AFS Programmer discusses the work of photographer Mary Ellen Mark, film as photography, and “Criterion nerds”
The 1984 documentary Streetwise is an extension of famed photographer Mary Ellen Mark’s work and was directed by her husband Martin Bell. The project examines the life of young people in Seattle living on the streets. It is a world sealed in time before Nirvana and Co. romanticized the Pacific Northwest and presents a portrait of abuse, neglect, and gritty survival.
This weekend, AFS Cinema will be screening a re-issue of this seminal work, as well as a related documentary, Tiny, featuring Mark’s most famous photographic subject and what life since the 80’s has wrought for her. Cinapse spoke to Austin Film Society programmer Lars Nilsen about these two films and more.
Rod Machen: I wanted to chat with you a little bit about Streetwise and Tiny. How did these films come onto your radar?
Lars Nilsen: Well, I saw Streetwise many years ago, in the 90’s. I don’t remember exactly how it come onto my radar, it was just one of those movies that the cool kids watched. You’d sit around and there’d be certain films that, if you were a teenager or a kid into movies, then everybody had their stack of tapes that they cherished. Streetwise is one that a friend of mine showed me all of those years ago, and it stuck with me. It’s interesting to watch it again recently, because — have you seen the film?
RM: I have. I’ve watched it on VHS as well.
LN: Yeah, so watching it now, it’s such a deeply sad movie. At the time I watched it, I was thinking, “Oh, these kids are cool.” Being in a different place in life, older and more mature, you look at the film now and it’s a horrific situation that these kids are in. But when I was younger, I was seeing that no one was interfering with them, they don’t have to go to school, it seemed like a neat thing. There’s nothing neat about the cycle of abuse that you see them going through, there’s nothing neat about homelessness and the lack of services and compassion. But at the time, they were kids who had figured something out, which is an amusing sidebar to a movie that’s not actually amusing at all.
RM: Is Streetwise a re-issue? Can you tell me about that?
LN: Yeah, Janus has re-issued it, so it’s gone through some different permutations. For a long time it was really hard to find; there was just one VHS, and that was the way to see Streetwise. But Janus Films has restored it.
RM: So the fact that it was a fairly obscure movie that gets this re-issue tells us that it was on some people’s minds. It was out there, sort of in the ether somewhat. I was shocked when I saw that it was getting a re-issue, because I saw it as this VHS tape that I actually went out and bought off of Amazon a decade ago and thought I was lucky to even find it. For it to get re-issued, it kind of blew me away.
LN: I didn’t know it was obscure. I knew it was sort of hard to find, but it seemed like it had a fairly large cultural footprint. People would know about it, certainly people in Seattle know about it. My friend Tommy Swenson just played it at his theater in Seattle, and it’s an enormous draw there. I think Mary Ellen Mark’s photography is well known, so — she died a couple of years ago, obviously. I think that there are many more people interested in photography than many of us might realize. I think Mark’s photography is as popular as it’s ever been, and that made people clamor for it. They want to see the film in a better resolution than they’ve ever been able to see it in VHS.
RM: So my backstory with this is that I lived in Seattle from 2002–2007, and I think around 2006 Mary Ellen Mark had a photography show and a lecture. She did this lecture, and Tiny and her family came. Tiny sat two rows in front of me, and it was surreal. I think the photography part you talked about here is key; it’s such an arresting image, up there with “Migrant Mother.” So iconic. Beyond iconic. To see her doing it live-action in Streetwise, to me, is just phenomenal. I also think we’re in a little uptick of movies about photographers. People in the photography world love to watch movies about photography, and maybe it goes farther than that.
LN: To speak to your point about photography films, obviously, film is photography. So in a way — I think I’ve been seeing a thing happening with films. More and more, as you’ve had the so-called “era of peak TV” happening, which tends to make people watch sequential entertainment as sort of a story extraction process. You’re watching and extracting the story; it’s like an illustrated story, basically. I think that people are seeking more of an interface with film in that. People are seeking to enjoy film as a visual medium, which is something that one really does on that big screen. I’ve seen this happen a lot with interns who are frequently — let’s call them Criterion nerds–they’ve frequently seen these films on television, which is not the way to experience cinema. Then they get a chance to see a lot of these films on the big screen and experience them as cinema. When do you get a chance to experience photographs like that, on a screen that’s thirty feet wide? You’re having a chance to really see photography in a new light. I think that’s a big part of what it is: people being interested in films about photographers, and you’re able to see that photography on the big screen. Of course, Streetwise is a continuation of Mary Ellen Mark’s photography, but it’s a great artifact in and of itself. I think that people want to see photographic artifacts in a way that they can’t otherwise. If you go to a museum show, you’re going to see a print that’s twenty four inches across. If you go to a cinema, you’re experiencing the photographic-ness of cinema. Even if you’re watching Seven Samurai; Seven Samurai is a great photographic artifact.
RM:Then we have Tiny, this story of this no-longer-young lady. What can you tell me about that?
LN: I think that there’s a universal reaction to watching Streetwise, which is, “Where are those kids now?” Obviously when you see it, you just feel for them. You know what happened to some of them, but you want to know what happened to the rest of them. That’s a big part of the film. I think it’s an itch that the film scratches for a lot of people as you get to find out not only what happened to Tiny, but we sort of find out what happened to the other kids. We can read what happened, but to see Tiny’s memory of the kids still tugs on the heart. It’s just a really interesting way to go back and have a deeper experience with Streetwise.
RM: I was there for the screening of Local Hero. You brought out the fact that on this 35mm print, you’re going to get blues here that you can’t get digitally. That made me break out of my expectations when I walk into a theater. I can experience even the hues in a different way. To be able to see that on any sort of big screen is just a marvelous experience, and that leads to the offerings of your facility.
LN: Yeah, it’s cinema. That’s what cinema is. Cinema is not the great experience of watching films on television, you know? Cinema really is — this is something I say to my interns — it’s seeing that eyeball three feet across. That’s really what cinema is, that’s how it’s intended. That’s how the greatest artists have worked with cinema.
RM: Right. For me personally, I’ve gone to the theater because I can’t not look at my phone for two hours or stop and get something to eat. Just making me sit there where somebody’s not going to pause it is a gift. To do that on a big screen TV at home, I just can’t do it.
LN: A lot of people can’t not look at their phones.
RM: I want to ask you about The River and the Wall, that you guys have been playing a ton. I love that movie and have covered it some, and I’m glad to see it get distribution. I know that it has a connection with AFS through the grant it received, but I have to ask somebody on your side of the fence: Can you tell me about the decision to play so much? I think it has played more than any other movie in AFS’ history since I’ve been watching.
LN: There’s no mystery, there’s no secret, no dark art to it. People just keep buying tickets to come see it. If they want to see it, we keep playing it. This is the way that all first runs kind of work: On Monday morning we look at that week’s movies and say, “Should we hold this one over?” If it needs to be held over — that is to say, if people keep going to see it–we extract from that an understanding that more people are going to come see it. So that just never stops. It’s died down. With first run films, you keep running them if there’s an audience. So that’s been the secret with that.
RM: That’s such a compliment to that movie. I’m sure you guys want to see it succeed and you gave it a shot because maybe you have some connections. I want everyone I know to see it, and I’ve told everybody that. But the fact that the people have actually come out is really heartwarming.
LN: Frankly, I gave it a shot because it was a good movie and a movie that I could see a large audience in Austin wanting to come see. I’ve worked for different theaters, and for us at AFS, if there’s a central Austin group of enthusiasts about a film, I can kind of see that working. I can see The River and the Wall working with a lot of different kinds of people. I want to say that there was a sort of altruistic decision to play this film, but it’s not. It’s just really — we felt that it was a quality film that’s not going to get a shot in any other context. Nobody else would play it. We play it because we think it’s good and there’s an audience for it. I hate to say it’s a business decision because we’re a non-profit, but you always do want to see movies play that are going to grab audiences and make a great theatrical experience.
Streetwise screens September 14 and 16, and Tiny screens September 15. For tickets, check out the AFS Cinema calendar.