We all know of at least one: the guy who is never too shy to sacrifice himself for a laugh. For late-20th-century indie cinema, that was Paul Bartel. A writer-director of sizable merit, Bartel as a performer channeled camp with ease. In one brief scene he could steal a film, as in his own Death Race 2000 when he plays Frankenstein’s manager: with one retort to the press trying to interview his charge, he makes an otherwise routine moment into a delight. The talent’s not unlike Crispin Glover, who can outshine all in minimal screen time (for example, The People Vs. Larry Flynt) or Tim Curry, who brings unexpected, and much needed, humor to a film like Kinsey. In Rock and Roll High School, is there a fonder moment than Bartel getting down to the Ramones’ rendition of Do You Wanna Dance? Such goofy moves to him were natural, defining moments, why I’d argued he’s better remembered as an actor more than a director.
And yet when he took the lead onscreen in his own 1982 film, Eating Raoul, he realized his career high, even if he spoke fondly of his 1968 short, The Secret Cinema. Included alongside Naughty Nurse on Criterion’s new release of Eating Raoul, the two shorts seem fun in their own right, but trifles next to the feature. Eating Raoul is grand, yet slight, enough for the excessive Bartel not to chew the scenery to mush. He fashioned an unlikely satire of the American family: his Paul Bland, with wife Mary (Woronov, at her most strange and appealing), have 1950s values while trapped in the zany liberation of the late ’70s.
Paul is a wine lover stuck working a liquor store counter (we can’t help thinking of Paul Giamatti in Sideways when this portly man muses over his vintage stash), while Mary manages nursing shifts and sexual harassment. Like Tracey Ullman and Woody Allen in his Small Time Crooks, Paul and Mary are of the working class who eye business ownership as a way up. And as in Allen’s film, their journey leads to crime, here murdering swingers. We can hardly blame the choice for Mary to pose as a dominatrix to lure them: the children of Ozzie and Harriet cannot escape varied perverts lurking in their apartment building, and those too eager to respond to Mary’s sex ads. In the process, Bartel and co-scripter Richard Blackburn offer an assortment of looneys: a sadistic Nazi, Ed Begley Jr.’s spot-on hippie, and Richard Beltran’s doozy title character, all of whom climax their lives with Paul’s frying pan to their heads.
This take on the American Dream (their name recalls Mr. Blandings, who wants his own Dream House) nicely lays out capitalism on the chopping block. In an obsessively consumptive culture like America’s, the only way for a common couple to strive is through killing, then consuming. An endearing view of a past time and filmmaking style – think Corman with a heart – Eating Raoul offers a bare Woronov, a prime slice of sexy-ugly that can never be duplicated, just like this film.