Streetwise/Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
In 1983, director Martin Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall set out to tell the stories of homeless and runaway teenagers living on the margins in Seattle. Streetwise follows an unforgettable group of kids who survive by hustling, panhandling, and dumpster diving. Its most haunting and enduring figure is iron-willed fourteen-year-old Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. Tiny; the project’s follow-up, Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, completed thirty years later, draws on the filmmakers’ long relationship with their subject, now a mother of ten. Blackwell reflects with Mark on the journey they’ve experienced together, from Blackwell’s battles with addiction to her regrets to her dreams for her children, even as she sees them repeat her own struggles. Taken together, the two films create a devastatingly frank, empathetic portrait of lost youth growing up far too soon in a world that has failed them, and of a family trying to break free of the cycle of trauma—as well as a summation of the life’s work of Mark, an irreplaceable artistic voice.
Seattle, 1983. Taking their camera to the streets of what was supposedly America’s most livable city, filmmaker Martin Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall set out to tell the stories of those society had left behind: homeless and runaway teenagers living on the city’s margins. Born from a Life magazine exposé by Mark and McCall, Streetwise follows an unforgettable group of at-risk children—including iron-willed fourteen-year-old Tiny, who would become the project’s most haunting and enduring figure, along with the pugnacious yet resourceful Rat and the affable drifter DeWayne—who, driven from their broken homes, survive by hustling, panhandling, and dumpster diving. Granted remarkable access to
The Criterion Collection presents Martin Bell's documentary Streetwise on Blu-ray, alongside the 2016 follow-up film Tiny: The Erin Blackwell Story. Both films are presented on this dual-layer disc, Streetwise in the aspect ratio of around 1.40:1 and Tiny in the ratio of 1.85:1. Streetwise's presentation is sourced from a high-definition restoration of the film, which was in turn scanned from the 16mm original camera negative. Both films are encoded at 1080p/24hz.
Tiny was constructed from a combination of video footage, primarily high-def digital for the newer footage, along with filmed material from Streetwise (a lot of it looking to be outtakes). This film footage in Tiny looks great, much to my surprise (giving the idea of showing the full frame that even includes the perforations on the side), while the rest of the film is simply limited by the original video footage. Some material taken from footage shot for short films in-between Streetwise and Tiny (two of which are included in the supplements of this release) can come off a little fuzzier, but the rest of the high-def footage looks decent enough. Detail is strong, colours look nice, and artifacts are kept to a minimum; at worst you can occasionally make out banding effects and some digital noise, but otherwise the footage is fine.
What ends up being a bit surprising, though, is that the filmed footage for Streetwise manages to look better in Tiny than it does in the presentation of the actual film found on this disc. While generally fine, Streetwise looks to come from an older master and it shows a number of artifacts. Grain is there, and as expected it's quite heavy, but it looks incredibly noisy a lot of the time with some obvious blocky patterns. This doesn't hurt detail, thankfully, and the film still looks quite sharp, but there is a bit more of a digital look to the presentation. Colours are rendered well, reds (like Tiny's jacket) looking especially good. Restoration-wise it's obvious a lot of work has gone into it as the image is near-perfect, only a few minor blemishes remaining. Black levels are also nice, despite being limited by the original photography and lighting here and there. It ultimately works well enough but there's definite room for improvement.
Streetwise (1984): 7/10 Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell (2016): 8/10
Streetwise provides a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. Despite the documentary nature and the film's age the soundtrack ends up being rather dynamic, delivering a decent amount of range and excellent fidelity behind the voices and street noises, while also staying clean and free of any damage.
Tiny provides a 5.1 surround soundtrack in DTS-HD MA, and though it's not aiming to test one's sound system is manages to provide a decent enough experience. Most audio is focussed to the fronts but music and other sound effects (like birds or even a passing plane) get mixed appropriately through the sound field. It's certainly not aggressive but more work went into the mix than I would have ever expected.
Streetwise (1984): 7/10 Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell (2016): 8/10
Criterion presents both films in an individual manner, first allowing you to select the desired film from the main menu and then going through their respective supplements.
Streetwise receives a new audio commentary featuring director Martin Bell. Bell recounts how the film first came about, photographer Mary Ellen Mark and writer Cheryl McCall (who would also act as producer on the film) contacting him after working on an article for LIFE covering kids living on the streets of Seattle. From there they were able to raise money from Willie Nelson and Bell set out to start filming. Bell then talks about the subjects in the film (who he refers to as "characters" since he had to figure out the story that was to be told) and how he came about meeting them, deciding who to focus on, and explains why more attention was placed on some "characters" and not others, sharing some personal stories along the way. He also talks about the task of editing the film, which came down to editor Nancy Baker. It's a very "matter-of-fact" track, Bell taking a very serious tone, but he provides an interesting overview of the shoot, the people he filmed, and putting the film together.
Bell has also recorded a new 10-minute interview, which seems, at first, to be redundant since he covered everything around the film so well in the commentary. This contribution ends up being more of an appreciation of his partner-in-crime, Mary Ellen Mark, who passed away in 2015, before the release of the film Tiny. He also talks a little bit about the friendship that Mark built up with Tiny/Erin Blackwell through the years, and the work she did with her. Criterion also includes a 17-minute interview with Nancy Baker, conducted remotely (and apparently for The Criterion Channel), the editor talking about the task of constructing a story from the material Bell had shot. Baker notes how easy it ended up being to put together (once a "story" was figured out) because Bell had managed to shoot some incredible material, even managing to properly cover some moments so she could easily edit together conversations and give them a cinematic flow. She goes over a few examples, offering breakdowns.
The section for Streetwise then closes with the film's trailer.
A trailer is also included for Tiny, but the big addition here (and for the release as a whole) is a collection of short films. Two shorts around Blackwell are first included: Tiny at 20, from 1993 and running 14-minutes, and Erin, from 2005, running 23-minutes. Both films end up being more interview-centric than Streetwise, offering updates on Blackwell's and her growing family's life. Both end up leading up to 2016's Tiny and footage from each do show up in that latter film. Because a lot of this ends up being covered in Tiny the two films may admittedly not be as interesting to some viewers, but they may get more out of Bell's 2021 short "Streetwise Revisited": Rat, featuring "Rat" himself, now married and domesticated (and still in Seattle) after spending a lot of time on the streets and in jail. The 14-minute piece features "Rat" reviewing footage from Streetwise on an iPad and recalling the era, and offering his thoughts on some moments: when he watches the scene where he says good bye to Tiny his response is "Damn, I could be a real asshole." Most of the stories around what happened to some of the kids in the film are beyond depressing (one was murdered by the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway) so this ended up proving to offer some form of relief.
Criterion also includes Mary Ellen Mark's 22-minue, 1989 short film The Amazing Plastic Lady, documenting a young girl in India who has devoted her young life to a local circus, hoping that will get her out of poverty, the short managing to offer some parallels to Streetwise. Criterion's booklet also packs in some great material, starting things off with an essay around the two films (though more of a focus on Streetwise) by Andrew Hedden, along with reflections on Tiny written by Mary Ellen Mark in 2015 (excerpted from the book Tiny: "Streetwise" Revisited). The best inclusion, though, is a reprint of the original LIFE article written by Cheryl McCall, complete with Mark's photographs.
It's not a packed edition, and I was a little disappointed there wasn't more around 2016's Tiny specifically (the film feeling to be treated more as a supplement itself), but the commentary, interviews, and shorts are well worth going through.
The presentations leave room for improvement but the supplements do a commendable job covering the film and its subjects.