"I'm sorry about your son - sorry he was on drugs!" -- Doberman
Walking home from work, fall day, Cheap Trick's "Surrender" came on my iPod and whisked me back to New Grenada, 1979... walking home from Knapp Elementary; "Let's Blow Up the School" was the movie I filmed in my mind; all I needed was a camera. Hell, I didn't even need a camera. My own imagining of the carnage ignited all my lower chakras; that tingle up and down the spine gradually dulled but was lit up all over again, for a few minutes, by "Surrender." That raw, powerful, dangerous, sexy thrill that seems gone in the kids of today, as well as in me, but I'm old, man. Why do the kids today seem even older?
Blowing up the school is not a new idea, of course, and nowadays it gets muddied in terrorism and Columbine; it's no longer permissible to even blow up the school in one's mind, or cinema. Only a handful of films have ever acted on this basic childhood fantasy: ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (see: Columbine Queen: PJ Soles) and OVER THE EDGE. Both came out in 1979. Coincidence? I was twelve, and we were wild in the streets.
None of us knew about either film in 1979 of course. HIGH made some drive-ins and rock clubs; EDGE was quietly snuffed out for being too dangerous. It found its audience later. I myself stumbled on it via a 'TBS' afternoon screening while loafing around at my parent's house after college, unemployed, alcoholic, bitterly single.
Simply Perfect. Any resemblance to an after school special was strictly coincidental.
The change couldn't have been more drastic in the film and in life: In 1979 we were running loose all over the middle class Lansdale neighborhood: all-night games of kick the can while the block party our parents were at devolved into wife swapping and off-key renditions of "Soolaimon" and "Everybody loves a Nut"; awful teeth-on-teeth collisions trying to make-out; starting small fires beside the green creek; puffing feebly on swiped Marlboros and sipping father's Tom Collins; biking over to the gas station candy machine with all the loose change we could ransack from our dads' recliners; lusting after denim jacketed babysitters and teaching them how to tie you up and/or letting you ride them like a horsey.
I went to school with kids like those in OVER THE EDGE: I remember the Farrah feathery style of the girls' hair. I know the long haired blonde boys, the badasses in their red bandannas, both the bullies and the kids who would protect you from the bullies. I knew the air rifles and punks and firecrackers, and the teachers with their hand-knit shawls and Kate Jackson hair who had us sit in circles and listen to 'Free to Be You and Me' and watch 16 mm projected science fiction shorts about the collapse of the environment and the dangers of conformity and overpopulation. We had a freedom kids today with their 'play-dates' and nannies can't even imagine. If we ruined it for them by wasting that freedom on petty vandalism and games of doctor well, sorry about that, boppers.
Or at any rate, Vincent Spano ruined it, not me. EDGE opens with him, shooting out a cop car windshield, leading to the driver, Sgt. Doberman's routine harassment of the first two kids he stumbles across: Carl (Michael Kramer) and Richie (Matt Dillon), which Carl's dad instantly presumes is his son't fault; the dad then has the rec center closed when some big Texas investors visit the town, leading to a near-riot. The escalation of kid resistance to mindless parental authority is truly galvanizing. The waste-case poetic soul of the film, Claude (Tom Fergus) busted by Doberman after the kid who sold him the hash rats him out is immediately the reprisal against the rat, Doberman's killing Richie, the final cathartic explosions, it all has a Greek tragic inevitability.
In EDGE we see it all, and we see it all slowly being taken away: cigarette smoking privileges being revoked as a reprisal against school vandalism. Claude taking speed to help him with a test but realizing it was acid and we in the audience being trusted to know the difference and to be knowingly bemused and sympathetic rather than clueless and appalled (as we've all been there, in that Bosch moment). Vincent Spano with his air rifle and pre-emptive squealer beat-down; Matt Dillon with his real pistol and smirk.
Free from the urge to bow to parental rule-making hysterics, the kids in this film know the thrill of breaking and entering, the sting of unjust police harassment, the frustration of only sporadically open rec centers; promises of bowling alleys and theaters all yanked away at the last minute; first feints at sex that are the result of affection so extra tragic to lose with the onset of Porky's-style exploitation; great rock on the bedroom hi-fi giving way to the crisp but strangely soulless synth pop.
The parents in this film never bother to think about whether or not the 'trouble' some of these kids are in has any basis in fact, or what defines 'trouble' -- they're still getting over the fear of being 'in trouble' themselves. "I don't have to tell you how deep... in trouble... some of these children are," Jerry says at the emergency parent's meeting, as if lecturing a bunch of kids caught shoplifting; this is how Jerry tries to assert his authority over the situation, lecturing parents by proxy, until finally Claude's dad snaps awake.
Any kid who's ever been hassled by petty cops like Doberman (above) knows the deal. He considers you dangerously strung out on 'narcotics' if he catches you with a sliver of hash. He chases you on a high speed pursuit if you throw a narc-rat-fink kid into the pond ("a kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid"). Though I think laws are good overall, when you insist on making benevolent drugs like marijuana or acid illegal, refusing even to allow it to dying cancer patients, or just pull otherwise nice kids into the station whenever you feel like it, on suspicion, stop and frisk, well it's not a matter of keeping a community safe and protecting citizens, but a matter of insisting free souls surrender to the same illogical bootheel of anxiety and voter-appeasing restrictions of liberty that have you so cowed in your heart of hearts.
As we become adults we just roll with these sorts of idiocies, understanding the hopelessly entangled process by which genuine democracy lurches blindly around the see-saw of freedom/experimentation and remorse/repression. Kids shouldn't have to understand, shouldn't ever forgive.
These kids may be fucked up and angry but they're mainly bored, and who wouldn't be? They aren't archetype cliches cobbled together for an after school lesson about drug abuse, vandalism, guns, and curfew-breaking. They're real. Stuck in the isolated hypocrisy of New Grenada, trapped by the world, by parents and cops and teachers all of whom push and prod in directions handed down from memos and teacher-parent conferences, none of it at all relevant to the matter at hand; these kids are awake in a town that's asleep, and the best the town can do is make waking up illegal.
This is my generation up there, so to speak; I'm proud of them. They're captured right at the point where the 70s turned to the 80s, the William Macy suicide center of BOOGIE NIGHTS, the dawn of the crackdown on our freedom to live in the moment and create our own tribes, our own interlocking separate society. We didn't need freedom in the 80s, we had VHS. We stopped talking about movies we had seen and just rented them in stony silence.
Throughout the film's loyalty is unquestionably with these kids, for whom every day is a challenge and or a bore, hanging out in a half-completed townhouse, waving around stolen guns; treating their own safety with the disregard they feel it deserves, in a town where there's nothing to do, no legal outlet for their accumulated energy and drive. It's like if Cary Grant and his crew of aviators in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS lost their postal contract, and were suddenly just a bunch of dudes in a bar in South America, nowhere to put all their nervous energy and death defying fearlessness. The group needs a cause, a Camelot, a band, a mail contract, a bowling alley, something to hold onto and belong in that's bigger than family but smaller than country. It doesn't matter if they're kids, they're still people, and they can fuck you up if you don't respect them. When they're ready to rock, you better get them to an instrument quick...
It's important to note that OVER THE EDGE changes the usual math of the parent-kid divide by siding itself with the kids... all the way, and allowing us to exult in the little moments of true rebellion, even if they are ultimately pointless: Richie standing on the hood of Doberman's car as he tries to haul off Claude; the retribution against the Leif-y narc; the kids locking the parents in the PTA meeting, etc. --it's all cathartic as hell, but then as the cars in the parking lot erupt in flames and the kids rage Lord of the Flies-like we start to become afraid of ourselves for the primal inner wild child joy of seeing the school--the kid equivalent of a soul-deadening prison-- destroyed. We fantasize about blowing up the school, but when we actually blow it up, we see the ugly core that drives that fantasy. We devolve along the Hawksian axis all the way out of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and find ourselves in MONKEY BUSINESS, with the drugged Cary Grant as the painted savage preparing to roast his rival. By then it's too late to save the baby in the boiling bathwater, the wild chaos of death and anarchy tails childhood idealism like a dogged detective and the reactionary rabble roll over everything like a tide, shedding the old skin of the country as they come ripping through the amber waves like a sloppy surfboard Erica Jong zipper.
The reactionary rabble, ah yes, they are on the move even now, as the juggernaut of parental outrage has slowly been gaining steam as it roars forward into the new world of cyber-bullying, teen online suicides. We all knew the catch-22 as kids in the earlier eras-- in order to convince your parents you were really depressed and needed to see a shrink you had to commit suicide. Only then--maybe--a shrink, kind of like the Middle Ages 'if she drowns she's innocent' witch test. Similarly coming home traumatized from bullying was just 'adjustment' and learning to stick up for oneself. Now--only now--after this string of suicides--are parents admitting maybe there might be a problem with the way inter-child harassment---extortion (for lunch money), assault, sexual harassment, stalking--is tolerated by them.
Like the exploding police cars at the end of EDGE, it's too much too late for their piddling half measures. By the time the justifiably furious are done smashing stuff, and the crazed parents done erecting new 'freedom-enhancing' restrictions, it won't even matter. The repressed will be off to erupt in a new dimension, a new location, and the laws will just hang there along the coast like waiting empty straitjackets for the next wave of kids, who shouldn't have to wear them --they didn't do nothing, but you'll make these kids put them on anyway won't you, mom? Just in case. And so good for their posture!
A smart parent or cop understands the social order exists in two simultaneous dimensions- the top 'normal' and the fantasmatic underbelly, conscious and unconscious-- and drug laws may serve the purpose of allowing kids a way to rebel and bond through the risk of smoking pot and drinking underage, rather than having to resort to something truly dangerous in order to rebel. And rebel they must. If a child never learns to break unjust rules his or her growth as a free-thinking individual is stunted. He or she can become, in the words of Varla in FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL, "a real-safety first Clyde," and when he shows up in movies that aim to be the equivalent of EDGE, he's played by Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg, and directed by Cameron Crowe.
This is not to say OVER THE EDGE necessarily condones these kids' rebellious actions, it's just to say they don't condemn them either --instead they make an effort to understand them. The parent's tendency to 'combat' the issue with escalated police presence and curfew mirrors our often clumsy military intervention in other nations, our reactions based on second or third hand alarmist information, indicating as always that the parent's in their castrated social slavery don't respect genuine freedom. If the dad takes everything the cop says as gospel and dismisses his son's own version of the truth, then he is a coward. It stands to reason that if his son dares sneer at the cop instead of flinching, and dares fight back and refuse to recognize the cop's authority, it reflects badly on the parent not for bad parenting but for being more of a coward than their own child, still flinching with fear the minute a cop talks to them, like they've got something to hide even if they don't.
When a peer group is captured correctly on film, as in Howard Hawks, or Richard Linklater, you get a feeling of the power and joy of belonging, a power and joy most adults hiding behind the evening paper at home have no recollection of. They condemn it in their children as dangerous, but without that kind of peer group power there wouldn't be a civil rights movement, a free India or America, or women voters, or even the current Wall Street occupation. And I can't help but wonder if EDGE wasn't shelved just for that reason, because of the terror producers must have felt when seeing a movie where the kids were genuinely dangerous, instead of just screwing in cars and kidnapping the school mascot and being 'edgy' in that edgeless rote misogynist PORKY'S way.
An aspiring filmmaker friend the other day told me he was blowing through twenty grand he'd raised for his debut film and getting nowhere: the actors weren't following his directions, the cameraman was eating up the budget on extraneous lights, etc. Ethan and I said loosen up, rehearse and improvise with your actors, shoot on the sly, get rid of the DP, film it yourself with a cheap HD camcorder; focus on the idea of film as joint creative process rather than getting hung up on his mental image of what it should be. Otherwise you'll stall and fret until you're broke and have nothing to show for the money. I've seen this happen a few times when kids I know have tried to make a 'real' film, and in the process spent a huge amount of money on insurance, crew and equipment, for very little actual result, when they could have just shot it all off the cuff, for no money, and had at least something. They don't want to start at the start, on the card table in the basement with a super 8 film cutter and a microphone. Film teachers discourage no budget basement filmmaking for obvious reasons --professors have to mystify the process to make themselves relevant, especially in the age of cheap HD video cams. Similarly, whole towns, like New Grenada, can stagnate and die when they try and force the natural development of a town to occur only 'above' board, and neglect the repressed undertow -- Jerry the main adult bad guy is not too far from the corrupt mayor in JAWS, and the kids then would be the sharks, and they'd be fine with that.
I mention the previous anecdote as indicative of why the parents in OVER THE EDGE lost their kids in the process of trying to realize their vision. The ultimate factor that destroys New Grenada is the refusal of the parents to admit that the base of their pyramid will probably not widen, and that their kids can't slow their maturation to suit your dowdy urban growth schedule. Nowadays kids don't blow up their schools they just build their own online while the parents do their homework for them. But they're beginning to fight back anyway: it's Wall Street they're going after now... where the money from Middle America flows and drops like a giant Coinstar. I watch these protesters on the news and for the first time in awhile I have hope. One day, we'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun, but first, I guess, the darkness... like homework, must be endured. Give the darkness to Claude, let him smoke it and peer unafraid into Bosch folios; let Matt Dillon create modern indie junkie comovage cinema with Gus Van and Francis Ford; Motorcycle Boy, YOU Live! We... we belong dead. We who have burned so very brightly, Roy, but not to last, we will go now, into the beyond. And never before or since will the bus ride to juvenile hall seem like such a triumph, a march into Valhalla on the rays of a beautiful sun. One day, when the world is much righter.