Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Monday, October 03, 2011

Vandal in the Wind: OVER THE EDGE (1979)

"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 by the time I got home to cartoons, snacks, mom... Eventually, I forgot it, grew out of it, focused my rage on playing war games in the back yard (with the kind of realistic (painted black not orange) cap guns that are all but illegal now). But the inchoate pyromaniac manic fury was up all over again, for a few minutes yesterday, by "Surrender." The old desire for destruction was something the 70s seemed to foster --we kids were allowed freedom enough to see the full extent of our prison.

That raw, powerful, dangerous, sexy thrill of running 'loose' seems absent in the kids of today, as gone as the analog hiss of old eight tracks.

My hiss is gone too. I'm old, man. So why do the kids today seem even older? Is it the cell phone addiction thing? Has the virtual so taken over their lives they have no time for actual destruction?

Blowing up the school is not a new idea, of course, and nowadays it gets muddied in terrorism and Columbine. Now it's no longer permissible to even blow up the school in one's mind, let alone in cinema. Only a handful of films have ever acted on this basic childhood fantasy: ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (see: Columbine Queen) and OVER THE EDGE. Both came out in 1979. Coincidence? I was twelve, in 6th grade, the top dogs in Knapp. We were wild in the streets... as long as we kept within range of mom's shout for dinner, we could do damn near anything.

None of us knew about either film in 1979 of course. HIGH made some drive-ins but we were too young to go to them; EDGE was quietly shelved for being too dangerous. It found its audience later, on VHS and cable. I myself stumbled on it via a TBS afternoon screening while loafing around at my parent's house after college, 1991, unemployed, alcoholic, bitterly single. At first I thought it was some dumb typical after-school special of the era. By the time it was over I was drunk, crying with joy and triumph --I was home!

Any resemblance to an after school special was, by then, strictly coincidental.

The change couldn't have been more drastic in film and in life during those intervening 12 years. 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' bridge game or lawn chair circl devolved into wife swapping and off-key renditions of "Soolaimon" and "Everybody loves a Nut." My own make-out attempt was an awful teeth-on-teeth collision, atop the sliding board, while her older brothers coaxed us on. I remember starting small fires beside the crayfish-filled creek; puffing incorrectly on found Marlboros and sipping father's Tom Collins on the way in from mixing them in the kitchen (I was a master blender); biking over people's backyards to the gas station candy machine with all the loose change we could ransack; lusting after denim jacketed babysitters and riding them like horses. I was never molested by a babysitter, but vice versa? Oh lord, yes. Then again, there's no law against that.


The kids in OVER THE EDGE are somewhat older than me in the same time frame but all the ages hung out together --I remember the Farrah feathery style of the girls' hair. I knew the long haired blonde boys, the badasses in their red bandannas, both the bullies and the kids who would protect you from the bullies, and how to maneuver so I was always closer to the protector than the attacker without seeming to be following him. I knew air rifles and 'punks' and firecrackers, and old Playboys, and small fires started against the trunks of trees. I loved Ms. Kate Zackon, my 4th-5th grade teacher with her hand-knit shawl teaching my 4th-5th grade combined class (the 'artsy' kids --as opposed to the 'gifted' kids who had their own combined class. Only in the 70s were artsy kids considered worth encouraging --ours was the first and last such class at Knapp). Zackon had Kate Jackson hair and 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, the older Vincent Spano types ruined it, not me and mine. EDGE opens with him shooting out a cop car windshield, setting a whole string of escalating events in motion: first Sgt. Doberman's routine harassment of the first two kids he stumbles across: Carl (Michael Kramer) and Richie (Matt Dillon). Richie's mom's cool and takes his side but Carl's dad instantly presumes it's all his son's fault and then has the rec center closed the next day when some big Texas investors visit the town, leading to a near-riot.

The escalation of kid resistance in retaliation to the mindless parental authority crackdown is truly galvanizing. When the lost poetic soul of the film, Claude (Tom Fergus), is busted by Doberman after the kid who sold him the hash rats him out, the reprisal against the rat is the first real shot across the bow, but it leads to Doberman's killing Richie, and from there onward in escalating disaster until even catharsis is pushed too far.


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's 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 mook sidekick delivering a pre-emptive squealer beat-down; Matt Dillon with his real pistol and preteen rebel 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; first feints at sex that are the result of affection rather than hormonal lust, an affection about to be steamrolled into cookie-cutter post-Porky's exploitation; great rock on the bedroom hi-fi  giving way to 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 as if lecturing a bunch of kids caught shoplifting while addressing the concerned parents in the emergency PTA meeting.


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"). He doesn't understand the difference between keeping a community safe and declaring war on children. He mistakes protecting citizens with insisting free souls surrender to the same illogical boot heel of anxiety and voter-appeasing restrictions of liberty that have him so cowed and surly, so eager to flex the only power over others he has.

Most of us who grew up harassed by these types of LEOs just get over it and move on. We understand and forgive the hopelessly entangled process by which genuine democracy lurches blindly around the seesaw of freedom /experimentation and remorse/ repression. Kids shouldn't have to understand, or forgive, this surrender. Parents may just seem a little weird, as Cheap Trick sings on the soundtrack, but if they give themselves away, it's just because they know there's no real escape, only symbolic evasion, what the 12-steppers call 'a demographic.'

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 by rote, they are awake in a town that's asleep, and the best the town can do is try to control them by making waking up illegal.


This is my generation up there: 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.

But.... we didn't need freedom anymore once had cable and VHS. We stopped talking about movies we had seen or heard about as if fireside gossip, and just rented them. When those abstract shapes on the music cable channel on Claude's bedroom TV are replaced by the 24-hour music video channel MTV (in 1981, two years after this film was made), we no longer needed to sneak out the window and seek a party. Video killed the radio star... and in the process snuffed out any motivation for genuine 'real time' anarchy.

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, which is a total reversal of most after school specials: 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 we've been running amok in the climax of 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.

What's left? Of course you know -- Rock Hudson, coming out and shocking America, splitting it yet again, the violence we'd been spared at home on TV rocketing into our living rooms (for me it was LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR - that ending left me with a kind of simulacratic PTSD). Looking back EDGE now, sober and "serene," it seems that 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 their urban growth rate. Nowadays kids don't blow up their schools, they just bring guns, or build their own online while the parents do their homework for them. But they're beginning to fight back: it's Wall Street they're going after now. I watch these protesters on the news and for the first time in awhile I have hope (not really that they'll affect any change, but that they're so passionate).

One day, we'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun, but first, I guess, the darkness... like homework. Matt Dillon shall move on an create modern indie junkie comovage cinema with Gus Van and Francis Ford Coppola. Motorcycle Boy Lives! We... we belong dead. We who have burned so very brightly, Roy, but not to last. And never before or since will the bus ride to juvenile hall seem like such a triumph, such a march into Valhalla on the rays of a beautiful sun. One day, when the world is much righter.

So long, Earl. Good luck.

6 comments:

  1. Anonymous25 June, 2012

    One of my favorite movies! Also Kurt Cobain's favorite movie.

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  2. I discover this movie yesterday on french television in Paris where I live. I was charmed by the apparition of childhood, violence, ego centrism and affected maners of Dillon's caracter. he's totaly revealing his power of acting on this moovie. He's the element that makes the story tangible, because he can maintain all the contradictions of vitality loosing itself on absurdity that we can see in all caracters of the movie (adults and youngs). In a way he appears to me as the double of Doberman (that's why one of them as to die to let something happened), his trying to influed on his peers on his own way, building with Doberman the frontier in the conflict between youngs and adults. But the other characters are not really playing this game, they are not enough strong to feed this frontal confrontation. THey are more lost, in the middle absurdity of middle class desperation. After Richie dies his best friend take's his heritage of non sense rebelness. The movie points the problem of the lost of transmission between parents and their childs, that makes them growing in their closed world of peers, and richies role is transmetted to his friend. The communication his only working between peers. Adults are defeated, that's why they are living in this new city out of time, closed on herself, and this declassing way of life based on superficiality, can't feed the youngs to grow up. They have no weight, they are the real heros of the story tramped in an absurd life where they feel alive only in their own community, where every young is so wick individualy, that their capacity to exist is only based on gathering acts of destruction. THis moovie is amazing and the link you make with gus van sant elephant, his logical, if we think about both moovies we see the evolution of Over the edge story drama that shows how the violence can't be anymore figured on a simple confrontation between adults and youngs, and shows something more scary that we start to feel in Kaplan's moovie, but totally developped in elephant, which is the hate not anymore against other ennemies (the adults in 70 and 80's) but about their ownself. Life is going on superficialy without any apparent troubles, and someday someone think's he can heroicly destroy the lie of everyday life. This violence his not expulsed against someone, the hero return the gun to his peers before he returns it to his own face. Sorry for my english...

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  3. This a great flic wish i new where to see it again its been years..

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  4. Highly perceptive, and fun.
    I have been fascinated for years by something that happened somewhere between Nixon and Reagan. The wandering that occurred for a great many people was paralleled by innovation and experimentation in entertainment...think of all the Archie Bunker, David Bowie, Joy Division, Taxi Driver, Shel Silversteiney, Brown Hornet, Zoom, James at 15 things that happened alongside the predictable Osmonds crap in that time period. Money and the risks involved in bankrolling entertainment saw what had been truly new in the 70s turn derivative and insulting in my teen years. After all of the great things we experienced, we walked away with Different Strokes rather than Good Times, Chips rather than I, Claudius. Enough of the claptrap...
    Much more interesting was what was going on at home...there was a generation of kids who were literally left alone to do whatever. This manifested as neglect sometimes, as parents, for the first time openly tried to figure themselves out and divorce,cocaine and freak outs became habitual...I remember text books got touchy feely almost un-orthodox ( being told that the new American way to spell cookie was c-o-o-k-y)...methods changed...somehow all of the massive churning, cultural change, Viet Nam, Kennedy through Nixon impact, MLK, Bobby, fuckin Altamont, too...left an entire generation of parents a little stunned, exhausted and they deferred to new things, or just nothing...and checked out. So, it is fascinating to remember the older kids who just had almost no structure, even if some might have reassured them. I know people who did just take off on week-long road trips after school in the pre-Bundy days. It wasn't all illicit vice, but examples of how easy it was to get high, stay high get laid or or do whatever the fuck you wanted as a kid are everywhere. I felt jealous in my remembrances of kids who had this immense freedom...if you weren't there to witness it, things did tighten up instantly and to an intense degree. It was sad for some kids who just drifted and were not shown how to adapt to adulthood; for others it was a huge opportunity to be themselves and to experiment toward that end in a way that sure as hell does not exist now. I may now be to access what you had to eat today in 10 seconds time, but if you weren't there to witness the strangeness, the loss of control and the freedom of this short period, then you have missed something that is really precious in our history. We don't see enough of it in art...OTE was admittedly an exploitation movie; it has it's great moments of clarity, as does Times Square, Harold and Maude, even, but there just isn't enough accurate re-telling of this time. By the time the River's Edge came out, the masses of generally aimless freaks throwing rice at Rocky Horror had been pushed to the margins again, passing out with Slayer blasting in their baja bugs.
    Anything in the pipeline out there, anybody??? Perhaps I'll have to write the damn thing myself, which I could crowd-fund, get you-tube subscribers for and tweet to every parent-driven helicopter focus group up and down the Malibu shoreline, or...just write it. If not me, somebody. Thanks for firing up some thoughts for me.

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    Replies
    1. Well said, John. Born in 69, I remember that cultural change as well and the loss of freedom that came with it.

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  5. Anonymous18 July, 2016

    This movie was shown in Charlotte, NC...I saw it at the theater when I was in jr. high. I just watched it again this last week (the first time since I first saw it). I've never forgotten how it made me feel...how truly trapped we all kinda are and even at the ripe old age of now 50, how I still sometimes feel the same way.

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