I watched a couple of movies in quick succession this weekend, and when I was through with the second, I realized they had a lot more in common than I was aware of when I chose them pretty much at random from a pile of DVDs I borrowed from the library. For starters, they’re both Criterion releases: Paul Bartel‘s 1982 Eating Raoul and Samuel Fuller‘s 1964 The Naked Kiss. Though the former is a sophisticated (albeit at times purposely ludicrous) black comedy and the latter on the surface a lurid exploitation picture, the two also share several central themes: innocence vs. experience, sexual kinkiness and moral hypocrisy, the commodification of the body and desire, violence as a means to an end, the failures of capitalism and more. They would make an excellent double bill for a film class or art house cinema, or just a lively evening with friends.
I saw Eating Raoul during its first run theatrical release and enjoyed it then, but I hadn’t seen it again on TV or in any other format until this weekend. It’s a memorable film. Several of its gags are indelible even on one viewing. The film concerns the aspirations of a very straight middle class couple, Paul and Mary Bland, and the twisted means they employ to realize their dreams. Paul (played by director Bartel) is a wine snob who loses his job at a low-rent Hollywood liquor store when he orders a case of $400-a-bottle Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Mary (played by the statuesque ex-Warhol Factory girl Mary Woronov) is a nutritionist at an L.A. hospital whose puréed confections repulse the patients, even as they lust after her body.
Mary, on the other hand, is repulsed by sex, which makes her a perfect match for Paul. Married for 10 years, they sleep, Desi and Lucy style, in twin beds in an apartment that, in a sea of swinging pre-AIDS 1980s neighbors, is an island of 1950s innocence. While struggling (and failing) to keep ahead of creditors, the couple dreams of opening Paul and Mary’s Country Kitchen, but they lack the $20,000 down payment to get their restaurant on its feet. They (literally) hit on a plan to earn money fast when a swinger invades their apartment to “make it” with Mary: they smack him over the head with a frying pan and (bloodlessly) kill him–and subsequently discover he’s loaded with cash. After consulting a dominatrix (Susan Saiger) they’ve met at one of the local swinger parties they were unwillingly dragged into, they resolve to lure rich swingers to their apartment with an ad promising anything-goes fantasies for cold cash so they can kill them and steal their money.
Unfortunately, their plan goes awry when sexy Mexicano con man Raoul Mendoza (Robert Beltran) horns in and demands a cut for disposing of the bodies. They later learn he’s selling them to a dog food manufacturer (!), and, worse, he’s locating their cars parked nearby the murder scene and reselling them for thousands of dollars, while Paul and Mary have to make do with a few hundred per corpse. As if to add insult to injury, Raoul has fallen in love (or lust) with Mary and successfully awakened her own lust with the aid of a Thai stick a victim with a hippie kink (played memorably by Ed Begley Jr.) had brought with him. Now Raoul thinks Paul is just getting in the way of a beautiful 50-50 split.
I won’t spoil the delicious (so to speak) plot twists that ensue. Suffice to say it’s a near perfectly developed story that runs like clockwork–amazingly, considering it was made by the seat of the pants for less than $500,000, with famous and talented friends of Bartel (Buck Henry plays a filthy-minded bank officer) donating their roles and improvising most of their lines. Of course, if you’re expecting high art and Oscar-worthy histrionics, you may be seriously disappointed. Despite the dripping wetness of the context, the humor and delivery are as dry as vermouth.
It’s interesting to me that when an interviewer in the early 1980s (it’s included on the Criterion disc) asserted confidently that the film’s targets of satire were the Blands and their uptight sexuality, Bartel replied that he wasn’t so sure who his targets were. It’s not as if the swingers, who file through the apartment fantasizing themselves as babies, Nazis, dogs, etc., are simply sympathetic in the filmmaker’s eye. The shallow, narcissistic single-mindedness of the sexual revolutionaries looks no less ridiculous than the smug disgust of the puritans. In fact it’s difficult not to root for the Blands, even as they follow their own bliss without giving a second thought to, say, wiping out a party of hot-tubbing swingers with the casual toss of a space heater.
Bartel, who died prematurely in 2000, is an undersung auteur of comedy, rarely if ever spoken of in the same breath as Woody Allen or Albert Brooks. Even John Waters, with whom Bartel is more often compared, seems to get more critical respect. Maybe Bartel’s comedies are less well-considered because they can be genuinely disturbing (as opposed to just revolting à la Waters–not that there’s anything wrong with that). Private Parts, a shocker from 1972, is, I think, a hilariously deadpan satire on the tensions between sexual repulsion and attraction at a Skid Row hotel in downtown L.A.; it also depicts decapitation, a leering sadomasochistic pastor, and a truly bizarre sequence in which a clear plastic sex doll, filled with water and wearing a photograph of a young woman’s face, is injected with the blood of the young man “playing” with it. Bartel’s second best known film after Eating Raoul is probably Death Race 2000, a Roger Corman-produced cheapie from 1974 about a cross-country race where the object is to rack up points by running over pedestrians; the more vulnerable the victim, the higher the score.
The Criterion disc goes some way toward correcting the slight to Bartel’s reputation by including two of his early black and white shorts, made on an apparent shoestring budget (the images and soundtracks were recorded separately) when he returned to his native New York after attending USC film school in the mid 1960s. Both The Secret Cinema and Naughty Nurse have a campy, underground feel, but the first, at least, about a young woman slowly catching on to the unsettling fact that someone–possibly her boyfriend or her psychiatrist or both–is making an underground film series about her, shows real daring and originality. I hope Criterion releases more Bartel films. Private Parts, for example, is begging to be resurrected.
Samuel Fuller, another completely original American filmmaker, has been honored with several Criterion discs in addition to The Naked Kiss. Beloved by loads of Europeans, including most notably Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders, it’s safe to say Fuller was less appreciated in his own country. Over time, however, thanks to the Europeans, he’s been gaining a solid reputation among American cinephiles on the basis of unique genre pictures like the elemental 1953 noir Pickup on South Street (which J. Edgar Hoover personally tried to stop from filming because it depicted the FBI as equally underhanded as the communists), the brutal non-glorifying early Korean war film The Steel Helmet, and the ahead-of-its-time revisionist western Run of the Arrow, which depicted Sioux society with unusual sensitivity.
In addition to these great films made when Fuller had some pull in Hollywood (including the support of Daryl Zanuck, who stood fast with him against Hoover in the Pickup controversy), Fuller is also well-known among cinephiles for the strange series of cheap independents like Naked Kiss, 1963’s Shock Corridor and 1982’s White Dog, that he made when fortune was less kind. Somehow, in fact, these latter-day films have become among the most beloved of his oeuvre.
I have to confess that as much as I love Fuller unconditionally at his finest, these films, I think, require a different kind of love that doesn’t come quite as easily for me. It’s not that I dislike them, it’s that I see their flaws and can’t easily forgive them, so I don’t rank them among my favorite Fuller movies. But I do find them fascinating. The Naked Kiss, in particular, is a stunning oddball of a movie. It’s clearly sold as an exploitation flick–the title alone seems to shout, “Come and get your filth here!”–but if you’re looking for that kind of kick, you’re not going to find it. There are plenty of other kicks to be had, however
Fuller was a tabloid journalist–at 17, he was the youngest reporter at Joseph Pulitzer’s yellow New York World–and his films reflect his intense interest in the real grimy truth of his subjects. He was also, however, a novelist who loved a good yarn. These two opposing impulses of his–the truth-teller and the yarn-spinner–create in The Naked Kiss a strange allegorical world, a town called Grantville that presages the Lumberton of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where everything seems ultrasweet and hypernormal on the surface, but wickedness is lurking just beneath.
Before we’re even in Grantville, however–before we’re even ready for the movie, actually–it begins with a closeup of a beautiful, blue-eyed woman (we presume; the film is black and white), cocking her fist and coming at the camera with a blow. We catch on quickly that she’s beating the crap out of a well-dressed man who is too drunk to fight back. Adding to the shock, he grabs her hair and reveals with a yank that she’s bald underneath. This just makes her angrier.
This violent dame, it turns out, is Kelly (Constance Towers in a fierce performance), a prostitute who is just after what’s coming to her: she peels $75 he owes her from a roll of $800, tosses the rest back and tells her victim–actually her pimp–that she’s leaving town and going independent. We will see Kelly resort twice more to violence as a first resort when she senses that an injustice to a female is being perpetrated.
Arriving months later in Grantville, Kelly (with a full head of blonde hair again) is greeted by chance at the bus station by the local officer of the peace, Captain Griff (Anthony Eisley). He follows her to a park in town, seeking to find out what her game is. He discovers that she’s selling a champagne called Angel Foam–which is actually just an in to getting hired for what she’s really selling. Cut to a local bedroom (maybe Griff’s, though it looks like a cheap hotel), where Griff and Kelly are just completing the sale. Despite being all lovey-dovey, Griff makes clear he doesn’t tolerate her kind in “clean” Grantville. He tells her she’ll secure exactly the position she’s looking for at Candy’s place, across the river and over the state line. Just tell ’em Griff sent you, he says.
But Kelly is not interested in working for another procurer. She pauses along Main Street to pop an errant bottle in a baby’s mouth, and this being pre-feminism, we know she’s thinking of making a change of career. Surprisingly, it’s not to motherhood, but to nursing at the local hospital for “handicapped” children, as they were known in those days. A crusty old nurse named Mac (Patsy Kelly, playing a type found in many of Fuller’s films) explains to a skeptical Griff, “Some people are born to write books, symphonies; paint pictures, build bridges. But Kelly… She was born to handle children with crutches and babies in braces.”
Here is where Fuller loses me a little. I know Kelly is an ex-hooker with a golden heart, but this seems like we’re being beaten over the head with it (in keeping with a theme of this post, come to think of it). Being willing to ride along, however, I will admit that this position does give Kelly the chance to meet the man who will provide the conflict, and Fuller’s unusual resolution of it, found in the heart of many a melodrama’s heroine: career vs. marriage. The man in question is playboy, philanthropist J.L. Grant (Joe Dante) whose grandpa founded the town where Kelly finds herself. While he roams the world in search of fun, his money keeps the children’s hospital running.
But now Grant’s back in town and when he meets Kelly, it looks like love at first sight on both sides of the class rift. It turns out it’s not quite what it seems. We get a sense of this when Kelly and Grant share their first passionate kiss, and for a strange minute the romance’s forward momentum threatens to come to a full stop when Kelly pushes Grant away and stares anxiously and searchingly–even accusingly–into his eyes.
[WARNING: Spoilers may be coming, so if you don’t like them, look away.]
We don’t know this (on first viewing) at this moment, but we will later learn that a “naked kiss” (in Fuller’s world; in the real world, it’s called an “iron kiss”) is one in which a prostitute can tell that the person she’s kissing is hiding a kink that could be dangerous. We don’t know on first viewing that Kelly is having that sensation with this kiss, but we know something deeply unsettling is going on, and we feel as puzzled by it as Grant seems to be.
Of course, it will turn out that Kelly’s instincts are sharp. What Kelly eventually learns is a real shock that she responds to with the reflexive rage we’ve seen in action twice before in the film, and this threatens to completely undo her hard work at self-reform. Her fate rests on the willingness of people who can vouch for her integrity to reveal ugly truths about themselves. Without their testimony, it’s just the word of a hooker against a pillar of society’s.
- Mary Woronov; the real siren (londonlyceumoffilm.wordpress.com)
- Kiwi cannibal horror comedy FRESH MEAT gets a trailer! (web1.aintitcool.com)
- Barbie, You Ignorant Slut (imightbetheproblem.com)
- Sam Fuller on Criterion DVD (mrmovietimes.com)
- Eating Raoul Interview (whotv.com)