Blu-ray Review: STREETWISE and TINY, Criterion's Latest Double Feature, Spans A Lifetime

Filmmakers Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell paint a picture of a street kid, and the adult she became.

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
Blu-ray Review: STREETWISE and TINY, Criterion's Latest Double Feature, Spans A Lifetime

content warning: addiction, child sexual abuse, suicide

Devastated by the Boeing Bust in the early 1970s, Seattle remained on shaky economic ground for years -- with a nation-leading unemployment rate and a rock-bottom minimum wage. In the shadow of this financial crisis, the city's homeless population skyrocketed, including young people who preferred the streets over the pressures of home.

These children became the focus of photographer Mary Ellen Mark and writer Cheryl McCall's story for a 1983 issue of Life Magazine; working with Mark's husband, Martin Bell, they went on to create Streetwise, a 1984 cinema verité documentary about many of the young people Mark had met and befriended over the previous year.

Streetwise documents the lives and lifestyles of dozens of street kids on Pike Street in downtown Seattle in the early '80s, but centres three of them: Dewayne, a flirtatious drifter whose trouble putting on weight makes him seem far younger than his 16 years; "Rat," an amiable 14-year-old con man who nearly seems delighted at the ways in which he can survive on the leftovers of society; and "Tiny," who, at 14, has already been a sex worker for a year.

Streetwise joins the Criterion Collection this week, but the nature of Mark's work over the rest of her career allows the label to present a uniquely piercing view of the most memorable subject of that film. Mark maintained a relationship with Tiny (whose real name is Erin Blackwell) over the course of the next thirty years, culminating in a 2016 documentary -- filmed when the elder Mark knew she was soon to die of a blood disease -- called Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell. The two documentaries are presented together in this release.

The gap between the two features is partially bridged by a pair of short films (Tiny at 20 and Erin), which are also part of the presentation on the Criterion disc. Another short film (Streetwise Revisited: Rat), made by Bell after Mark's death, locates the other key figure from Streetwise -- with whom Blackwell had a youthful romance -- and serves as a small, wistful epilogue to the decades-long journey of Mary Ellen Mark and Erin Blackwell.

The resulting package, all of these works combined, is both transformative and heartbreaking. It's a rare blu-ray release that I can honestly say takes the measure and weight of time as its central theme, but it happens here; Erin grows, and shrinks, and becomes laden with age, and broken by youthful experience, over and over before our eyes, as the features, supplemental materials, and short films skip back and forth across a life lived.

While the disc naturally prioritizes the two features, the menu structure makes possible a non-linear darting through the shorts and supplements that collapses the years between 1984 and 2016 into a stream of memory. (I'd recommend saving Rat for last, even of the supplemental features, for maximum impact; but arguably, any order works.)

A supplemental interview with Streetwise's editor unpacks how you go from 60 hours of stunning 16mm documentation to a working narrative of Tiny, Rat and Dewayne's lives; a short interview with director Martin Bell can't help but confront the ways in which Mary Ellen Mark and Erin Blackwell's lives were linked; and, perhaps, how Mark's career as a photographer was epigraphed by her relationship with her final works on her primary subject.

The disc feels wreathed in death. As mentioned, Tiny was made in the last months of Mary Ellen Mark's life, and is dedicated to her memory; and as we visit with Erin at age 44, a chilling list in Criterion's accompany booklet of the persons from Streetwise who died in the intravenous years makes clear how unlikely Erin's persistence has been.

But this spectre of death is with us from the very beginning. Streetwise opens with a stunning sequence, as Rat leaps defiantly off a bridge. The camera tracks with him in delirious slow-motion until, at last, it is revealed that he is jumping safely into water, not death. Dewayne, the other boy in Streetwise's triad of lead subjects, is not so lucky; his suicide late in the film sucks the last of whatever light out of what may have been interpreted or mis-interpreted about the kids' lives of self-proclaimed "freedom."

In Tiny, contrasted against Bell's beatific images of Erin's children -- she has ten, by the time we catch up with her in 2016 -- the cracks into which Erin fell and yet somehow survived become more and more gaping. The films' treatment of Erin's sex work is matter of fact and non-judgmental; Erin, herself, is aware (even at 14) that older men booked her for "dates" because she's a child, not in spite of it, and that it earns her a living ten times more lucrative than her mother's crude waitressing job.

This is keenly contrasted against Rat's confident boasting in Streetwise that he's able to survive on the streets without turning tricks. It never occurs to him that as a boy, he's simply afforded a different set of options from Tiny, his then-girlfriend.

But the downstream impacts of those days, for Tiny/Erin, are felt through all the rest of the films on the Criterion disc, and the Erin we meet in 1993, and in 2004, and 2016, struggles with addiction, the same as her mother, who echoes through the films as well. Erin has passed those struggles down to some of her older children, who themselves are now dealing with multiple generations of this trauma.

I can't say that any of this was easy to navigate, and having spent the last few days absorbed in this review, I'm finding its sense of the ripples of time hard to shake. Erin Blackwell is only a handful of years older than me; we had very different routes through all of this, but the signposts of years are the same.

Bouncing through her life in digest form, but at this level of detail, does two things simultaneously: as advertised, it outlines the life of a young woman who fell onto the streets before most of us had had our first slow dance. But Streetwise/Tiny, as a complete set, also measures a life lived; counts the lives around it that were lost; and wonders how the pieces of ourselves endure as time moves ever forward.


  • Martin Bell
  • Cheryl McCall (story "Streets of the Lost")
  • Annie
  • Eddie
  • Antoine
  • Erica

TINY: The Life of Erin Blackwell

  • Martin Bell
  • Erin Blackwell
  • Mary Ellen Mark
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Erin BlackwellMartin BellMary Ellen MarkThe Criterion CollectionCheryl McCallAnnieEddieAntoineEricaDocumentaryDrama

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