Friday, January 22, 2016

Paul Bartel | The Secret Cinema

learning to read: jane’s psychotic episodes
by Douglas Messerli

Paul Bartel (writer and director) The Secret Cinema / 1966,  released 1968

32 years before the Peter Wier film of 1998, Paul Bartel directed, as a kind of entry film, The Secret Cinema, in which an innocent, clumsy, and rather unperceptive woman, Jane, is filmed in a series of episodes, revealing her downward mental spiral into madness, a madness, in fact, caused by the fact that her psychiatrist, a closet filmmaker, is filming her life without her knowledge.
      The first scene we witness (evidently Episode #43) shows her boss, Mr. Troppogrosso (Gordon Felio), deliberating various ways to in which to sexually aggress upon her. When he finally, comes in for the attack, she flees, while he still attempts to invite her out for an evening at the popular dance club, The Raided Premise. Seeking some sympathy, she attempts to tell her boyfriend, Dick (Philip Carlson), what has just happened to her, but he, explaining that “he doesn’t like girls,” isn’t listening, determined to break up with her.

So begins a series of adventures in which the clueless Jane sleepwalks through her life, without realizing, until her mother (the wonderful Estelle Omens) reveals that she has been seeing her daughter in the movies, that she is being captured on film in situations that include her best friends, her lover, her boss, her mother, and trusted doctor.
         We know—we have been forewarned even by Bartel’s subtitle, “A Paranoid Fantasy”—that Jane’s life can only end in madness, for Jane, as hilariously stupid as the cinematic episodes make her out to be, can still not figure out how to read the totality of her betrayal until a series of absolutely madcap and bizarre incidents, played out by her psychiatrist and nurse, reveals what he has been up to. By the time Jane realizes the true extent of her abuse by all those around her, it is far too late, as she is captured in a straightjacket and sped off to an asylum. 
         In this work Bartel satirizes not only the period’s “underground” movie making, in which absolutely anyone and everyone was gist for independent filming, but through his cinematic presentation of the fashionable clubs (he uses the real Arthur club for filming his The Raided Premise scene) and the equally fashionable dining spaces (for Jane’s meeting with her mother, Bartel managed to use, during after hours, a restaurant at the Plaza), he intimates that an entire society is in the know, of which others remain ignorant.

         Poor Jane cannot even manage a ticket to her own films, and is only able to hear the dialogue through the lobby doorway. Similarly, she seems to have no comprehension of different sexualities: both Troppogrosso and her boyfriend Dick, seem to be, as the former self- identifies, a “nelly queen.”  While Jane’s officemate, Helen, pretends to be a supportive friend, she in fact, is her arch-enemy, plotting for her next failed encounter with others. Helen, however, gets her comeuppance, as we discover in the last scene of the film that she will be the subject of the psychiatrists’ next film.
         In the end, Bartel himself as director, metaphorically speaking, seems to turn into an enemy of the badly hair-dressed actress who plays Jane (Amy Vane, a UCLA friend of his), using her clumsy-frazzled performance as a key to get himself hired on as a film director.
         The ploy evidently worked, with Steven Spielberg asking Bartel to revise his film for TV in 1986).  

Los Angeles, January 20, 1916

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