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News Every Day |

The “Frivolous Gravitas” of Paul Bartel

Where is Paul Bartel? I know he’s been dead for 24 years, but why isn’t anyone talking about him? Among the many graduates of the Roger Corman Film School, Bartel has always been dismissed, shrugged off, forgotten, or ignored; Corman himself, famously even-keeled and amiable in public, was furious with Bartel for turning 1975’s Death Race 2000 into a black comedy rather than a straight biker exploitation movie. Bartel got his way, but friend and frequent co-star Mary Woronov went so far as to say “Roger tore it apart himself”—and she’s in the movie! Death Race 2000 is one of the best exploitation movies of the 1970s, but it’s not pure Bartel. What is? If you’re in California, check out his archive at the Margarett Herrick Library: “The Paul Bartel papers span the years 1960-2000 (bulk 1966-1992) and encompass 16 linear feet. The papers are divided into the following series: production files for produced and unproduced films and television programs, stage files, subject files, and oversize.”

And they’re available “by appointment only” in Beverly Hills; how odd that Bartel’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989) wasn’t written by him but Bruce Wagner; he has a story-by credit, but the movie’s thoroughly Bartel, so similar to Eating Raoul beyond the presence of its three leads. Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills is the sequel to Eating Raoul the world never got because no one would give Bartel the money (they were only 10 days out from filming on one occasion). His mid-1980s movies, Not for Publication with Nancy Allen and Lust in the Dust with Divine and Tab Hunter, are assignments. But so was Death Race 2000, and Cannonball; perhaps Bartel’s Private Parts (not Howard Stern’s) is the key, along with his 1968 short The Secret Cinema, which Woronov “loved because it was so paranoid and so New York.”

That short was shown on a double bill with one of Brian De Palma’s first features, Murder a la Mod; by the time Bartel’s masterpiece was released in 1982, De Palma was midway through shooting Scarface and already one of the most important directors in America. Bartel saw his peers and those younger pass him by all his life: he gave Jim Jarmusch $20,000 in order to resolve some legal issues so he could regain ownership of Stranger Than Paradise, originally a 30-minute short. Bartel was one of Jarmusch’s biggest supporters, not just financially, and by the time Stranger Than Paradise was made and released as a feature.

He got screwed over by his superiors from the beginning: 1972’s Private Parts was supposed to be called Blood Relations, but MGM insisted on Private Parts. Bartel asked, “Why we don’t just call it Cocks and Cunts?” None of the executives believed him, but indeed many theaters refused to run it and papers ran it without a title, or as Private Parties or Private Arts. Oh, and the studio previewed the movie on a Sunday matinee after a Disney movie full of children. This is a film where a voyeur injects an inflatable doll full of water and then blood, in the crotch of course. Even into the 1990s, he kept getting screwed: Alexandre Rockwell and Allison Anders originally approached him to direct one of the segments in Four Rooms, but Miramax balked at Bartel, “past his prime,” certainly not part of the new set of hot young filmmakers minted at Sundance. He died of a heart attack on May 13, 2000 just two weeks after undergoing surgery for liver cancer. He was only 60, and he made 10 feature films. His archive is surely full of treasures, by for now, it’s by appointment only, not for publication—for now.

Paul and Mary Bland return in a cameo as a couple in 1986’s Chopping Mall, but Eating Raoul is pretty much all we’d ever see of Paul and Mary Bland. That’s okay, that movie is a masterpiece, but everything Bartel touched turned to gold. He’s a phenomenal actor, as well, ratcheting up otherwise schlocky parts like the camp counselor in Joe Dante’s Piranha; Quentin Tarantino pointed out last year that Bartel “really makes you feel for these kids in the midst of this crazy attack; you really feel it.”

Bartel had range, but only in the way that Woody Allen has range: in every performance, whether he directed the movie or not, he’s playing Paul Bartel. His Tramp is an effete dilettante who’s either totally perverted or 1950s squeaky clean (Paul and Mary Bland sleep in separate twin beds, of course; his character in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills gets off on playing practical jokes on maids and butlers just like everyone else in the house). He’s both dry and over the top, a droll popinjay who speaks plainly but reminds you of Maurice Chevalier. This is the “frivolous gravitas” that peer Allan Rock ’n’ Roll High School Arkush speaks of—like all of us, he just wishes Bartel could’ve made more movies.

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith

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