Archive for October, 2013

LIFE LESSONS No. 5: It All Comes Down to Love.

October 21, 2013

The Fix
A Coffin For Starsky

I leave the most important life lesson to the last, the lesson for me that is the heart of the series and the most durable and extraordinary legacy for a police procedural. And that is love – what it is, how it grows and sustains, and how it is expressed. The English language is both elastic and encompassing but let’s face it, there’s a terrible lack of synonyms for the most important word of all. Love for a child, love of life, falling in love, love for the perfect cheeseburger – love has so many degrees and variations it’s impossible to cram it all into a single word. But love is, in fact, the most important lesson I have ever learned from this series and something that informs me to this day.

Love is what sets Starsky & Hutch apart from the hundreds of other cops shows, most of which are predicated on either the individual as iconoclast, particularly in the 1970s, filled to the brim with conspicuous loners such as Baretta, Columbo and Kojack, or the Group Effort, a jumble of disparates who somehow become an effective, if eccentric team by pooling their separate strengths. Other famous duos – from Batman and Robin and Holmes and Watson to The Streets of San Francisco among many others, and a dozen of male-female alliances from The Thin Man to McMillan and Wife, play off the uneven distribution of power, the upstart assistant, clash of generations, the entertaining friction between differences. But Starsky and Hutch are a partnership of equals. This is more difficult to present and harder to sustain: in the absence of a power struggle or cute opposites, the interaction can be more intense and hermetic. Yes, they are presented quite differently, both physically and in terms of their habits. There’s a lot of both comedic and poignant material to be found in their different approaches the details of life, such as Starsky’s love of his car and Hutch’s healthy diet. But this is superficial, and the bickering and competitiveness that arises from those minor differences both amplify their affection for one another (because it allows them to mock-battle, both a life-saving way of decompressing and allowing for amusement in an often depressing world) and, in a way, distract them from it (because dependency, and as well the fear of loss, is as scary to them as it would be to us). We tend to see two as a one, two halves of a whole, and that can have uneasy connotations. “Starsky & Hutch”, in its finest episodes, doesn’t care how uneasy anyone is. Sometimes you get the feeling the series, as a whole, is daring you to redefine what it is to love. Or maybe it is more accurate to say they are daring themselves to define love in a way many people privately wish it to be. In the mid 1970s the idea of so-called heroic friendship had more or less been erased from popular culture. The ancient Greeks understood it, Shakespeare too, although a lot of it is mired in a bunch of baloney about the purity of a world without women and the ever-precarious instability of men whose political and social aims will most certainly destroy their relationship, as Shakespeare says in “Coriolanus”:

O World, thy slippery turns! Friends now fast sworn,
Whose double bosoms seems to wear one heart,
Whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise
Are still together, who twin, as ’twere, in love
Unseparable, shall within this hour,
On a dissension of a doit, break out to bitterest enmity.

Whose bed, mind you, prompting guffaws today, sadly. In the 1970s, much like the decades before, male friendship had lost both intensity and purpose. It wasn’t seen as necessary or seemly. You can chart the deflation of overt affection in every aspect of culture and in daily life. The rise of a psychologically based model of human existence brought with it not only a paralyzing fear of homosexuality but a narrow definition of what it meant to be a real man, and that definition did not include making oneself vulnerable to a friend. Affectionate hand-holding of the Victorian men was quickly replaced, in a few short decades, by a stiff pat on the back. “Starsky & Hutch” had no modern template, nothing like it had been seen before on television (rarely in any other medium either). Series creator William Blinn wrote the series primarily, I think, as a way of capitalizing on the zeitgeist of counter-culturalism, basically youthful, idealistic cops free from the rigid rules of the older generation. Laudable, yes, but the relationship itself soon becomes as important, or even more so, than the storylines or even the revolutionary social aims. Credit to this goes almost entirely to Glaser and Soul, honest, intelligent and fearless actors who took a great premise and made it greater.

In “The Fix”, Hutch is kidnapped and tortured by a gangster determined to find the whereabouts of his enslaved mistress. The gangster’s minions shoot Hutch full of heroin in order to coerce the information, but Hutch’s courageous leap to freedom results in Starsky hustling him into a safe place to detox. The grimy, searing details – sweat and violence, dirty rooms and panicky fear for a vanished girl – provide the necessary masculine props allowing both men to safely show not only an emotional bond but a loving physical one as well. The tables are turned in “A Coffin For Starsky”, in which Starsky is injected with a poison for unknown reasons, and together Starsky and Hutch must find the antidote and the motive for the crime before time runs out. Both extreme situations allowed writers and actors to express themselves without being accused of sentimentality, overreaction, or worse. Both episodes use a syringe welded by a homicidal thug, both acts of violence have more than a whiff of sexual sadism. Both Starsky and Hutch are taken by surprise at night, in the privacy of their homes. Even the ostensible motive for both actions is similar: it is love, or a twisted version of it (Ben Forest wants his girl back, Professor Jennings is grieving his beloved son). Both Starsky and Hutch are dehumanized, abstracted, used and thrown away: Starsky as reprisal, Hutch as a means to an end. In both episodes the uninjured one of the pair is in fact suffering more grievously, in the role of anguished caretaker. In both episodes, the injured strikes out on his own in a heroically selfless attempt to solve the problem, Hutch tracking down his old snitch and Starsky ignoring orders to stay put and following Hutch up the stairs to shoot Bellamy on the rooftop. Ironically, both initially make matters worse in doing so. Mickey is a pawn for the thugs and Bellamy’s death, while saving Hutch’s life, makes the discovery of an antidote nearly impossible. It soon becomes clear only together can they solve the crime and bring the criminal to justice, and in so doing repair the damage each has suffered. It might have been easier to emphasize the curative power of vengeance and have Hutch seek retribution for Starsky’s near-fatal attack and the other way around, but both Hutch in “The Fix” and Starsky in “Coffin” actually bully their way into the situation (both half-dead) when common sense says they should not. The love relationship, therefore, becomes allegorical: only by joining together can we ever hope to hold back the darkness of this evil world.

In the earlier two episodes, there is a kind of literal saving of a life. In “Gillian” the saving is metaphorical: Hutch’s girl is discovered to be a prostitute in the employ of the Grossmans, a mother-and-son criminal enterprise. Threatening to leave, Gillian is killed, and Starsky and Hutch must avenge her death and, in doing so, salvage themselves. But first, they must go through it. Together they travel through a howling firestorm of grief that is as terrible as anything ever filmed, made more painful because at the very heart of it is shame. They both know, on some level, investigating the Grossmans has made them unwitting instigators of this tragedy. (We will see this again in “Starsky’s Lady”, which has a nearly identical scene of shame and grief, Terry having been shot as a direct consequence of being Starsky’s girlfriend, except that it is quiet and deflated while this one is explosive and violent.)

This series doesn’t shy away from the complications of love either. As I mentioned before, the constant quarreling underscores, in my opinion, an itch of dread. By slapping each other away both can assure themselves that they are able to exist apart from one another. I’m not like him, the other can say. I don’t do those annoying things. The paltry list of differences are all silly and domestic in nature, half-invented or at least exaggerated anyway. In a sense Starsky and Hutch, as ultimate good in a bad world, are enveloped in a kind of nimbus as toxic as it is morally transcendent: they are indivisible, but indivisibility has its dark side, which “Gillian” illustrates. A second’s self-conscious fear of loss causes Hutch to freeze during an alley shootout, rendered helpless. Because this comes on the heels of Hutch proclaiming his deep feelings for Gillian she is implicated in his inability to cover Starsky. “For the first time I got to thinking …” he says. Then – and this is my interpretation, he actually does not finish the thought, but instead says, “I could have gotten you killed!” What Hutch got to thinking was if something happened to me I would never see Gillian again. This split second fracture of his bond with Starsky, his prime loyalty, is enough to endanger them both. “I didn’t work the way we work!” he cries out. It seems that the cosmos has similar feelings on the subject, because Gillian is permanently removed. I can’t be the only one to think that if either or both were to marry and have children – the most natural, perhaps even most desirable course of events for these young men – the partnership would be diluted beyond all recognition.

“Starsky and Hutch” is famous for many good reasons: handsome and charismatic stars, the flashy Torino, about eighty percent great scripts, a naturalistic and compassionate look at crime and punishment in the American city. But for me it’s love that distinguishes this series, love best defined by what it is not. It’s not brotherly or collegiate, it’s not made up of shared experiences like the intense bond of soldiers in wartime, although it holds within it all these elements. But it’s the very first, and last, lesson I take from this series. Love is all that matters.