Camp David

CAMP DAVID OCTOBER 2012: BLAND AMBITION

By • Oct 24th, 2012 •

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There are key films in ones lifetime of movie going experience that represent a specific decade or have the ability to mirror a particular moment in pop culture. EATING RAOUL is one of those films for me, made in 1982 in a scant 28 days, on a shoestring budget of $350.000, most of that raised independently by the auteur himself – Paul Bartel. This project was always a labor of love for Paul since he was basically a satirist who observed the Hollywood scene with amused contempt, and most of all humor, and very black humor at that. The problem with cult films like this one (which I have seen more times than I care to admit, since Mary Woronov and I made over one hundred video tape copies to sell during her appearance at the New Jersey Chiller theater in 1995) never really hits the so called G spot in the realm of cult filmmaking, as far as going the distance with its dark, tacky and rather transgressive themes. What is really lacking in the script is any real development of the characters beyond the limits of upper class greed and stupidity, even with a dash of cannibalism added to the mix. Paul Bartel cannot bring himself to get really down and dirty tacky like say a TERROR AT REDWOOD INN or even a MOTEL HELL, both of which managed to create a real sense of sleaze beneath the bourgeois veneer in yet another low budget excursion into similar territory.

EATING RAOUL presents the viewer with a birds eye view of swinging sex-crazed 70’s Los Angeles, where no true sense of reality could hope to exist for more than ten minutes at a time between all the random sexual hookups. What is immediately apparent is Paul Bartel’s unshakeable faith in the American dream, since his alter ego, that of Paul Bland, a fussy sort of bloke who has no real skills beyond that of being a dilettante who owns a great set of fabulous fifties furniture, while fancying himself a wine connoisseur, longs to open a haute cuisine styled restaurant with his loving but sexually repressed wife. Mary works at the local hospital as a registered nurse, a sexy woman when left to her own devices and not without her own sexual needs which do not go unnoticed by her over sexed patients. Paul as director makes sure his camera treats the sex scenes like a murder and the murders as if they were sex scenes. He was basically turned off to sex during the picture in the traditional sense, and of course that creates a film all the more off kilter and uniquely strange in its presentation. Robert Bertain as Raoul Mendoza is by his own admission a “hot blooded Chicano” who recognizes that same sexual energy long dormant in Mary. In fact it is his sexual energy that sparks in Mary a sexuality in which only a Thai-stick of pot is needed to trigger their first encounter, thus setting the stage for his ultimate undoing at the hands of fate and the Blands’ curious chemistry that kept them going as a domestic couple at all costs. Bartel used Bertain again in his follow-up film, SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS, and in that one he gave him a homosexual situation in which he makes a bet with a bi-sexual chauffeur, who winds up bedding this once hot blooded Chicano in a way Paul Bartel could relate to more fully than having to place him yet again in Mary Woronov’s bed.

A comic set of bizarre events place. Mary and Paul are a couple drawn like a textbook of cartoon opportunism, living a dull existence in one of those typical LA apt complexes with no personality whatsoever in a situation whereby they can finance their dream of opening a restaurant by luring over-sexed swingers to their doom and lifting their always overstuffed wallets, by using Mary in various disguises as bait and then dispatching each one by somehow braining them with a frying pan. This John Waters inspired take on just how normal and peace-loving the perverts like Dora The Dominatrix are in comparison to the upper middle class assholes they prey upon who seem to live for power and pleasure in equal measure, there is no gray area here – the justice is clearly on the side of the downtrodden and kinky. This film needs to be viewed as a satire on consumerism during the counter culture post-sexual revolution much like the earlier less camp BOB, TED, CAROL & ALICE which also targeted the sexual revolution as seen by affluent middle aged swingers. The screenplay was a collaborative effort by both Mary and Paul, with Richard Blackburn (who scored a place of honor in cult cinema with his stylish film LEMORA: A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL), wisely devoting the most screen time to the charming if not sexless relationship that existed in real life as well as on screen between Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov.

It was Bartel who originally suggested that Mary try her luck in Hollywood after her work as an artist and performer with the legendary Factory of Andy Warhol. Bartel had wisely seen the connection between the film capitol and what Warhol had been doing in New York by surrounding himself with very cheap but brilliant people, working for almost nothing on practically non-existent sets, with decidedly bizarre story lines. This was what Paul noticed in what Corman was doing with films like DEATHRACE 2000 and HOLLYWOOD BLVD. Corman produced Bartel’s debut film, PRIVATE PARTS, which centers its plot around a Norman Bates type character who enjoys injecting blood into a sex doll. Ironically Roger Corman would turn down the opportunity to produce EATING RAOUL, which became Paul Bartel’s signature success as an independent auteur, since being an openly gay man at that time (1982) placed Paul well within the outside of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.

After the success of EATING RAOUL Paul nearly drove Mary to distraction by telling the press that they were really man and wife in real life. This seemed to Paul to be a good strategy at the time but Mary would have none of it. I was representing her at a memorabilia convention in New Jersey when, during a panel discussion, someone in the audience asked if it was true that she and Paul had been married, and without missing a beat Mary told the fan “I really don’t understand how you can even think that, considering that Paul Bartel is a gay man, and no we have never been married.” This was not done out of malice since Mary really did have an instant rapport with Bartel that shined through their moments together on film in spite of what turned out to be a somewhat monotonous plot device. Their chemistry is what audiences responded to on the screen. I believe that in Mary Woronov Paul began to imagine what, in a perfect world, would have been the ultimate relationship-fantasy for a gay man of Paul’s repressed generation – to have a loving but decidedly chaste relationship with a powerful woman who was both independent and intelligent, two artists working in concert for each other’s best interests in a loving way. In many respects they became the Tracy and Hepburn of the Avant Garde, a wacky alternative to the swinging hedonists practicing the free love doctrine of the swinging 70’s.

My life in Hollywood tended to intertwine with the careers of both Paul and Mary on a number of occasions, and with Mary in particular. I became her manager during her convention appearances on both coasts during the summer of 1995. EATING RAOUL and ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL were by then (1995) acknowledged cult classics and her performances in them were quite different from each other, giving Mary a cult status that has endured to this day. She explained to me during this time exactly what makes a film a cult film in the first place: “a cult film is simply a very cheaply made film that for some reason refuses to die and keeps coming back year after year until it is ultimately embraced by its target audience. Everything is always so cheap that brilliance can occur off the cuff like lines of dialogue that come to you before a take. Since you are being paid next to nothing, you have nothing to lose by winging it…In CHELSEA GIRLS they were too cheap to block scenes, or even have a script for that matter. The actors were left to their own devices and anything can result. This can, under the right circumstances, create cult status if the vibe is there. For me Cult filmmaking is always a mixture of attitude over reality. All cult films are basically about rebellion in one form or another.”

Mary and I did the three-day Chiller Theater with Barbara Steele, another actress known for her cult status mainly in the horror genre, while Mary gets both the horror fans and the rock and roll crowd while maintaining her other self – that of a published author and painter of neo-expressionism when she is not toiling in front of the camera. Mary always greeted her fans with a bemused sense of fun while questioning the mental health of anyone so inclined to like her work. She finally, by the end of the three day run of meeting countless fans, found most of them to be hip, well-informed, and finally she told me, “You know, at the end of the day I actually like them, and now after doing so many of these kind of films I am more than proud to have these rebellious quirky fans in my corner.”

My favorite memories of Paul and Mary stem from two occasions: firstly their last appearance as the Blands in an extended cameo during the filming of yet another Roger Corman produced quickie that began production as KILLBOTS and then morphed into the title CHOPPING MALL. I had a walk on during the title sequence with Roger’s other half, Julie Corman, while Paul and Mary are seen watching a demonstration of the ‘killbots’ that wind up running amok at the mall in question. I think we had all hoped for better things for the Blands, like the long awaited sequel Paul had been prepping ever since EATING RAOUL made him a cult figure. He was calling the sequel BLAND AMBITION, and the plot pretty much picked up where the first film left off with Mary and Paul finally owning their beloved restaurant “Chez Bland” in beautiful downtown Ventura with a surreal opening that involved the governor of California coming to their restaurant with mixed and strange results. However this was not to be, so they reluctantly said farewell to their fans in this decidedly tacky programmer in a way that perhaps was more in keeping with the origins of cult cinema in the first place, with a film made by a Corman protege with next to no money or script, with dire results that perhaps will keep it on tap for years to come.

The last time I saw Paul Bartel was at Mary’s charming studio in the heart of Koreatown in a complex known to the chosen few as the Witches Abode since the entrance was built like something out of Snow White. Mary had written a script entitled VAMPIRE CULT QUEENS FROM HELL which featured roles for not only Mary herself but both Barbara Steele and Martine Beswicke, all screen queens in their own right. Mary had been inspired by doing these memorabilia conventions and decided to set her script firmly in the middle of one as these cult queens turn out to also be vampires using the conventions geeks as dinner…very EATING RAOUL to the end. We had a table reading of her script that day that included yours truly with Paul and Garrett Graham (who made such an impression as “Beef” in Brian De Palma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE). The reading was a blast with everyone there at the top of their game. Barbara Steele made everyone laugh more than once with her British reserve lending itself to parody with every line of dialogue Mary had given her. At the end of the day the ladies retreated to the studio for a photo session with a boy toy in tow complete with dog collar. The three cult queens wore sunshades and looked like they could still tear up the town right up to the Hollywood Sign. Paul was rather reflective that afternoon, remembering all the times he and Mary had spent fleshing out ideas to create the perfect scenario for a cult film, and for a moment on a sunny California afternoon, surrounded by cult queens in sunshades and good wine and pot, we all felt like we were on to something their collective fans could rebel against once again.

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