Street Trash (1987)

Street Trash first published by

“In 1965, I bet it all,” says an ageing derelict (Morty Storm) in his thick Brooklyn accent, as he buys a discount bottle of hooch from low-rent liquor store owner Ed (M. D’Jango Krunch). “I bet everything. My wife, my kids. Everything went.” It is a brief and elegant hard-luck story, enabling us to see beyond the man’s scruffy alcoholism to the life that he once had, and to the loss that he wears like his shabby old black suit (“I got married in this,” he tells Ed). Shortly afterwards, the old man sits on the external steel balcony of a tenement’s fire stair, and declares, “I got my own place, a condominium… beautiful!” – as though he were on top of the world. Then he takes his first swig from that bottle, and melts, his body dripping through the metal grating to the street below – where it hits the face of a passing businessman who happens to be looking up. The businessman’s face melts off too.

Make no mistake. Street Trash is a ‘melt movie’. Indeed, it is the absolute cream of melt movies. After characters quaff the merest drop of the old ‘Viper’ liquor that Ed has discovered hidden in his shop basement, the ensuing scenes in which these drinkers dissolve – often explosively – into a queasy palette of technicolour goo have never been bettered in any melt movie before or since. Street Trash is also, as its very title suggests, fully aware of its status as cinematic garbage. “Nothing of value whatsoever, just a bunch of crap”, Ed comments with self-reflexive resignation as he finds the crate of Viper that will propel the film’s otherwise loose-knit narrative – and in case the point were somehow missed, most of the film’s scenes take place at a car junkyard where various runaways and hobos have made their home among the rubbish and filth – and its first melting sequence sees down-and-out Paulie (Bruce Torbet) literally sink into a disused toilet, with only his disembodied hand left dangling from the chain. This is trash cinema par excellence, and it knows it, even as it veers wildly from urban pathos to fart jokes, from feral gang rape (and follow-up necrophilia) to the funniest shoplifting scene ever committed to film, and from the threat of extreme violence and death to a game of piggy-in-the-middle played with a severed penis.

Yet there is a strange poetry to all this wilfully offensive, tonally dispersed material. Despite its awkward, uncomfortable comedy, Street Trash has a real sympathy and affection for its demimonde of lowlifes. It may gently mock them, but the film also occasionally reminds us that these underdogs come from tragic histories – like the broken home of brothers Fred (Mike Laskey) and Kevin (Mark Sferrazza), or the horrific Vietnam experiences of the unhinged Bronson (Vic Noto) – while it reserves its real bile for those aspirational yuppies who more typically dominated the cinema of the Eighties, but are here pushed to the margins. When we see that suited businessman (played by the film’s writer and producer Roy Frumkes) having his face burnt off by the dripping debris of a melting pauper, we are also witnessing a visceral riposte to the Reaganite principles of ‘trickle down’ economics. If these homeless characters and their neighbourhood are normally avoided not only by cinema itself but also by New York’s more affluent citizens (whom here we see in their cars, annoyed or terrified when they are forced to encounter them at street crossings), then Street Trash shows the return – and revenge – of the downtrodden and of the repressed.

Something of a shaggy-dog story, Street Trash might be described as picaresque. Its main focus is the not particularly likeable but certainly resourceful Fred’s endless, aimless pursuit of booze, cash and sex, while evading Bronson and his minions, mafia hitmen and any kind of responsibilty – but the film also freely digresses to the investigation by demoted supercop Bill (Bill Chepil) into the messy deaths taking place around Greenpoint, as well as taking in the burgeoning romance between virginal Kevin and Wendy (Jane Arakawa) – the latter working as exploited secretary to the sleazily priapic junkyard owner Frank Schnizer (“I never forced no woman to do nothing she wasn’t dying to do in the first place!”). Meanwhile, a mouthy restaurant doorman (James Lorinz, stealing the show) finds himself in trouble with his gangster boss Nick Duran (Tony Darrow) after losing sight of Nick’s mole (Miriam Zucker). Much of this plays less like a concentrated narrative than a series of baggy vignettes, all collectively painting a picture – as multi-hued as those characters who have been liquefied by Viper – of existence on the outer edges of respectability and civility. Street Trash is the melting pot of America’s underclass.

There is another thing that distinguishes Street Trash from its sordid siblings, and that is the sheer quality of its filmmaking. Director Jim Muro’s debut was also to be his only feature (although he has recently been helming a lot of television) – but the exceptional steadicam work that would subsequently see him employed in the camera teams of directors like Oliver Stone, Brian DePalma, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann, is here already well in evidence. Working with DP David Sperling, Muro forges visual connections in and through his disparate storylines via thrillingly fluid tracking shots that reveal this hidden world over the shoulders and under the feet of its disadvantaged denizens. While many of the film’s incident might be ugly, the view is still somehow, strangely – as the old man puts it – beautiful.

Summary: Jim Muro’s outrageous, uncategorisable feature debut is the melting pot of America’s underclass.

© Anton Bitel