Over The Edge and Eating Raoul

The Pacific Film Archives

Lurking between Hollywood spectaculars and avant-garde cinema is a film genre that, while sometimes produced through Hollywood channels, is informed by the quirky marginality of the art movie. A number of directors schooled in the machinations of the exploitation film have been able to use this framework to couple the lasciviously seductive qualities of the category with issues not generally dealt with in the narrow repertoire of popular movies. At times comparable to Andy Warhol’s film productions (especially such films as Bad) and somewhat related to the cult style of the midnight-movie circuit, their peripheral quality offers these works particular dispensations. All too frequently, however, they are dull rehashes of male action tits-and-ass sagas, rife with unfunny jokes, two-bit cinematography, and crappy scripts. They gather audiences in drive-ins, sleazy theaters, and amongst liberal cineasts who hope their unbridled appreciation of these films signifies a kinky, wild-and-crazy radicality. A number of these movies, however, engage more ambitious narrative and visual pleasures (and perhaps nonpleasures). The films of Jonathan Kaplan and Paul Bartel, for example, can be read as insistently developing vocabularies sprouting in the shadow of Hollywood. They bear watching by the growing (one hopes) audience enchanted by their funny, queer promise.

Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge is a compact, ingratiating tale of teens running amok. Like Kaplan’s earlier works (Student Teachers, Truck Turner, and White Line Fever), it pictures an emblematic struggle between its oppressed heroines and heroes and “the system.” Based on an actual incident in an upper-middle-class “new town,” it tells of the events leading to the murder of a 14-year-old boy and the subsequent reactions of local teenagers. Named “New Granada” in the film, the community is a concise image of America’s “white flight” ghettoes. Yet in this Eden of plush velour sofas emerges a threat, not from the outside, but hatched right amidst the ocher shag rugs. These children, sprung and coddled here, all of a sudden don’t feel so good. They loiter in their landscape like cherubs with one foot in the grave, slurring words, guzzling booze, and dropping anything to get a buzz. Kaplan’s choice of performers is an astute one, drawn not from the hackneyed archives of child actors and teen phantasms, but providing sharp portrayals of suburban kids. Fueled by Charlie Haas’ and Tim Hunter’s intelligent script, the film proceeds to unfold a tale of blooming demipassions and minor transgressions. This matter of transgression and rebellion has been a prime mover in all of Kaplan’s filmwork, serving as a kind of narrative motor which invites a boisterous empathy and camaraderie, like the shared charge of sitting in the bleachers behind second base on a sunny day. The dialogue is a pastiche of smart American vernacular and rolls off the kids’ tongues like molasses, in a rangy, effortless fashion: funny, wise, and touched with world-weariness. This speech sports the almost constant accompaniment of rock music, which serves as a brash, insistent cushioning. The characters bask in its comfort in cute bedrooms, lying on squeaky-clean linen and donning headsets; these songs fuel the suggestion of Utopian projection inscribed in the decor of the bedchambers, soft terrains of pleasure and promise. The kids talk on the phone, make drug deals, and cry into their pillows. Like most movies, this story is about brotherhood—another saga on the development of the style of swagger, the honing of the signals of power and dominance. All this complicity is performed under the aegis of transgression and rebellion—a transgression clearly dictated and thoroughly encoded.

Unfortunately, the film never really comments on this stylization of heroic rebellion. The heroes are surrounded by girls who spend their time watching them, listening to them, kissing them,and playing with guns like them. (No rebellion here.) Nevertheless, this is a smart piece of reportage on picaresque badness and juvenile delinquency. But it is also a tale of real estate, profit-mongering, and dominance, and of their effects on these suburban kids. The dialogue rings with their intelligence and despair, making one wish for the same level of accomplishment in the rest of the film, for a less predictable narrative, and for a cinematography, a look, which better frames these moments of duress and small joys. This film has been slow in receiving the commercial distribution it deserves; one hopes that Kaplan will continue to tell, both critically and seductively, these stories of American life.

Paul Bartel’s films have maintained a funny, eccentric bent, linking them to art cinema and independent work. Drawn to a quirky, comedic consideration of appetites, whether sexual, sporting, or culinary, he makes light of the dark side of his subjects and casts troubling aspersions on the light. Earlier films such as Cannonball and Death Race 2000 closely follow pop-movie formulas (the latter crawling out of the Roger Cormanesque zone); both The Secret Cinema and Private Parts tangle the question of the reproducibility of images with issues of voyeurism, narcissism, and sexual representation. In Eating Raoul, Bartel focuses on sex, money, and murder in a zany, off-handed style. Like Warhol, he tends to depict corrosive, mindless gestures, watching them escalate from the particularities of grooming and costume to the rhythmic crashing of heads onto hard surfaces. Eating Raoul tells the story of Paul and Mary Bland (played by Bartel and the wonderful Mary Woronov of Chelsea Girls and B-movie fame) and their struggle to gather enough cash to open a restaurant in California’s condo country. Unable to raise capital and horrified by their lecherous neighbors in the swinging-singles complex they live in, they desperately embark on a crusade they consider profitable, both economically and morally. Placing ads in sex magazines, they lure the victims to their apartment, give the perverts a little taste of heaven or hell (Mary as dominatrix, Mary as hippie, Mary as Nazi prisoner), and then proceed to murder them with a nonchalance verging on forgetfulness. They collect the money from their deceased clients and efficiently sell their bodies to the Doggie King brand dog-food people. When sexy Raoul (Robert Beltran) enters the picture, the plot thickens like the bottom of an unchanged cat box. A triangle develops, signaling more sex, more drugs, and more than just a taste of cannibalism. Eventually, the Blands are triumphant, and seem likely to get their restaurant nestled amid the condos. Another American success story.

In Eating Raoul, Bartel manages to mix the raw humor and titillation of the exploitation film with some cleverly explicit comments on connoisseurship, banking, male sexual bravado (again), murder, and, of course, love. His comedic style shines in moments of snappy repartee and droll asides, and has the cumulative effect of a Nembutal cocktail spiked with Tang. Woronov’s numbed delivery enhances the dialogue, etching it with a wise, street-smart stupor. Unfortunately, this zany pace is not always maintained, and at times the jokes ring with the desperateness of Fred Travelina bombing in Vegas. Shot in an uneventful, conventional style, the look of the film works to undermine the plot’s unraveling of roguish lunacy. Nevertheless, Eating Raoul remains a demi-wacky shorthanding of the apple-pie, chicken-in-every-pot American dream. Its insistent idiocy makes it a welcome addition to Bartel’s filmic collection of odd jolts and queasy ironies.

Barbara Kruger