Friday, March 05, 2004

Gangland Violence – "CAAAAAAN You Dig It?!"

There is a charming little park in San Jose, situated between the Shark Tank and the Guadalupe River, called (appropriately) Arena Green. It has the loveliest carousel I’ve seen (something I wouldn’t comment on if it weren’t truly remarkable), and a well-equipped playground that my kids are fond of. A year ago our family was there, enjoying the park on a Friday afternoon. A group of suburban-looking teens wearing the usual outlet labels and brandishing digital photographic equipment came in from the south. They horsed around, whooping it up for the camera. The old gent who ran the carousel grimaced, and apologized to me on their behalf. I shrugged and smiled. They weren’t especially reckless or violent; even their language was kept in check. They were just loud and stupid, trying to squeeze some fun out of stuff they’d outgrown, but could still remember enjoying.

Then I noticed a half-dozen "yoots" coming in from the north. They dressed in matching baseball uniforms, and they walked with a bit of swagger. When they reached the park, a guy and a girl took a bench and started making out, while the others made a very deliberate act of scoping out the entire park. One guy – the biggest – walked over to the kid with the film equipment. The kid shut up, and stood very still. The guy pointed at the camera, said something. They talked a bit, then the kid said, “Well yeah – sure.” The big guy signaled for the others. They sauntered over, and stood in formation across from the Shark Tank. The kid fiddled with his camera, shuffled around for the best perspective, then took their picture. He walked over to them and showed them the result. For the first time, the group from the north broke into smiles, and I relaxed. These kids had might have eschewed the messy pancake makeup, but the jet-black eyeliner had been applied to both sexes, and there was no mistaking it: I was looking at a bunch of Baseball Furies.

Walter Hill’s The Warriors has acquired a reputation as a pleasant bit of B-grade film-making from the 70s, best enjoyed as a piece of camp. A number of user reviews hoot over the different gangs and their attire, particularly the bat-wielding Baseball Furies. All I can say is, you don’t much feel like tittering when they show up at your playground.

Mimes are even scarier.
I was a paperboy when The Warriors opened. I read all the reports of gangland violence that occurred in big city theatres. I didn’t attend the movie at the time – my excursions to the cinema were limited, and I had to admit, that looked like one freaky movie. I may have been a small-town Menno, but I knew about gang violence. I had read The Cross & The Switchblade, and Run Baby, Run. I could describe how “chickens” got their “wings clipped” – a “shiv” up both the armpits – and lots worse. If The Warriors had any of that, I didn’t want to see it.

It doesn’t, of course. The violence is stylized and bloodless, even when people get shot or stabbed. Perhaps this was a concession Hill made to keep controversy at bay, but it's not out of keeping with the cinematic norms of the 70s. In any case, the bloodlessness does nothing to deflate the suspense of watching a half-dozen gang members forced to walk from the Bronx back to their turf on Coney Island. The action might be the stuff of comic books, but the tension has grit that is more in keeping with Taxi Driver than with, say, Logan’s Run.

I like the film. I like the look of it – the paranoia of the 70s parades by in all its grimy, post-psychedelic splendor. New York City is perpetually under siege. Regular folks lock the barricades, while gangs and cops prowl the streets, looking for any opportunity to make a hit. The dialogue is plain and primal, appealing directly to the base fears of the gang members. Only when the Warriors fragment finally reaches Coney Island does a larger perspective begin to seep in. The leader, Swan, looks over his shabby domain, and snorts, “This is what we fought all night to get back to?”

My encounter with the Baseball Furies concluded charmingly. Hey - two groups of kids from different sides of the tracks met and interacted without violence. This is not always the case, of course. Tonight Toronto is steeling itself against the possibility of another bloody weekend. And Swan's question is having difficulty being heard above the primal glory of gangland violence.

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