Street Trash (1987)
Murder, rape, necrophilia, police brutality, booze, racism, melting flesh and a dismembered penis - Street Trash certainly packs a lot into 90 minutes. While it's easy to criticize the tasteless treatment of the subject matter, especially the relentlessly negative portrayal of homeless people, such an attitude misses the whole point of a film like this. Whether it's the Sex Pistols singing "Belsen was a Gas" or comedians like Lenny Bruce doing routines about race and religion, there will always be artists who gleefully trample over society's boundaries about what is acceptable material, and Street Trash definitely belongs in this category. A more valid criticism of the film is that it fails to exploit a great opportunity to go beyond the nihilism.
The main plot consists of a series of misadventures, mostly involving a group of tramps who live or hang out in the same junkyard, and their attempts to get their hands on a bottle of Viper, a mysterious brand of booze, unearthed by a liquor store owner while cleaning out his basement. What they don't realize is that Viper has the unfortunate side effect of instantly melting your whole body from the inside out. The other story strands involve a gangster trying to find out who raped and murdered his girlfriend, a sleazy junkyard owner who gets it on with the corpse of said lady, and a cop who thinks the killing is linked to a sadistic and mentally disturbed Vietnam veteran living in the junkyard.
Street Trash is very much a product of New York City in the 1980s, and in particular, two things that place at that time had in abundance. Firstly was a huge homeless problem, caused in part by changes in the law and cuts in funding for government aid programs1; secondly was 42nd Street, the spiritual home of "grindhouse" cinema. During the 1960s, former "bump-n-grind" burlesque houses there started to turn into insalubrious flea-pit movie theaters. In doing so, they provided an important outlet for filmmakers wanting to connect with an audience who had no interest in mainstream Hollywood product and craved something more extreme. Although Street Trash came out at the dying days of this era (a massive clean-up of the area would see grindhouse theaters virtually wiped out within years of its release), writer and producer Roy Frumkes has said he was a "42nd Street junkie" and the anything-goes, taboo bashing atmosphere associated with grindhouse films is definitely on display here.
Street Trash has always provoked some extreme critical reactions. At the time of its release, the New York Times wrote that it was "befouling" cinemas and had "no redeeming social value"2; even today, eFilmCritic.com calls it "very gross, mean-spirited and ugly"3 - and that's from a positive review. Certainly, the most obvious charge that Street Trash faces is that all the homeless characters are, well, trash, who kill, rob, beat up yuppies and yell obscenities at old ladies, all in the name of the quest for their daily booze. However, at no point does the film ever pretend to be a realistic portrayal of homelessness, or even a realistic portrayal of the world. Street Trash is a grotesque live action cartoon, and the two main elements of the film, gore and gags help sustain that feeling.
The blood, guts and other bodily fluids are all excessive and plentiful; why just beat up a yuppie, when you can splatter his brains all over his windshield? Why just beat a suspect half to death, when you can stick your fingers down your throat and puke on him? The visual style of these scenes are a world away from the grim downbeat gruesomeness of modern films such as Saw, and is more in line with the colorful, ridiculous, and very funny gore of Bad Taste or even Monty Python (one death involves a man's stomach swelling and exploding just like Mister Creosote in The Meaning of Life)
A lot of the violence is played for laughs, with the laughs coming from your reaction of "did he just say/do that?", every time a new depth in bad taste is reached. In one scene, a tramp has his penis cut off and some of the others play a game of keep-away with it. The unfortunate individual ends up hitching a ride to hospital, clinging to the back of a bus load of screaming school kids, all of which is underpinned by an absurdly upbeat musical score. The sheer outrageousness of scenes like this help maintain the feel of an exaggerated, unrealistic world.
Street Trash revels in taking things way past the point of good taste, so aside from the excessive gore there are a couple of potential barriers to your enjoyment of the film, depending on your tolerance for such things. The first is the plethora of racist language bandied about. There are a number of responses to this; firstly, the type and quantity is about the same as a Quentin Tarantino movie, so if you don't have a problem with it there, you shouldn't have a problem with it here. Secondly, there is no discrimination as such, as all of the characters, whether White, Black, Jewish, or Asian, between them have a go at pretty much every ethnic type. Thirdly, and most importantly, the use of racist language does not automatically make it a racist film; indeed, if you were making an anti-racist film you would need to show examples of racism in order to dissect and criticize them. However, you can't call Street Trash either racist or anti-racist as it remains stubbornly neutral throughout, refusing to praise or condemn anyone or anything, or push any kind of moral viewpoint.
More troubling however, is the rape scene. If you're going to show rape, it needs to serve a purpose, whether driving forward a plot point, developing a character, or even just to be titillating. Here it does none of these things and seems to have been included purely to offend anyone who hasn't been offended so far. And, this being the sort of film that it is, if that's not too much for you, it is heavily implied (but thankfully never shown) that after the victim is left to die, the junkyard owner later has sex with the corpse. None of this can really be justified from a moral or narrative point of view, but in the context of the kind of taboo-busting, deliberately offensive films of 42nd Street that inspired Street Trash, it is fairly par-for-the-course.
Morality aside, the real problem with Street Trash, is what a missed opportunity the film is. No attempt is ever made to explain the origins of the Viper drink which is a bit of a shame as there is satirical potential in the storyline that somebody like George Romero or John Carpenter might have taken down a different path (want a solution to the homeless problem? How about a "magic potion" that makes them disappear?). But Street Trash is not a gritty realistic "message" film. It is primarily twisted entertainment, and exists in a total fantasy world, so to criticize it for not providing a realistic portrayal of homelessness is like criticizing James Bond films for not showing a realistic portrayal of the life of a British secret agent.
Ultimately then, you should take Street Trash for what it is: a very gory, highly tasteless, black comedy that you will either love or hate. The New York Times was correct in saying the film has no redeeming social value, but then again, why should it? Filmmakers are under no obligation to instruct us in the "correct" way of thinking about things. Movies that raise questions about life, death, society, sex, violence etc are great, when done well. But what's wrong with a little warped mindless entertainment every now and then?
- Dreier, Peter. "Reagan's Legacy: Homelessness in America." Shelterforce. May/June 2004. <nhi.org>
- Goodman, Walter. "Street Trash." New York Times. 16 September 1987. <movies.nytimes.com>
- Gonsalves, Rob. "Movie Review - Street Trash." eFilmCritic.com. Published 04 April 2007. Retrieved 19 May 2010. <efilmcritic.com>
Long before hitting the big time with The Usual Suspects and X-Men, a young Bryan Singer made his professional movie debut working as a grip on Street Trash.