A Book Review by Irv Slifkin.
Say the name and the image of an overweight, balding man with a neatly trimmed beard and unctuous demeanor comes to mind. In productions released by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures during the 1970s, Bartel seems to be there all the time, stealing scenes in memorable supporting roles in such New World wonders as Piranha (1978), Rock and Roll High School (1979), and Hollywood Boulevard (1976). Just like the great Dick Miller whose mug was a common sight in many a Corman production, Bartel made audiences laugh, either through sheer recognition or shtick or both.
But according to author Stephen B. Armstrong’s Paul Bartel: The Life and Films (McFarland, 2017), there was so much more to Bartel worth examining than his entertaining presence in low-budget movies. Of course, Bartel was also a filmmaker, and the book makes the case that he was an interesting one at that. Armstrong has delivered a refreshing, anecdote-filled account of Bartel’s life and work, which includes directing the cult classics Death Race 2000 (1975) and Eating Raoul (1982), as well as such disappointments as the sagebrush spoof Lust in the Dust and newspaper farce Not for Publication (1984).
The Brooklyn-born Bartel first made waves behind the camera as the director of the short films The Secret Cinema (1968), a black-and-white, half-hour survey of a woman whose life is secretly being filmed; and The Naughty Nurse (1969), the saga of a kinky operating room nurse which features a Twilight Zone-like surprise ending. Both films received theatrical distribution, critical attention; years later, The Secret Cinema’s similarities to The Truman Show were duly noted by several critics when Peter Weir’s film was released in theaters in 1998.
As Armstrong relates, the attention from the shorts brought Bartel to the West Coast where he made the 1972 feature Private Parts. Many filmmakers have movies that got away – worthy films that are mishandled by their distributor. Bartel, however, had the misfortune of this happening with his first – and actually one of his best – films. Like The Naughty Nurse, sexual perversity takes center stage in Private Parts, the saga of a teenage runaway who lands in her aunt’s seedy Los Angeles hotel where she begins an odd relationship with a voyeuristic photographer named George. The film is a kinky psycho thriller loaded with atmosphere and genuinely unsettling moments. So, of course, distributor MGM dumped the picture. (I saw it on a double feature with 1973’s Wicked, Wicked, an Old Dark House styled horror shot in the multiscreen process called Duo Vision.)
Bartel eventually found a home at Corman’s New World, where he acted and directed. The book chronicles the behind-the-scenes battles between Corman and Bartel while making Death Race 2000 (Corman wanted less humor and more gore), and its sort-of followup, Cannonball! Armstrong details the studio-backed The Gumball Rally connection to Cannonball! and also offers a surprising anecdote about Bartel and the late producer Don Simpson.
For his next directing assignment, however, Bartel raised the money piecemeal to go independently: Eating Raoul, a comic tale of cannibalism and capitalism which he directed, co-wrote, and starred in alongside Mary Woronov, a former actress for Warhol’s Factory and another New World regular. The film was shot over a wide period of time – its release gained a lot of attention as it turned out to be a successful early entry in the indie world. Because of Eating Raoul’s positive critical response and solid financial returns, Bartel was offered directing projects closer to the mainstream.
John Waters’ name is mentioned a few times throughout the book, especially in the section on 1985’s Lust in the Dust, Bartel’s western satire featuring Tab Hunter and Divine, two stars of Waters’ Polyester, released the same year. Armstrong draws other parallels between the filmmakers and mentions that Bartel nixed the proposed casting of Waters regular Edyth Massey in a Lust in the Dust supporting role because it risked making the Waters comparison even closer for comfort.
The rest of Bartel’s resume is pretty uneven, but Armstrong pays rapt attention to all of the films as well as Bartel’s fairly colorful offscreen life and untimely death in New York City at the age of 61 in 2000. Along with the well-written, superbly sourced and sharply researched biography, there are three superior interviews included. They are with New World Pictures directors Alan Arkush and Joe Dante and Richard Blackburn, who wrote Eating Raoul with Bartel, and shares his difficult dealings with the filmmaker when Eating Raoul was adapted for the stage.
Like the rest of Paul Bartel: The Life and Films, the interviews are fascinating, funny, and surprisingly candid. And along with the rest of the book, they should thrill anyone with an interest in Corman and Company or independent films in general.
Irv Slifkin teaches film and communications at Temple University in Philadelphia and Rowan University in New Jersey, USA. He is currently producing a documentary on cult films and is a co-director of the Reel East Film Festival.