Friday, March 3, 2017

Paul Bartel

Paul Bartel, Toronto, Feb. 1995

THE FIRST THING I DID WHEN SETTING UP FOR A SHOOT WAS LOOK FOR A WHITE WALL. What I'm really saying is that, wherever I was, I probably wished I was in my studio, but since that wasn't going to happen, I looked for the next best thing. It took a few years, but I was eventually able to find exactly the right spot where a Metz flash bounced into an umbrella would light the subject and the wall behind them without any shadows, making it seem - with the aid of some careful dodging and contrast filters in the darkroom - like I had a backlight, a roll of white seamless, and a softbox.

I remember the mid-'90s as a pretty great time to be shooting. I was working pretty regularly and even though the jobs weren't paying top dollar I had a studio with cheap rent and Scottish budgeting that kept my overhead low. My main concern was refining what I did toward something like a style and building a reputation for my portraiture. And thanks to NOW magazine I had a regular supply of subjects - people like Paul Bartel, for instance.

Paul Bartel, Toronto, Feb. 1995

Bartel was probably the major link between Andy Warhol, John Waters and Roger Corman, and his career as a director was almost overshadowed by his repertory of cameos and small parts in a wild array of movies, from Piranha, Frankenweenie and Amazon Women on the Moon to Heart Like A Wheel, European Vacation, Basquiat and Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird. The man was the roving ambassador for knowingly trashy cinema, and probably had as many friends in Hollywood as Jack Nicholson.

I'd seen Death Race 2000 on late night TV long before I paid attention to directors, so my real introduction to Bartel was in college, when I went to see Eating Raoul with my friend (and prom date) Carolyn Hart. Like everything I experienced in college, I mulled it over for weeks trying to divine just what about this comedy about lust, food, murder and cannibalism was supposed to prepare me for life as an adult.

Paul Bartel, Toronto, Feb. 1995

I'm not precisely sure what brought Paul Bartel to Toronto in the winter of 1995. His last movie as a director, Shelf Life, came out two years earlier, and his IMDB page lists just three screen credits for that year - a typically unlikely trio of small roles in The Usual Suspects, The Jerky Boys and (wow) Naomi & Winona: Love Can Build A Bridge. I don't remember if he was in town for a retrospective of his work, and I know that he never directed another film again.

Bartel mugged ferociously for my camera for all of the two rolls of black and white film I shot with my Rolleflex. He seemed like a man who didn't take himself very seriously - or at least he was at pains to make sure he presented himself as such.

Paul Bartel died of a heart attack in New York City on May 13, 2000.

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