Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lincoln Center Over the Edge

This year's "Film Comment Selects" program kicks off on Friday with a screening of Jonathan Kaplan's searing Over the Edge (1979), a teen favorite of mine that went over extremely well when I showed it to my movie-watching group (20 years old and still going strong) last month. It's an interesting coincidence that we're all going "over the edge," so to speak. In any case here are some of my notes to Nous Allons au Cinema about the film, which inspired Kurt Cobain and director Richard Linklater, and probably Quentin Tarantino, whose Inglourious Basterds ends with a somewhat similar fit of violence:

"Today HBO is more about original shows than movies, but when I was a film-struck teen in the late 70s and early 80s it was like having a really good theater in your living room. Films that never played anywhere near where I lived, like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and the first Mad Max, inspired a lot of water fountain conversation in high school the next day. I remember talking about The Tin Drum and Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes—mostly, to be fair, about the nudity, or lack thereof. (Cinemax, which came along later, provided the booty.)

But Over the Edge was the movie that got everyone excited. Here was a “teenage movie” that treated the problems and concerns of disaffected youth in an adult way, sympathetic, but also wary. (Kaplan deliberately used few closeups, so we wouldn’t identify too strongly with the kids.) It’s a movie that’s hard to imagine being made today with the same cautious interest—and it was a movie that Orion Pictures wished it hadn’t made. Concerned by reports of teen violence emanating from theaters playing The Warriors and Boulevard Nights as Over the Edge was readying for release, Orion shelved it after a few token engagements. (Perhaps just as well, given a ridiculous horror movie-ish poster.)

But the Public Theater, which had a film program, ran it for a couple of weeks in 1981. Joe Papp was a big fan. Vincent Canby at The New York Times took note in his Dec. 20 column.

“Jonathan Kaplan's ''Over the Edge,'' made in 1979 but only now having its first New York engagement at the Public Theater, is not a great film but it's more expressive of some aspects of American life than most big-budget, supposedly serious melodramas, including ''Taps.'' ''Over the Edge,'' produced on a comparative shoestring is, in form, not much different from other movies about misunderstood youth, including the way in which it romanticizes its youngsters, but it is unusual in that the villains are not simply preoccupied parents but architects and urban planners, the people responsible for New Granada, where the story takes place.

New Granada is representative of those tacky suburban communities that were conceived and built in the late 60's, more or less all at once, from the ground up, to provide ideal environments for those who could afford condominiums or less expensive flats in apartment blocks. According to Mr. Kaplan, the director, and Charlie Haas and Tim Hunter, who wrote the original screenplay, the planners built a community ideal only for land speculators, forgetting that one-quarter of New Granada's population would be 15 years old or younger.

The New Granada tots and teen-agers, with no place to go and nothing to do, turn to drugs to calm their nerves and vandalism to pick them up. When they are threatened by a bullying policeman, who has accidentally shot one of them, they explode in a riot of violence in which they come close to wasting all of the community.

It's to Mr. Kaplan's credit that he makes New Granada look just as boring and alienating to us as it does to the unfortunate children who live there. Not since King Vidor's film version of Ayn Rand's ''The Fountainhead'' has any American film taken architecture so seriously. I hope it isn't sacrilege to suggest that ''Over the Edge,'' though often overwrought, is far more entertaining and to the point. “

Canby highlights the planned community aspect that gives the film some of its fascination. In 1973, Haas, a writer with The San Francisco Examiner, penned a story about a wave of teen vandalism that was hitting Foster City, CA, which he and Hunter and Kaplan used as the basis for the film. (Still good friends, they participated in the DVD commentary with producer George Litto, best known for his Brian De Palma movies.) They “found” the fictionalized New Granada in Colorado, which according to Danny Peary’s entry in his book “Cult Movies Three” (1988) had a school district that needed money, so the town fathers looked the other way as the film crew trashed the place. (The five main kids, including Dillon and Spano, were cast in New York; the rest were all local, and everyone had a great time participating in the destruction.) Funny thing is, when I was a kid, I remember being appalled—not so much at the awful buildings, which recur from state to state, but at the endlessly flat expanse of land. I’m sure it’s all ugly houses now, but given how they look in the movie it’s hard to lament those godforsaken plains." (My suburban prejudice showing, which I also graduated from.)

Pictured is the jacket of the (excellent) soundtrack LP, which friend and Nous Allons member Sara recently got from her brother. Probably worth a few bucks today. The movie is timeless, and priceless.

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