PRINT March 1985


WALTER HILL TIPS HIS HAND early in Streets of Fire, and what makes the movie special is that you can’t follow it. In a precredit sequence the hero—Michael Paré, too cute to live save for a certain humanizing pudginess—takes a switchblade away from a hoodlum and then slaps his face half a dozen times. The scene moves so fast you’re not sure what’s happened. This must have been the effect Hill was after, because he has Paré close the knife and toss it back to the punk: “Here, try it again.” Not knowing what to do, as baffled as the viewer—still, his gang’s at his back, he’s got to do something—the victim pops the blade. This time you’re ready to watch, to savor the way the hero will disarm the villain, to slow the action with anticipation, maybe to count the number of times the bad guy gets slapped. So Hill cuts even faster, and once more you’re swept away by the pure pleasure of film outracing the eye.

Released last year to critical derision and public indifference, now out on videotape, Streets of Fire was summed up by Hill as “a rock ’n roll fable where the Leader of the Pack steals the Queen of the Hop and Soldier Boy comes home to do something about it.” Hill doesn’t even try to make the plot convincing; the realism he gets is syntax, not narrative. As the Pack steals the Queen—a singer named Ellen Aim, played by Diane Lane—one of the thugs, played by Lee Ving of the scabrous Los Angeles punk band Fear, slugs a fan trying to rescue her. The moment is as awful as the first four or five murders in Hill’s 1982 48 Hrs., but the violence isn’t in the way the fan goes sprawling across the stage: it’s in the fascist grin on Lee Ving’s face, so hard the fan seems to have been hit by a look, not a fist. The expression is on screen for a split second and it might hide in your dreams for years. It’s that ugly—because Hill hasn’t let it last long enough for you to get a fix on it, even to be sure you saw what you saw.

Both of these conventional action scenes—conventional in their staging, not their execution—are central to what Hill does with the concert footage in Streets of Fire, footage that has no parallels in the loose and mostly degraded annals of rock cinema. At a real concert, fans make selections of visual details—details that may govern what they hear and remember. The fan helplessly or purposely looks at one thing and not at another, drawn by the force of the event to the recognition that whatever is glimpsed is purchased at the cost of what is missed. Every thrill is cut with loss; in the best moments, at the best concerts, there’s true fear that this event, which can never be repeated, will escape forever. In most filmed concert footage a rock ’n’ roll performance is presented as at once a preset and finished fact. Almost all concert films are dead because the fan—the selective creator of the sensual event—is excluded, and it’s the fan’s selection of primarily visual details that creates the event neither performer nor fan can repeat.

Hill directs the way a fan sees. He shoots concert footage the way he shoots a fight: in Streets of Fire Diane Lane’s big opening and closing numbers force the same after-the-fact mental restaging as Paré’s switchblade face-off. These framing numbers not only seem like “real” rock ’n’ roll performances, they have the same effect. They stay in the mind in pieces, refusing to hold still, attaching themselves to waiting memories and waiting for new, mysteriously correspondent experiences, until the pleasure of remembering what moments one can remember is almost as delicious as the pain of failing to remember what one can’t—what, faced with an inexplicably mesmerizing gesture, one chose not to look at, and thus, to make the event hold together, must invent.

In Streets of Fire what you can’t remember is what you didn’t see—that is, what Hill seemed to show but didn’t. A minute or a year after seeing them, one struggles to reconstruct Paré’s switchblade scene and the hotel killings in 48 Hrs.—one struggles because, working faster than the eye, Hill has constructed these incidents out of lacunae. If an action begins it isn’t completed, it’s picked up and stolen by another movement; if you see the result of an action you haven’t seen it start. It’s as if you were looking somewhere else, as if the action, no matter how set up, caught you completely off guard—even in Hill’s I-dare-you switchblade reprise. So it is onstage, but with a difference. I’ve stopped the action on the 48 Hrs. videotape to see what happened, then to see how it happened (no luck); when Diane Lane is onstage in Streets of Fire the momentum is so sweet I can run the numbers over and over but I can’t bear a pause.

The difference is music, and it’s a testament to Hill’s fervor that the music he uses here has a pedigree as fake as any in rock ’n’ roll. Lane isn’t singing live; for that matter, it isn’t her voice you’re hearing. Employing a nongroup called Fire, Inc., for credit purposes, the soundtrack uses three lead singers and a chorus multiplied untold times; all you see onstage is a woman and a four-piece band. The songs—“Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young”—were written and produced by Jim Steinman, king of humbug rock and best known for the 1977 Meat Loaf puppet show (they used steel strings). A master of wordy bombast, he turns honest clichés into a speech. To top it off he’s a senseless producer: on “Nowhere Fast” he tries to smother Roy Bittan’s strong rhythm piano with glissandos he must have played with his feet. No matter how many kitchen sinks Steinman throws into the mix the sound still dies for its thinness—on the soundtrack LP, anyway.

On film the music is overwhelming. Steinman’s contrived crescendos are locked onto the screen, and it might even be his fakery, the received, put-together nature of his music, that makes it so useful to Hill. It can be taken apart visually and lose nothing; in fact, since the borrowed pieces are more authentic as pieces than as a whole, Hill gains. You don’t have to catch a word. “You and me we’re going nowhere slowly/And we gotta get away from the past/There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere baby/But we should be going nowhere fast” is a real rock ’n’ roll idea, even if a real rock ’n’ roll songwriter would have gotten it across in a single line; as Hill orchestrates the scene, the words “nowhere fast” are likely all you do catch.

Hill cuts to the drummer’s hands so fiercely that though the sound is never muted you hear less than you see. Cutting into the audience, shooting from the back of the hall at arms waving in the half-light, he makes you see the crowd creating the star’s will to sing; cutting back to the star, he shows her creating the audience’s wish to be reached. Straight one-camera footage of Diane Lanes lip-syncing would probably make you laugh; here it’s terrifying; she’s not allowed an instant more than she can hold. When the Pack rushes the stage after the song ends—cut off cold, it’s still hanging in the air—that seems like the only proper response. Hill has built to an explosion the music can’t deliver, and so life has to take over and finish the song. As Hill puts it on the screen, the only fake thing about what in documentary terms might be the most fake rock ’n roll performance ever filmed would be for Lane to get out of it—and so she doesn’t.

Lane is becoming a joke; people talk about her as if she were Brooke Shields without a Calvins’ contract. Of course she’s no actress—there’s not an actor or an actress anywhere in Streets of Fire, or anyway no acting, only a stream of pop mythomaniacs. But Lane has presence, and held to a moment she can melt a role. Somewhere in this woman is a resentment the right director can spin into loathing—an undifferentiated, purely subjective loathing. There’s a scar by Lanes right eye that signifies everything she can’t express directly; even when it’s not visible, it can be there in her voice, in the way she moves, if a director is ready to catch it.

In Streets of Fire a fan bubbles praise for Ellen Aim’s songs. Lane slumps, says the songs aren’t hers, they’re bought or maybe stolen, she doesn’t know: “I can’t write for shit!” The conviction in her voice when she says the word “shit” is pure death; it’s one of those screen flashes that goes beyond anyone’s intentions, a flash that in the editor’s hands transcends script, setup, plot. Ellen Aim can’t write, Lane can’t sing or act—but as she lip-syncs in Hill’s footage, her lust to do what she can’t, her hatred of the limits she has to live with, sums up a rock ’n’ roll spirit far more true than the texts of the songs she’s miming. Neither Lane nor her character are any sort of icon in Streets of Fire; both are merely people trying to break through to the other side. In real life how that happens is a mystery; in Streets of Fire, because of the way Hill pulls action out of endless layers of fraud, it remains a mystery, but it happens. And I don’t know of another rock ’n’ roll movie where it does.

Greil Marcus