Paul Bartel’s 1968 short “The Secret Cinema” was a precursor for other paranoid delusional fantasy films

By on August 6, 2015

In 1968, Paul Bartel — today’s the anniversary of his birth, born on August 6, 1938, in Brooklyn, NY — produced, wrote and directed this low-budget short film, The Secret Cinema, his first as a filmmaker, presenting the then-unique storyline of a woman who does not know her real life is being clandestinely filmed and shown in theaters for the entertainment of others, years before other paranoid delusional fantasies of self-referential cinema were made into feature-length big-budget movies with similar plots, movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and The Truman Show (1998).

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The Secret Cinema tells the story of a New York City office secretary, Jane (Amy Vane), who seems to be leading a rather dreary life. She doesn’t seem to get along with any of her co-workers, and she’s being sexually harassed by her boss, Mr. Troppogrosso (Gordon Felio). She gets dumped by her strange boyfriend, Dick (Philip Carlson), and insulted by her psychiatrist (Barry Dennen). Then, she begins to realize that something’s off, and she’s being giiven the gaslight treatment by just about everyone around her, and she doesn’t know why…and starts to realize that she is being set up by these people because her hapless life is making for interesting cinema.

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In this 1998 L.A. Times article about the similarities between his “underground” 60s film and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, Bartel had this to say:

“The protagonist, he says, ‘is a young woman named Jane who begins to suspect that her boyfriend and her office associates are conspiring to make a film of her daily life that is being shown in a downtown theater on Saturday nights, for the cruel amusement of the in crowd. She assumes at first that she must be suffering from paranoid delusions. But when she tries to discuss the problem with her shrink, she discovers that he is in fact the producer of the secret movie.'”

In 1969, The Secret Cinema was released as a short with Woody Allen’s feature comedy Take the Money and Run.

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Bartel would go on to direct eleven low-budget films, most of which he also acted in and/or wrote, graduating to features in 1972 with the horror-comedy Private Parts. He would go on to direct such cult films as Death Race 2000 (1975), a deliciously clever black comedy Eating Raoul (1982), Lust in the Dust (1985) and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). Bartel was probably mostly known as an actor, however, appearing in 90 movies and TV episodes, including such titles as Eat My Dust (1976), Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979), Get Crazy (1983) and Amazon Women on the Moon (1987). He frequently co-starred with friend and former Warhol girl Mary Woronov; the pair appeared in seventeen films together, often as husband-and-wife.

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In 1986, Bartel remade the plot of “Secret Cinema” as an episode of TV’s “Amazing Stories,” (season 1, episode 20), in which he acted.

The Secret Cinema was released by Rhino Entertainment on VHS tape (packaged with a 7-minute erotic short of Bartel’s, entitled The Naughty Nurse), and in 2012 it appeared as a bonus featurette on The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Eating Raoul.

Bartel died on May 13, 2000, of a heart attack.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.