Like a first novel, Steve Yeager's "On the Block" wants to get it all in.
The movie, which has its world premiere tonight at the Senator in a benefit for the Maryland Food Committee and which will eventually play on HBO, is a gritty, ambitious, honest, occasionally ludicrous attempt to examine the culture of The Block, that strip of flesh and woe that inhabits East Baltimore Street.
Yeager is a Towson State graduate and industrial filmmaker who heroically raised the $360,000 the movie cost, and shot it, stop and start fashion, over the past four years. He takes you where you always wanted to go but never had the nerve to try: backstage.
Stripper culture, which Yeager penetrates acutely enough to make you believe in it, turns out to be sisterhood diluted by drugs, abuse and poverty but illuminated by occasional glints of mercy and dignity. As a tour of a demi-monde, "On the Block" is first class and absolutely delivers on the promise of its title. It puts you on The Block so vividly you feel your feet sticking to the floor.
Yeager builds his story around a young stripper named Libby, beautifully played by Marilyn Jones, and to their great credit, he and the actress don't sentimentalize her. Libby, lit harshly by cinematographer Erich Roland, is an ex-drug addict, and she has that seedy ersatz-beauty that is the stock in trade of The Block. She's one of those near-prostitutes, who can dance and beguile customers into buying her drinks and who apparently commits the occasional act of gratification, but she's not fully into the life of Sextoys-R-Us, and she's fundamentally decent.
In fact, it's her decency that is the wellspring of the plot and the fulcrum of the drama.
Everybody who sees her wants her, and this sets a variety of forces in motion. Among her suitors are a vice cop (who won't make you think of Sonny Crockett), an innocuous but benevolent block go-fer, a sleazy but prosperous lawyer and an addicted sister-stripper.
The central story is straight out of '40s film noir: the obsessed copper (Jerry Whiddon), who falls in love with an icon and goes berserk when the icon reveals herself to be human. After the sense of milieu, this story is the most interesting in the film, if perhaps a bit overdone.
Far less successful is a subplot in which an evil developer, played by Howard Rollins (whom Yeager actually discovered in Baltimore community theater many years ago), schemes to turn The Block into high rises. It doesn't work for two reasons: it's insufficiently dramatized, so much so that you never feel its impact on the main story. And, second, it seems to represent Yeager's own confusions about The Block.
If he wants to argue against "development" of The Block, doesn't it behoove him to portray it as something worth preserving? But what he shows is depressingly honest: a scuzzy, dying industry that traffics in women's bodies, either to be looked at or, in some cases, touched, all for pitiful amounts of money.
Thus "On the Block" seems to lack a moral center. It's both for and against, both hither and yon. It's fascinating, but ultimately disheartening.
For ticket information on tonight's premiere, call 467-0073.
'On the Block'
Starring Marilyn Jones and Jerry Whiddon.
Directed by Steve Yeager.
Distributed by Snakeskin Films.