Since the Video Vortex rental outfit at Alamo Drafthouse Raleigh opened back up recently (and I started working at the theater), I’ve been sifting a bit through their collection. It has given me the chance to catch up on some films that wouldn’t be terribly budget-friendly to get on streaming or digital rentals, and who doesn’t love the nostalgic joy of flipping through countless VHS and DVD cases? One of the first things I knew I wanted to dig up was Eating Raoul, a cult classic dark comedy from Paul Bartel that got a Criterion release a while back.
Eating Raoul is, on paper, a movie I expected to like. I first heard about it when I watched and wrote about the fantastic Chopping Mall many years ago, which features the lead characters from this film in what could probably be called inflated cameos. It popped back onto my radar more recently for a couple of reasons. First, I have been watching through Star Trek: Voyager, and Eating Raoul was the major debut of main cast member Robert Beltran. Second, I recently watched Fresh, a controversial recent feature that treads on some similar conceptual ground.
Eating Raoul is a dark comedy – a genre I usually appreciate – about eccentric characters who snowball into executing an increasingly absurd string of murders to pay their rent. There is definitely a class-conflict, “eat the rich” theme to the screenplay, which is usually fun to see. At first glance, it sounds like it has some common DNA with one of my favorite old-school b-movies, ABucket of Blood: Roger Corman’s skewering of art criticism and culture.
All of that said, to my surprise, I did not particularly enjoy Eating Raoul. The tone of the film is exaggerated and cartoonish, which could theoretically work if it were employed with a conscious purpose, but it doesn’t seem to have one. I expected the movie to have something to say: there is certainly plenty that it could say if it wanted to cut any deeper than than the surface level. It invokes themes like classism and misogyny (its strongest moments are inarguably Woronov’s), but the movie doesn’t dedicate the time to making a particularly coherent statement about these themes through the characterizations or plot. Because none of the characters are grounded in reality, it makes social criticism difficult to weave into them: these people are looney tunes, so what could their actions and experiences say about our tangible world? While it isn’t impossible to use highly exaggerated characters for meaningful critique, it takes some finesse.
Going through extant criticism of the film, I agree with some of Roger Ebert’s musings about it, particularly in respect to its tone and pacing:
“Eating Raoul” is one of the more deadpan black comedies I’ve seen: It tries to position itself somewhere between the bizarre and the banal, and most of the time, it succeeds…Problem is, it’s so laid-back it eventually gets monotonous.”
Honestly, there were more than a few moments where I felt like it leaned a little too hard into the banal to the detriment of the bizarre, which had the runtime flowing like cold molasses. I will say that I liked the performances from Woronov and Bartel, but nothing around them really worked for me. The love triangle that develops isn’t terribly compelling, and the action is all pretty predictable and repetitive. The whole work came off as simultaneously mean spirited and without a directionality for its barbs. It is a sea urchin of a movie, indiscriminately pricking anything that comes into range.
More than anything, I think I was disappointed with the execution of an interesting story concept. Particularly today, when the value of human life is so trivialized, selfishness aggrandized, and economic stratification so pronounced, a film about preying on people to pay the rent seems like it could resonate. I was hoping that this would be more of a prescient gem on a reassessment, but I don’t think time has actually done it any favors.
In today’s return to Ivy On Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at a brand new flick: Emergency, set to release on Amazon Prime on May 27.
The plot of Emergency is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Ready for a night of legendary partying, three college students must weigh the pros and cons of calling the police when faced with an unexpected situation.
Emergency is adapted from an acclaimed short film of the same name that won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. In 2020, the feature-length screenplay was featured on the Black List – an annual list of unproduced screenplays deemed of exemplary quality by film industry insiders. The team behind Emergency is led by director Carey Williams, who has done a fair amount of directing and editing for television and short films. The screenplay was penned by K.D. Dávila, who has written for the shows Salvation and Motherland: Fort Salem, and is notably a Princeton University graduate. The film was shot by Michael Dallatorre, who has worked on a handful of notable films like Brightburn and the recent Foo Fighters horror flick Studio 666.
As I always check with Ivy On Celluloid features, I was curious what campus or campuses served as the filming location(s) for the film. The best I could come up with is that all of the filming was done around the Atlanta, GA area – a metro with a number of higher education institutions. Once the movie is available on Amazon, I’ll see if the location(s) are specifically mentioned in the credits. For now, I’ve tried to cross-reference some of the buildings in the trailers with campus photos from nearby institutions, but that honestly hasn’t narrowed it down much. While the shots in the trailer don’t look particularly urban, and the fictional institution’s setting appears to be suburban, that doesn’t necessarily rule out urban campuses like Georgia Tech: some creative shots can pretty easily disguise one setting for another. That said, I am fairly confident that the architecture isn’t consistent with Georgia State University, and the color of the buildings doesn’t look right for Oglethorpe University. I’m not sure if the production would have traveled as far as Athens to use the University of Georgia, but it certainly isn’t impossible. Other possible locations include Emory University, Spelman College, or Morehouse College, as well as any of the other institutions in or near the area.
The university that serves as the primary setting for the film is a fictional predominantly white institution called Buchanan University. While no real college bears that name, there was a short-lived Buchanan College in Missouri from 1894-1905, after which it was converted into a high school. From the depiction in the film, I think it is fair to assume that Buchanan University is a significantly-sized and possibly public university given the vibrant Fraternity activities presented. Also prominently featured in the plot of the film is the very real Princeton University, a renowned Ivy League college located in New Jersey.
A minor detail that shows up early in the film is the presence of a blue light emergency tower on the Buchanan University campus – a real-life campus staple that is often omitted in current-day college films.
One of the earliest sequences in the movie takes place in a “Blasphemy and Taboos” class, in which the white professor gives a lecture about the power of the “n-word” while featuring the word on a projector screen and using it multiple times throughout the speech. At the end of the lecture, she singles out the two leads (Kunle and Sean) – who are also the only two Black students in the class – to share their thoughts. Ultimately, neither character objects in front of the entire class, though they discuss the incident between themselves both before being called on and immediately afterwards. Kunle notes that the content of the class was “on the syllabus” with a “trigger warning,” and brainstorms potential curricular justifications for the lecture, while Sean is categorically outraged by the incident.
There is a lot to dive into with the entire sequence. First, while I couldn’t find a course with the same title – “Blasphemy and Taboos” – there are certainly many real courses with similar content. The University of Utah has a Linguistics course titled Bad Words and Taboo Terms which is “an introduction to linguistic study through the lens of taboo language.” Notably, the course description itself has a de facto trigger warning for potential students, stating “students sensitive to obscene words are discouraged from enrolling, as are students with only a prurient, non-scholarly interest in taboo language.” The University of Washington has a similar course titled Swearing And Taboo Language. Western Michigan University has offered a Communications course titled Communicating about Taboo Topics, which relies on “discussion-based study…to address sensitive subjects that are typically off-limits to speak about…matters pertaining to race, death, sex, religion, and other subjects.”
In short, the classroom sequence is not only a plausible scenario, but highly realistic. Notably, the incident as it plays out in the film doesn’t lead to a high-profile scandal like the examples provided above – there’s no way to know exactly how often situations like the one in the movie have gone by entirely under the public’s radar at colleges every year.
A Buchanan University campus tradition that plays prominently into the film’s story is the “Wall of Firsts” – a wall of photographs dedicated to students of color who were the “first” to do something – really, anything – at the university. While colleges certainly love to honor their “firsts” in retrospect (Autherine Lucy and the University of Alabama come to mind), I couldn’t find a specific campus tradition that was a perfect analogue to the Wall of Firsts in the film. That said, it seems like a practice that is certainly believable, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it inspired by an actual campus tradition.
Another campus tradition that features in the film’s story is the “Legendary Tour” – a marathon of a handful of exclusive fraternity-hosted parties over the course of a single night, with varying levels of debauchery and eccentric theming between them. Admittedly, I’m hardly a knowledgeable authority on college parties (though I did devise an excellent Bill Nye The Science Guy drinking game back in the day), so I can’t speak too much from personal experience here. However, I have at least heard of a couple of the types of parties in the film, so I don’t think any of the parties – though likely exaggerated – were entirely detached from reality in their concepts.
One of the key locations in the film is the campus biology laboratory that contains the bacteria cultures for Kunle’s thesis experiment, which is crucial for his graduation and admittance into Princeton (also my favorite simultaneous MacGuffin and Race Against the Clock device in recent cinema history). One of the key issues in the film is the fact that the refrigerator that contains the crucial cultures has a faulty door, and must be locked in order for it to remain shut. Because the cultures are highly sensitive to temperature, Kunle forgetting to lock the fridge in the first act partially drives the sense of urgency for the film (at least at first). Out of curiosity, I decided to look into laboratory refrigerators that this sort of campus biology lab would – or should – have. According to an article I found on “Choosing the Right Laboratory Refridgerator or Freezer,” it appears that a built-in locking mechanism is a standard feature for many recommended models for laboratory use. However, in the film, it appeared that the cultures were stored in a standard minifridge, equipped with a separate after-market locking mechanism. You have to make cuts to the budget somewhere I suppose.
Most of the action of Emergency takes place around the Buchanan University campus and local community rather than actually on it. While the higher education setting plays heavily into the story, the movie is about a lot more than college. It is a rare college comedy film that has the social consciousness and heart of a top-notch drama, and the buzzingly anxious tension of a thriller. It gets a strong recommendation from me on all fronts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this builds a reputation as a cult classic college film for today’s generation.
Second, I just started a side gig that I am pretty excited about. I’m happy to have joined the team at the the Alamo Drafthouse in Raleigh, NC, which features the absolutely fabulous bar/video rental venue Video Vortex. Long-time readers might recall my Bargain Bin(ge) features, where I reviewed physical media stores and rental outfits across the country, as well as Clerk Picks, where I had my local clerks at Columbus, OH’s Video Central (RIP) pick movies for me to review. Needless to say, I’m excited to be on the other side of the desk now as a concierge.
For those not aware of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of movie theaters, they are a beloved pioneer in the cinema business for their dedication to a strict no-talking and no-phone policy, their frequent retro screenings, zany interactive movie parties, and food/drink offerings with in-theater service. Drafthouse Films, an associated distribution company, has been responsible for re-releasing a couple of movies I’ve covered over the years: Roarand Miami Connection.
Additionally, I’m planning to do a little more writing here over the summer months between the semesters. In the meantime, if you are in Raleigh, swing by the Alamo for a movie, or pick up a VHS/DVD like the good ol’ times at Video Vortex. Two films can be checked out at a time for no fee if you have them back within 7 days, which has already been pretty handy for me. I’ve been working through the catalog, and there is quite a wealth of high-quality and hard-to-find movies in the collection. You can even rent a VCR if you don’t still have one you can dust off!
Reviews/Trivia of B-Movies, Bad Movies, and Cult Movies.