Review: Private Parts

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Anybody out there remember, by any chance, Michael Powell’s 1959 flick Peeping Tom? (A disingenuous question, that: he who see Peeping Tom, he remember it, all right all right. Repress the mother, yes, possibly; but forget it? No—as they say—bloody way.)

Well, freak fans, it’s arrived at last, will you welcome please, a good hand now, folks, here he is, Son of Peeping Tom. No, correction: let’s try to get this right: Peeping Tomasina.

Not all that good a hand, though. We haven’t equaled the original yet, not in toto. For starters, the opening stinks. (The opening scene, that is, not the stylish titles.) And the ending is no rose, either; it smells, in fact, just a little like … bad faith. Well, bad judgment anyhow. Or plain laziness.

Still, Paul Bartel’s new feature Private Parts picks up one hell of a head of steam once it gets going. And if some (that word again!) freak of local distribution should cause it to drop suddenly (translation: “be dumped”) into an unsuspecting Seattle theater this year, you might do worse than soldier through that poorly-directed, -written, -scored and -acted opening for the sake of its later felicities.

I think it’s reasonable to invoke Peeping Tom. There are a few signs, even, that Bartel may have intended an hommage of sorts here. Both movies focus on a voyeur, a photographer; and in both cases, the child’s normal development has been perverted, literally and cruelly, by a parent of quite major-league kinkiness.

The paraphernalia of the two films is similar: cameras and tape recorders, floodlights, peepholes. Each hero is hooked on pornography, a masturbator. Each comes at his shapely victim(s) holding (ahem) a long, lethal, pointed object; each records death throes on film and tape.

The two films also have in common, I think, a truly Godardian, or Bertoluccian, fondness for in-jokes about other movies and about themselves. That dirty picture book of “candids” that George the photographer (John Ventantonio) buys in the shlock L.A. sex bookstore—you can read the title: The Prying Eye. A reference to Chabrol’s L’Oeil de Malin, maybe?

And old Aunt Martha (Lucille Benson): Super-Prude, in person, a maniac with a cleaver—now isn’t she quite a bit like moviedom’s own favorite blowsy bloody mama, Miss Shelley Winters, in her riproaring What’s the Matter with Helen? role?

And for that matter, what’s with these handles on the mother-and-son characters: George and Martha? Mother and son? How oedipal can you get, Manny?

And then there’s the outrageous “Reverend” Moon. He’s one of the oddballs who live at Aunt Martha’s sinister hotel. Keeps having muscular young men up to his room to “fix the refrigerator.” Wears clerical garb with a difference, like, strewn with motorcycle regalia. Very fruity voice, portly, very hammy. Could he be some fugitive from the Chelsea Hotel?

No, he’s just another red herring … like, say, fruity-voiced, portly, hammy Micheál Mac Liammóir in What’s the Matter with Helen? Drops out of the picture before it’s over.

So we come to the openest in-joke of them all, and by far the best. But this one ain’t no joke, son; it’s the authentic genre frisson, the real McCoy—and the openest reference, I think, to Peeping Tom.

Here’s George, see, the shy pornographer, alone in his room. What’s this thing on the bed? A polyvinyl transparent woman. Sexy as hell, too, when you pump water into her peerless orbs and etcetera. (And who would think the image of water filling up a polyvinyl extremity—a foot, a hand—could be so goddam erotic, so, as Cahiers would say, oneiric? Terrific effect here, rack focus and all very, uh, tumescent.)

George slips some lingerie-type things over her swelling form, slips ’em off, smooth, beautiful, a regular Valentino. He’s warming up. Wait a minute, what now? Go and get something. A hypodermic syringe! He shooting up, or what? He sinks it into his arm. Draws a chamberful of blood. Back to romancing the mannequin, smooth, slow—exploring with the hand now. George is becoming very ardent. He kisses the mannequin on the lips. Her face is that of Alice, a “missing person” who used to live at his mother’s hotel; he was involved with her in some way. Right now he’s kissing a photographic enlargement of Alice’s face, pasted a bit clumsily onto the waterfilled clear plastic head. More and more ardent. Getting close … But something’s really wrong here. Suddenly George raises the hypodermic and jabs it savagely through the wafer-thin sheath. Blood streams from the needle; the woman-lake roils and darkens; and the surrogate face Bartel cuts to now—a final, screaming still in George’s horrific Alice-being-stabbed-to-death sequence—appears to be crying out in an agony rendered exquisitely more excruciating because it is two-dimensional, and mute.

Sound ludicrous? Take it from me, it’s chilling. And beautifully put together. Powell’s central shock effect in Peeping Tom was pretty heavy: each victim, as she is being killed, is forced to watch her own terrified features reflected in a curved, shiny surface that distorts her terror still more gruesomely. Bartel, with a technique less flashy than Powell’s, has found an image altogether richer and more strange.

He and his screenwriters have rung some other neat changes on the Menacing Voyeur theme. Cheryl (Ayn Ruymen), the voyee in this case, is clearly ripe for a funny kind of complicity with the tormented photographer. Toward the end of that strident first scene, there is a seemingly gratuitous closeup of a penny-arcade photo series (Cheryl, Cheryl-and-girlfriend) that seems to have some special kind of importance for Cheryl. When she arrives at her room in Aunt Martha’s hotel, she scotchtapes the strip of photos to the mirror. The next day it’s gone. Her girlfriend threw Cheryl (a teenage runaway) out of the beach house they were sharing, incidentally, because she caught her—again!—spying from behind some clothes on a moment of lovemaking.

Cheryl finds a manuscript in the drawer of her nighttable: “Desire in the Shadows”(!). She takes it to bed and reads it, late into the night, her face flushed. A handwritten note drops out of the manuscript as she turns a page. “How do you like it so far, Cheryl?”

She meets George in the lobby the next day and they speak for the first time. She’s new to downtown L.A., to the hotel. “Well, how do you like it so far, Cheryl?” asks George, insinuatingly. Made for each other.

Exploring the rooms of the hotel one afternoon in Aunt Martha’s absence, she discovers that George has two big peepholes, overseeing, respectively, her bed and the bathtub of the adjacent bathroom. She obligingly dons the filmy things that George leaves on her bed; slowly, sensuously, she soaps her breasts in the bath and gazes steadfastly at George behind the peephole. Kicksville, mutual.

Quite an interesting plot, in other words, once the red herrings are cleared out of the way, and the two amateur actors from Scene One are mercifully dispatched, and the film settles its full attention on that triangle: George, Martha, Cheryl. I won’t tell any more plot; there are a few nice surprises. Visual things too, and fine color. George idly watching a wave pattern on the TV, which seems to be mounted high on the wall in the middle of this big … mouth. The decor of George’s room, in general. Very nice.

So why the hell did Bartel have to give his own movie a hernia as a postscript?

Sure, there’s humor all the way through Private Parts, starting with its clever multi-level title. But not like this. All of a sudden, a flurry of cheap yocks. All of a sudden, it looks like nobody fucking cares. Not the kid who comes to investigate Aunt Martha’s hotel and stands outside George’s door looking dopey while the murdered Alice screams her head off (on tape, but the kid doesn’t know that). Not the two cops who saunter around the hotel finding gory corpses and talking and wisecracking casually. Not, apparently, Bartel himself.

The cops come to George’s door and it seems for a moment they may actually move—break it down or something. Loopy old Mrs. Quigley comes padding down the corridor. “Oh, I wouldn’t disturb George at this hour,” she says. “He’s probably still jerking off.” Well, yes, it did bring the house down. Coming as it does out of a blue sky, it’s boffo, undeniable. But facile. I mean, building intensity, now; pacing; rhythm—that’s a hard thing to do. Anybody can administer a good swift kick in the balls.

But I guess I’ll go see his next one nevertheless.

PRIVATE PARTS
Direction: Paul Bartel. Screenplay: Philip Kearney and Les Rendelstein. Cinematography: Andrew Davis. Editing: Morton Tubor. Music: Hugo Friedhofer.
The Players: Ayn Ryumen, Lucille Benson, John Ventantonio, Laurie Main, Micheál Mac Liammóir.

Copyright © 1973 Ken Eisler