as screenwriter Ray Frumkes said “democratically offend every group on the planet.” I am a veteran horror film fan with thick skin, but even I was a bit unnerved by the ensuing hobo gang bang of a drunk mob moll and the subsequent necrophilia enacted upon the corpse by the junkyard owner whose inner monologue justifies sex with the dead with a quick “Nobody’s looking.” (Imagine Jesse “the Body” Ventura in a fat suit and then add 200 more pounds.)

All this, however, is mere prologue to the gore finale, the infamous “Penis Toss” in which a bum who drunkenly pees on Bronson gets his member cut off and becomes a frantic player in a twisted game of keep-away. Was the whole film conceived around this sick set-piece? Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that the image of a severed penis floating in high-arc freedom against the iconic, inspired NYC back-dropped skyline was quite powerful (albeit in a less academic 2001: A Space Odyssey caveman bone sort of way). The whole film takes place in a couple block radius, an area whose desolation and hopelessness is in constant contrast with the Big Success Big Apple promise that is so close but impossibly inaccessible. Poisoned hooch as bad decisions, homelessness as unfulfilled aspirations – Street Trash can be read as one giant metaphor for the human condition. Destitute, castrated, bleeding to death in an East River trash strewn shoreline – any male who spent any part of their 20’s on the other side of the river can relate. That bum colony is every 40 year old who still bartends, every male pattern bald head thinking up schemes of escape, everyone craving love and companionship beyond the bottle. It’s this larger scope interpretation that makes the film relevant (important?) still today 30 years later. It’s an adolescent story about getting forever stuck in early adulthood. Watching it from the vantage point of a man nearing middle-age gave me the perspective to be queasy and also thankful that I had gotten out of the proverbial junkyard with my penis firmly attached.

Review by L.E.S. Cordell

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