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SHELF LIFE (1993).

Paul Bartel's best film since EATING RAOUL never got a decent theatrical release -- I certainly hope somebody in the business gets on the ball and books this winner into some theatres. The N.Y.C. premiere was held at Dixon Place, primarily used for stage work and performance art, and located in a second floor Bowery apartment, a few blocks south of CBGB's. It's a comfy little space, which probably doubles as the owner's home in the off hours. Several couches and kitchen chairs semi-circled the screen (in fact, we had to lug our own couch into place), with a video projector close enough to use as a table for our empties. The overall effect was like watching a movie in a stranger's weird living room, and as I sunk into a musty sofa I realized this was the perfect atmosphere for a movie set entirely in a '50s bomb shelter... The prologue is set in 1963, in a suburban home in Anaheim, California. When President Kennedy is assassinated, a typical middle-class family dives into their handy bomb shelter, and seals the door from the invading Commies. Thirty years later, most of them are still there. Though Mom and Dad died from food poisoning decades earlier (their bones still laid out on their bed), the three children, who were dragged underground when still tykes, have grown, but not grown up. Basically, they're 35-year-old kids who've created their own make-believe society by mixing fragments of history, comic books, the Bible, right-wing propaganda, and old television shows. And their only input from modern-day civilization are brief snippets of TV, which sneak through the layers of concrete. The brother and two sisters are played by Jim Turner, O-Lan Jones and Andrea Stein (the trio also wrote the play upon which it was based), and they're wonderful -- losing themselves in their bizarre creations, wild set pieces and monologues. It's just an average day for these three hermetically-sealed youngsters, as they run through their daily games, dressed in tattered clothing. There's "Egyptian Fantasy" with Pharaoh Ken; a convoluted Pledge of Allegiance that ends in "Play Ball! Amen."; a "Schooltime" fantasy in which Tina (a teen tease) and Troy (the bad boy) run amok; and numerous demented delights (best non-sequitur: "I can't hear you. I've got a set of encyclopedias up my butt."). There's an air of vague sexual tension throughout (sometimes their wrestling gets a little out of hand), and the tone shifts at a moment's notice -- one minute they're performing a choral ode to their dead parents, and the next they're spastically gyrating to a rock 'n' roll record. This is a perceptive, clever film, played for full-tilt madness 'n' sympathy by the three leads. It's their show, and Bartel is just capturing their genius on film (plus sticking his face in for a couple unnecessary guest appearances). A brilliant black comedy, and one of 1993's neglected gems.

© 1994 by Steven Puchalski.