Projects developed through Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute tend to be rather drippy character-based pieces, with a bleeding-heart program of social concern – and not much cinematic oomph. Boaz Yakin’s Fresh, however, is a remarkable film that has scant trace of the prim Sundance trademark style.
Fresh took me completely by surprise. I knew before I saw it that it was the work of a first-time director, a young guy who had, to my knowledge, co-written a few rather dopey horror films and cop thrillers. And I knew that this guy, Boaz Yakin, had as his producer Lawrence Bender, better known as Quentin Tarantino’s sidekick. Putting all that together, I figured Fresh would be basically a genre piece, a slightly bent action film, full of sweaty homages to tough-guy directors like Walter Hill and Sam Peckinpah – and, no doubt, the Great Lord Tarantino as well. I imagined it would be in the vein of Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991).
To be perfectly frank, approaching yet another movie about gangs in an African-American slum was a prospect that gave me little joy. These films – or at least as many of them as we get to see in Australia, more often on video than in theatres – tend to fall into one of two camps. First, they can be in the New Jack City-style, full of action, violence and masculine aggro rituals, with a little bit of pathos or a socially concerned message tacked on at the end; Juice (Ernest R. Dickerson, 1992) and Menace II Society (Allen and Albert Hughes, 1993) are just two of the many films in this mould. And if the ghetto-films are not what publicists like to call the pump-action-in-ya-face-kick-ass-double-barrel-high-octane type, then they fall into a far worse category: the Boyz N the Hood (1991) bag.
You may have been unlucky enough to see Boyz N the Hood, the debut feature by writer-director John Singleton – and probably the single most overrated film of the ‘90s. It was a dreary, preachy, didactic piece about the woes of urban life. Mothers, teachers and social workers stood in kitchens or on street corners delivering lectures about the decline in black self-esteem, and the dirty influence of urban developers and proliferating drug dealers. Every now and then, we’d get a little snippet of violence, crime or decadence: a drive-by shooting, or a kid high on crack. It’s a long way from Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977). Boyz N the Hood reminds me of another film which is rather better but somewhat similar in its moves, and almost equally overrated: Once Were Warriors (Lee Tamahori, 1994) from New Zealand.
I don’t know if Boyz N the Hood went through the Sundance Institute, but it may as well have. Of course, the issues it raises are real and urgent, desperately sad and upsetting; I wouldn’t deny that. But I can’t believe that this film could galvanise anybody into thinking about anything – it’s the most naïve, schematic, lead-footed movie about these issues imaginable. And it was so slanted towards a certain masculine line – as in much popular African-American art (and also Once Were Warriors), it is the decline in men’s self-esteem, and the broken bond between fathers and sons, which seem to be the real problems of today – while women going out to the work, having abortions, or just enjoying a bit of nasty fun of their own, just figure as further factors contributing to that masculine problem.
(Let me say, though, as an aside, that Singleton has had a curious career since that initial shocker. The more his films moved towards entertainment and popular genres like romance and the teen campus movie, as in Poetic Justice  and Higher Learning , the more he has been abandoned by high-minded critics and the art-house cinema circuits – and the more I find myself liking his work!)
Fresh breaks free of both movie-types I’ve mentioned; it sets its own terrain and tone in a commanding, compelling way. Many of the familiar elements of the African-American crime film are there: the gangs, the teenagers on drugs, the ineffectual cops, the desperately dysfunctional families, the rundown schools. But it’s not a generic exercise, and not a social tract or homily, either. It finds a dramatically intimate and truthful way into this awful world. That way is through a character, a 12-year-old boy named Fresh, played with extraordinarily natural skill by Sean Nelson. We follow Fresh – who doesn’t say much, doesn’t even express much in his face – and slowly discover what his milieu is made of. He goes to school, which he obviously enjoys; on the way, he picks up and drops off the various materials that form part of his drug errands. He gets held up here, talked to there, minor complications ensue – but Fresh keeps his implacable cool at all times. Finally, he gets to school late; his teacher gives him a hard time. Later, we see him go home; it’s a disturbed, cramped little place, full of aunts and cousins but no father or mother in sight. There’s a tragic-looking older sister, however, and the way Fresh looks at Nichole (N’Bushe Wright) tells us that, somehow, in some way, he wants to protect and save her.
All of this is presented in a matter-of-fact, perfectly everyday kind of way. The images, sounds and staging are quite simple, but very sure and effective. There is unease in the air, everywhere, small hints of threat; but this is not the apocalyptic world of the ghetto-action films mentioned above. And so, the world of Fresh keeps being built up in details, simply but masterfully by Yakin. We learn about the different drug operations, different circles, one for crack, another for heroin; we see the daily sales out on the street, where Fresh is the guy who interfaces with the public. We witness Fresh’s secret trek out to a certain green hideaway spot where he stashes his money, and we think this is probably some impossible dream of escape on his part, like the kids sitting in abandoned cars getting stoned in Once Were Warriors. We meet Fresh’s father, Sam (a superb performance from Samuel L. Jackson), a vaguely dignified bum who lives in a caravan and plays lightning chess games in the park. In one unforgettable scene, Sam muses about all the chess greats he has seen or known, even met and played – such as Bobby Fischer. “If you put the clock on them, put the speed up, I’d chew their asses”. He says this maniacally, over and over, until you realise what a unsettling mess of streetwise grandeur and pathetic failure this Daddy is.
Fresh is a singular film. The only ones I can compare it to are equally special movies from the previous ten years of American cinema – movies that wield a strong emotional affect, creeping up on you, getting under your skin, and finally shocking you with a force of revelation. I am thinking, for instance, of Paul Morrissey’s great, casually perverse portrait of street crime in Mixed Blood (1985), or the Coen brothers’ best work, Miller’s Crossing (1990). Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven (1992) also comes to mind, as does a lesser-known gem, Walter Hill’s sombre Johnny Handsome (1989) starring Mickey Rourke. All of them, like Yakin’s, have an evident relation to the violent action genres: crime, gangster, Western. But they each carve out a certain reflective, melancholic space which is, in a strict sense, beyond the usual generic dictates and expectations.
As a rule, these are not preachy efforts lamenting social victimisation, nor are they Utopian tales about either escaping to a better, more peaceful world or recovering a lost one (Once Were Warriors, again). Essentially, they are stories of power – power games. They are films in which the central characters only ever deal with the filth, corruption and hopelessness of their environment by trying to trick the system; going along with it and then subverting it from within, via some dazzling move. Heroes become ambiguous anti-heroes, and their actions reflect their struggle and resistance, even a fierce moral stance; but, at the same time, we note their absolute complicity with the “system” they inhabit.
This is exactly the course upon which 12 year-old Fresh embarks, and it’s all the more confronting and remarkable precisely because he’s a child. When Fresh’s game starts to become apparent, the film moves beyond the everyday and into something altogether scarier and more galvanising. His power game is brilliant – there’s no other way to describe it. His moves make you gasp. But he never talks about them, never announces them: like Johnny Handsome, his plan is his secret. He holds it within himself impassively, and we only understand it as we see it – often needing to piece the precise logic of it together later, retroactively. That money he stashes away, for instance: it turns out to be not the symbol of an impossible dream at all, but a very material stake in his ruthless power game.
There can be an astonishing, rare force to stories in which the hero’s plan remains hidden from us in this way; the method of narration (in the broadest sense of this term) creates an almost existential grandeur. The hero, like in this case, keeps himself to himself in order to survive – and keeps himself even from us, the spectators of his story. It’s this very act of privacy, of sheltering, that calls forth our respect. It’s “his life to live”, to adapt the title of a Godard film that was itself an explicitly existentialist account of a streetwalker’s daily life. I’ve heard people describe Fresh as a parable about “lost innocence”. But I’m not so sure about that. Like the terrible but charismatic hero of Unforgiven, I’m not sure Fresh was ever entirely innocent, or entirely guilty, to begin with. And it’s that eternal complicity, that indissoluble imbrication of good and evil, which makes Fresh such a striking film.
Fresh is a character who makes himself human, who performs heroic deeds – and, at the same time, loses something of his humanity, brutalises himself in the course of his secretive actions. But it doesn’t talk explicitly about any of this on the way through. It is comprised purely of gestures, deeds, glances – moves that take us slowly but surely from the register of the everyday to the register of panicky, high drama. Only in its extraordinary final moments does an explicit emotion suddenly well up, like a great wellspring that has been there all along, bubbling and growing under the surface – the type of subterranean dramatic structure described so well by screenwriter and theorist Yvette Bíró in her various books.
In the catalogue for the 1995 Melbourne Film Festival, Fresh was described as “mystical and enduring”. The mystical tag is likely to strike many (me included) as odd. But if the word refers to that quality of dramatic revelation which builds across the film, and that release of emotion in its final moments, then OK: there is something in Fresh that can remind a cinephile of the more explicitly mystical films of Robert Bresson (like Pickpocket  or The Trial of Joan of Arc ). But, here again, Yakin is not merely indulging in some self-consciously cinephilic homage or quotation, as happens with so many filmmakers when they attempt Bressonian finales – you can see some fairly pathetic attempts at that stunt in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980) or Hal Hartley’s Simple Men (1992). Yakin has found his own crucible of revelation by working through the truth of the banal and the dramatic, the truth of gestures, looks and situations. Like Abel Ferrara, Martin Scorsese or Olivier Assayas, Yakin grounds his story in the absolute murk of a contemporary social landscape before he shoots for anything even remotely mystical. And it’s this tension – the tension between a dirty urban world and lofty film art, between (to again cite Bíró) the profane and the sacred, between what is disgusting and what is sublime – that forges a special, almost unbearable emotion.
© Adrian Martin August 1995