by Jack Seibert
How many French critics does it take to release an American movie? Somewhere in the dozens, if the movie is Robert Kramer’s The Edge. Cahiers du Cinéma spilled gallons of ink around its 1968 release, with Jacques Rivette naming it his favorite film of the year. Three years later he’d transport its paranoid post-revolutionary ramblings across the Atlantic for his legendary Out 1 (1971), but while that French title recently enjoyed a well-deserved home video release, the American movie that inspired it has remained near-impossible to find. Finally, after the Kramer fascination extended through Rivette to Serge Daney, Nicole Brenez, and others, Re:Voir has released his landmark early feature in a double A-side Blu-Ray package with Ice (1970), as part of its planned ten-volume series spanning Kramer’s entire career.
Through these two features and their immediate follow-up Milestones (1975), Kramer became known as the premier filmmaker of America’s “New Left,” the vague movement that threatened to engulf the many facets of social change occurring in the ‘60s. While Kramer often receives mention for this classification, being bound by such history renders him a filmmaker to be read about rather than watched. Ice, the flashier of the two with its dystopian elements and forthright guerrilla techniques, has garnered a greater legacy, including a DVD release from Icarus Films. The Edge was until now extant only on a generations-old VHS tape. At the time of release it garnered only a dull review in The New York Times and a postscript in Film Quarterly (who ignored it even in their feature on Kramer’s filmmaking collective, Newsreel), both commenting more on its proximity to the New Left than to its accomplishments as a film. Perhaps it’s the distance from it—spatial for the French, temporal for the present day—that allows the movie to stand equally as a document of its era and as a portrait of its maker. That temporal distance is felt in the specifics: knick-knacks on a table or an outdated brand logo, details that a diligent restoration highlights. As a major work of a major filmmaker, the release of Ice is important, but this first-ever digital restoration of The Edge is unprecedented, monumental.
The Edge maintains a sprawling cast of thirteen, but it revolves around one man, Danial (a typo, or a phonetic spelling of “denial”?), who dreams of killing the president—a joke in 2021, shocking in its possibility just five years after Oswald killed Kennedy. Dan and the others are part of a loose conglomerate of white, college-educated radicals, all on the verge of hanging up the rifles and protest signs to accept their cushy middle-class lots. They regard Dan, himself reacting to that same disillusionment, with a mixture of “get a load of this guy” incredulity and genuine fear. Much of the movie is conversation concerning Dan’s mission, the motives behind it rather than any practicalities. “Why does he want to do it?” they seem to ask, which belies the real question: “Why don’t we?” Some of these people have started families and own homes—beginnings of a tolerable life beyond the explosion of potential progress in the ‘60s. Dan is the last of them to give up hope—his harebrained scheming betrays a naive faith in enacting political change—and so as the group talks and talks, one detects a subterranean sadness at losing that youthful glow. The chatter never moves towards any goal except to deepen and modulate preexisting relationships between the characters; add some digital artifacts and shaky camerawork and it could pass for mumblecore. Ennui, but fueled by such specific American ‘60s middle-class political alienation that it transcends that demarcation.
Re:Voir’s restoration of The Edge turns what was a shadowy mess on a bootleg VHS into a tapestry of precise grays and sharp lines. The only previous copy I could find was overscanned, meaning each frame had the previous butting into the upper screen space. The visual shortcomings forced one to listen to rather than watch, blotting out the movie’s careful interplay between those two elements. Some scenes are still dark, yes, and the line deliveries remain stilted, yes, and the camera audibly clicks, yes—but each face is respectfully in focus, the camera pans to catch every action, and the background is rife with lived-in detail. Nothing is sloppy, and it took this restoration to see that. In an early shot, Dan talks violence, while a neighbor’s drying clothes billow in the breeze out the window behind him. In the VHS copy, the window is blown out, a white hole. Cinematographer and frequent Kramer collaborator Robert Machover put work into that shot which was previously lost—framing it, metering the light, finding the right aperture to capture both clothesline and man.
Dan’s mission ends in suicide, as told by a survivor, Drums Along the Mohawk-style, to an offscreen listener. The center around which both the group and the movie revolved has fallen out, and what is left? On my first VHS viewing I thought there was nothing, just a blown-out white void. Two men get into a fistfight accusing each other of ratting out Dan, bracketed in the frame first by a carton of milk in the foreground and then by a kitchen shelf in the background. On VHS the shelf is blurred, abstract—“a kitchen shelf”—but the restoration surfaces individual salt shakers, and between the two belligerents, a tall box of Rice Krispies—now it’s “this kitchen shelf.” The beauty of Kramer’s method in The Edge is his attention to the specificity in his actors’ choreography and the rooms they move through. Though they never stop talking, these people exist more through their extension in space than in their words, and in the way they relate to the objects that intrude around them. The Rice Krispies box gives a physical anchor to the swift punch that knocks one of the men out, and remains a visual shadow for the victor when he stands alone. It’s a lingering remnant commenting on the action, a ready-made Greek chorus that stands one foot on either side of the fourth wall. He slams the door on the way out, leaving its shade drawstring swinging, a makeshift pendulum ringing out the twilight of the group’s revolutionary spark.
Who bought that Rice Krispies box and placed it just so on the shelf? Not a production designer, as none is listed in the credits. The Blu-Ray’s booklet contains a text of notes by Kramer which outlines some thoughts on The Edge, both its production and his hopes for its impact. The notes confess a rare degree of self-reflection, and shine new light on the formal qualities of the movie. The sets were just friends’ homes, and Kramer worked some magic to unearth poetry in found objects. It aligns him with late Dreyer, who structured his characters’ lives on-screen by the most everyday household objects.1 In Ordet, the family lamp and clock seem as responsible for the miracle as anything divine; in Gertrud, the conversationalists look more to the table or couch than to each other, as they do to the past more than the present. In The Edge, “even things (the table, walls, trees, oil storage tanks, highways), everything conspires to pull down each of the people, to drag them down as if to sink them in the private swamp of their easiest emotions and instinct,” as Kramer writes in his notes. The table is always where it is, unlike these walking paradoxes who are caught between their past and their future. The stuff all around them both represents and facilitates—through its stasis—the regularity they both crave and detest. The final image is of a newly-molded clay bowl removed delicately off the wheel. Something new is created, but it looks just the same as all the others.
Kramer is honest about the shortcomings of The Edge. It’s too smooth and bears too much of his personal mark—that is, the film is too artistic and the filmmaker is too much of an artist. Not only are the characters on screen caught between revolution and comfort, but Kramer is caught between turning that tension into a metaphor for artistic practice, and not. “[T]his dualism is self-serving, self-deluding bullshit,” he writes. “This hypnotic quality […] that is not what one should have now; rather, one should have knives that are reaching out from the screen, slashing at an audience, putting them on their guard or arming them.” To Kramer, the sharpness of The Edge points only within; the audience is lulled by it rather than unnerved. At the same time, that ambivalence oozes out from behind the camera; it becomes a part of the situation on the screen. In each frame, Kramer is caught between his insoluble poetic gifts and his thirst for action, just as we get overwhelmed looking for a singular point of focus. Kramer wanted a revolution, and that plan either failed outright or has not yet succeeded. Now we have a pristine restoration of this beautiful movie. Does it help? Every time The Edge gets played it incites questions—between contemplation and action, beauty and violence—which is why Kramer, committed activist (more committed than nearly every other “political” arthouse filmmaker), finds it a failure. The Edge is an anti-revolution movie: we get clothes in the wind when presidents should be dying, a Rice Krispies box where a revolutionary once stood.
1. Beyond the on-screen evidence of Kramer’s kinship with Dreyer, he pointed him out as one of his favorite filmmakers in contemporaneous interviews in Cahiers du cinema. Gertrud recurred as a frequent inspiration for his early features.