Over the Edge suffered from timing. Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 film finished production around the time teenage gangs were fighting in theaters over The Warriors; the studio, worried that this new teen movie would cause more violence, shelved it. But like White Dog, another studio film deemed too dangerous to be seen, its reputation grew. A 1981 HBO screening led to bookings at New York’s Public Theater, which in turn led to showings in small art houses across the city. Edge recently came out on DVD and last night it opened Film Comment Selects. Film Comment editor Gavin Smith talked before the screening about how delighted he was “to give this film the premiere it never got but deserved,” and the eager sold-out Walter Reade crowd clapped throughout. I couldn’t help but think of John Frankenheimer talking about his 1966 flop Seconds: “It went from failure to classic without ever being a hit.”
What was all the fuss about? Hint: Edge opens with a documentary-style crawl reporting that 110,000 American kids were arrested for vandalism the prior year, and that the film is based on true events. The true-crime promise fades to reveal an arid, wind-swept Colorado settlement, with a sign posted: “Welcome to…New Granada. Tomorrow’s city…Today.” The tension between order and chaos emerge in two teenage pals. Carl (Michael Kramer), tucked-in collared shirt and combed hair, has moved to town with his parents; the boy in the cutoff muscle tee (Matt Dillon, in his film debut) throws his arms back and declares, “Hi, I’m Richie White. I’m on probation.” The two kids walk through the kind of Western town where it’s always afternoon and there’s too little to do, the only after-class recreations being pool-playing, and calling other guys “faggot,” and staying out of (bluntly named) Sergeant Doberman’s way. The camera, generally steady, begins to really shake when the boys flirt with girls, and nearly drops when Richie pulls a stolen piece. A girl dances with the gun and fires it, and we think she’s hit Carl until we learn that the gun’s loaded with blanks; they all take turns firing at a soda can, and almost all miss; they try to wire a car bomb, and only blow the engine out. These little plays of violence, we sense, are actually rehearsals.
One day—spoilers herein—Doberman sees Richie holding the gun, and shoots him dead. Carl, on the run, organizes the other kids. That night the school principal calls an emergency meeting for parents and chews them out, saying that sponsors won’t be interested in supporting the town after an incident like this: “We aren’t anywhere near our growth factor, and if we don’t grow, we don’t succeed.” But the gathering brats have locked the bastards inside already, and now destroy every car in the parking lot. A girl runs past Doberman holding a big globe—she’s got the world in her hands—and snarls, “You filthy pig!” The sergeant, who has refused to apologize for the shooting, tries to corral the crowd, but Carl blows him up along with the old rec center. In the next scene we see the juveniles, newly handcuffed, riding off in a bus encased in mesh wire, enforcing the connection between school and prison. As the song “Ooh Child” (“You know that things are gonna get easier-er”) plays on the soundtrack, the film lingers on the words “Emergency Door” above Carl’s head. The irony is he can’t get out.
Edge is simultaneously gut-churning, heart-wrenching, and head-thunking, a smorgasbord of alienation and detonation. Some brushstrokes are so broad that anyone who was ever a teenager can make like Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine and point at the screen, crying, “That’s me, that’s me!” At times the film borders on ludicrous: After sex, a girl stares pensively out a window, light glimmering across her chest. Meanwhile a teacher tells students, “There’ll be a special emergency meeting in the cafetorium, and it’ll be to discuss the problems about you people”; her head’s cut off like the teachers in the Peanuts comics, and the gibberish she spouts is as ineffectual. The kids (they all hover around 14) may cause trouble, but it’s because they’re misunderstood and stifled, their pent-up emotions only let out for most of the movie by the longhaired white musicians screaming on the soundtrack (the Ramones stand out in this crowd like the thoughtful, decisive Carl stands out from his peers). The adults, meanwhile, generally are at worst monsters (Doberman), and at best buffoons (most of the parents).
That said, I do think that the film’s anger comes from an honest place. Michael Haneke can say silly things, but he’s right when he says (about The White Ribbon) that the adult-child power dynamic is unequal, and thus ripe for abuse. Kurt Cobain, who admired Edge greatly (its dusty auditorium reemerges in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video), called it a film about real-estate development. Kids and property are linked. Both exist for the sake of the parents’ dreams of bourgeois domesticity, fixed in the dueling images behind the principal’s podium: Baseball god Joe DiMaggio clubbing one to the heavens, and toddler John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin, a good little boy and a mythic image of wealth and power of which these people can only dream. Whether it’s these posters or the Star Wars one in Carl’s room, the movie’s loaded with iconography, though the characters rarely regard it; the graven images connote material success as escape, but it’s as if, by looking at them, the people would have to accept where they are. An out-of-towner tells the parents, “Seems like you were all in such a hopped-up mood to get out of the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you were trying to get away from,” a clichéd moment of telegraphing redeemed slightly by the fact that the man then smugly smiles and steps into a cab. The adults wield power over the kids to make themselves feel superior, and the kids copy their behavior in turn. The main difference between Richie and Doberman is that Doberman’s gun kills.
The theme of kids trying to break free of a cycle but succumbing to it is an old one; Heathcliff gets beaten and grows up to beat others in Wuthering Heights. It’s also been evident throughout the teen movie, which has overlapped with the social problem film ever since cinema’s childhood. It reached its peak in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when directors like Stanley Kramer and Robert Mulligan made movies that kept declaring their own seriousness. At its worst, Edge’s us-against-the-world schmazz collapses, exhausted, into West Side Storyland, but at its best it recalls one of the greatest teen movies, Rebel Without a Cause. Edge and Rebel share superficial links: In both films the hero dons red toward the end (shows his heart on his sleeve), and the two films feature a teen martyr who, in his attack against society, both literally and figuratively fires blanks.
Rebel’s talked about too much as a James Dean movie and not enough as a Nicholas Ray movie. In almost all of Ray’s films—whether the characters are screenwriters or bull-riders—people cling to each other to help form their identities, and the genius of Rebel is that teenagers do this by definition. When the single Carl watches a couple making out at a party, I can feel the ghost of Rebel’s Plato (Sal Mineo) hoping for friends. When Carl leads the charge to avenge Richie, like Jim and his companions inventing a family, I see one friend giving another a great gift: A purpose.
But a key difference between Rebel and Edge is that, in Rebel, I also feel for the adults. Like Ray’s, many of Kaplan’s grownups are the opposite of removed; they want to help their kids but are too fucked up themselves. Yet the film gives them too many hollow speeches, and not enough sympathetic moments, so that the closing bombardment feels story- rather than character-driven. One might say that in a riot you have to pick sides, to which I’d say see Do the Right Thing, made a decade later, whose final outburst Edge seems to presage (race conflict replaces age conflict as a generative force, but a strong element of class resentment remains, with the poor biting the hand that literally feeds them). Spike Lee shows his characters constantly trying to engage with each other and failing, so that the violence feels like an inevitable culmination of conflicting forces; by contrast, Kaplan focuses on adults in attack mode throughout, with the kids figuring out how to respond.
In his original review of the film, J. Hoberman called Edge’s vision apocalyptic. By sticking with Carl and company, the film indeed comes to feel that way: To a young person the world can absolutely be ending, a sentiment only possible when you haven’t yet developed a good sense of a world outside yourself. To both its detriment and to its credit, Edge has few peers in the closeness with which it observes its boys (the girls are mainly sad-eyed hotties and cuties), at times coming so close to them that you feel like the camera’s hugging them with spiky hands. In contrast to the society-must-change viewpoints of many early teen films, several of the best American teen movies of recent years (Paranoid Park, Charlie Bartlett, Superbad, Adventureland) have pegged inner aimlessness as the chief motive for characters’ antisocial behavior rather than social conditions. Though often didactic, Edge does a fine job of showing how social conditions cause alienation.
If Edge’s critical reputation is currently inflated, it’s partly from the sex appeal that comes with suppression. It’s also partly from the rabidity with which people can attach themselves to the art they found themselves in as teens (I’m staring at my Say Anything… poster as I write this), similar to how Carl attaches himself to his peers. Edge came out the same year as another wonderful teen movie which also examines boys defining themselves through each other. Breaking Away takes place in Bloomington, Indiana, and looks at four friends dreaming of busting out. The Breaking Away group—their leader’s a bicycle racing star—is older, smarter, wealthier, and with much better home lives than its Edge peers, all of which make the movie easier to watch (I’m not alone in thinking this: While Edge vanished before ever appearing, Breaking Away grossed well and earned several Oscar noms). But in showing moments of happiness as well as ones of pain and anger (which Edge could have done, had it wanted—bottom-feeders can be happy too), Breaking Away also taps into a fuller and deeper emotional spectrum than Edge does, and ends up the richer show. Maybe I think this because I first saw Breaking Away when I was 16, a few years younger than its characters, while I’m a decade older now than Edge’s. Yet criticism’s always a matter of preference, and moved as I am by the last shot of Carl on the bus, I still prefer Breaking Away’s vision of teen life. Both films present the small town as a little pocket of life, an oasis in a desert. In Breaking Away the kids drink the water bittersweetly, while in Edge they spit it out, and die from thirst.
Over the Edge was the opening film at this year’s Film Comment Selects series.