“Shelf Life” is rare. It barely got a theatrical release, playing in a few art houses in New York City. I’m not sure it ever got a legit home video release at all. My VHS, bought off of eBay and with a “Rocket Video – Hollywood, CA” label on it, is in a nondescript black box with only the film’s title on the tape. And you can forget about DVD. Considering the format, the picture and sound quality are surprisingly good. A handful of on-line retailers claiming to carry a DVD of the film are actually selling the unrelated 2006 film of the same name. The point I’m making is: “Shelf Life” is an obscure film in a career full of them.
The story has got a great hook. Opening in 1963 on the day of JFK’s assassination, a family, composed of Mom, Dad, and three kids, Tina, Pam, and Scotty, go down into a bomb shelter. Thirty years later, they’re still down there. Mom and Dad died at some point, their skeletons neatly displayed in a bed in the back of the room. Tina, Pam, and Scotty, though now adults, still act like children. Their entire lives have been informed by obscure memories from childhood, a bunch of old records, and television. The TV doesn’t really work and mostly plays static, with an occasional flash of some recent television appearing. The three kids spend their day acting out weird play sessions, like “Egyptian Fantasy,” or pretending to go to school or be their own dad or go out to eat. Really, what would you do all day if you’d been stuck in a twelve-by-twelve room for almost your entire life?
The film stars performance artists and Hollywood bit-players O-Lan Jones, Andrea Stein, and Jim Turner, based on a stage play they had written. The story’s origin is fairly obvious. After all, particularly the entire film takes place in the same small room. However, Paul Bartel works around this nicely and throws in enough cinematic flair to prevent the film from coming off as stagy.
Mostly, however, the film’s run time is taken up by the trio doing their thing. Before each meal, the group does an odd prayer that combines the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, and military chants. The Egyptian Fantasy involves confusing Moses, Samson, Rip Van Winkle, and Superman. At one point, Scotty pretends to be a superhero called Super Car that involves saving some kids from a villain named Thack. There’s an extended sequence where Scotty pretends to be Dad, criticizing the world around him, and another where he pretends to be a mailman, which involves shoving pieces of paper up his butt. Some of the sibling confrontations are later reenacted and reinterpreted as lessons to be acted out in the future. The high-light of the film includes a big dance number at the end, which Pam calls her history of music. For a fact, there’s a lot of singing and dancing in the movie. IMDb even lists it as a musical, not incorrectly.
“Shelf Life” perhaps would have been better suited as a short film. Since there’s so little to it, even the brief 87-minute run time feels a little long. Ultimately, it’s not about dramatic pacing or story-telling so much as it is about meeting these fascinating, strange characters and the bizarre, eccentric world that they inhabit. As a film for Paul Bartel’s directorial career to go out on, it’s oddly representative of his career as a whole. It’s funny, strange, surreal, satirical, and a fiercely independent film from a fiercely independent filmmaker. Watch it if you can find it. [Grade: B+]
Don't say I'm not committed to my work here. Even though I suspect very film people are interested in Bartel's films, especially his forgettable mid-eighties output, I went through with all of it, watching each movie, writing reviews for them all, and posted them here, where very few people will ever find them. There are a few gems in here. Bartel's work certainly doesn't deserve to be relegated to obscurity like it frequently is. I'd recommend going on the journey yourself, for the most part. Everything is a learning experience.
The biggest thing I've learned from this report card? Writing about comedy is hard. I could dissect horror or drama all day. But comedy? If these reviews frequently degraded into me repeating my favorite skits from each film, sorry about that. It's hard to find something more to say about a funny film other then if you laughed or not. I'll work on that in the future. Probably. (Not.)
Anyway, as always, thanks for reading. More stuff, more reviews, more report cards, coming soon.