Everybody’s Into Weirdness: Gone With the Pope (1976/2010)

On Duke Mitchell’s rescued masterpiece of outsider art.

The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night*. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.

The twelfth entry into this disreputable canon is Duke Mitchell’s rescued masterpiece of outsider art, Gone With the Pope

Year: 1976/2010

Trailers: In God We Tru$t; The Candy Snatchers

Alternate Title: Kiss the Ring

Duke Mitchell died of lung cancer in 1981, before Gone With the Pope was completed. However, even if Mitchell had lived to see his bizarre, ultra-personal work of outsider art to the bitter end of post-production (which was years in the making all by itself), the movie would’ve still been a mere footnote at the bottom of an already exceptional life. Raised a New York City street rat who entered show business at an early age (crooning like all the best Italian maestros), Mitchell teamed with Sammy Petrillo to form a Martin & Lewis knock-off act (resulting in the schlock embarrassment, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla). It was an act so shameless in its theft that Jerry Lewis threatened legal action against the two hucksters. But that didn’t slow Mitchell down for a minute, as he went on to become something of a lounge lizard legend in Palm Springs (who had the gall to self-anoint himself “The King of Palm Springs”). He became good friends with Frank Sinatra, and shook hands with many made men who frequented the clubs he performed at. In short, he was a walking/talking Marty Scorsese movie.

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla isn’t where Mitchell’s motion picture career would end. Pornography was the next stop on the singer’s exploitation train ride, as he appeared in the 1972 Tijuana Bible come to life, Sex in the Comics. Perhaps the greatest example of “please judge a book by it’s cover”, Anthony Spinelli’s colorful smut stain is exactly what you think it is: old eight-page strip characters come to life and jamming each others’ orifices with wanton glee. An audience truly hasn’t lived until they’ve seen Dixie Dog and Dagwood bring new meaning to the term “doggystyle” (fun for the whole family!). Amongst porn actors Ric Lutze and Rick Cassidy (not to mention weirdo Z-Grade/John Carpenter regular George “Buck” Flower as a flasher) was Mitchell, donning a cartoon mask with an oversized nose as his lycanthropic self mounts another inappropriately sexualized panel player. The movie was only released in two theaters in December 1972 (the Cinelido and Lido East in NYC), and advertised in the Daily News as The 8 Pagers. Obviously, Sex in the Comics didn’t launch Mitchell to fuck film superstardom, so the man continued to take bit parts and compose music for movies, such as the Mamie Van Doren vehicle, That Girl From Boston.

In 1974, Mitchell wrote/produced/directed/starred-in Massacre Mafia Style* (a/k/a Like Father, Like Son), his angry, lo-fi trash cinema answer to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Mitchell was so riled by what he believed to be a false portrait of Italian Americans that he went as far as to sell his lease to a supper club in order to finance the depraved filmic middle finger. The result is a crude, ultra-violent distillation of Mitchell’s philosophies to celluloid; complete with re-enactments of heinous acts he’d either heard about second and third-hand, or participated in himself (the infamous “urinal electrocution” was inspired by his own assault of an incompetent stage manager). Mitchell even attempted to cast Sinatra in his movie, a proposition Ol’ Blue Eyes politely declined with, “Duke, I love you. But I get paid real money to make real movies.” Sure, Sinatra was right – the filmmaking is shoddy and amateurish – but there’s a vibrancy and lived-in quality to Mitchell’s Mimi Miceli that only comes from the most committed fringe thespians, willing to risk utter embarrassment in the name of delivering a vital piece of their soul to any audience who will have them.

In terms of box office, Massacre Mafia Style didn’t exactly set the world on fire (or really even spark a kindling). Distributed by Mitchell associate Matt Cimber’s Moonstone Pictures (whose headquarters were situated down the block from the Santa Monica Pussycat porn theater, as well as The Institute of Oral Love), the movie mostly played drive-ins and local dives. Massacre Mafia Style was treated like any other exploitation movie, and was quickly forgotten outside of the few who were lucky enough to witness its first run. So when Mitchell attempted to round up co-conspirators for his next cinematic transmission, he again had to approach the production with a DIY flair, leading to several starts and stops along the way as the movie continuously ran out of money.

There was never any official “script” for Gone With the Pope; rather a collection of off the cuff ideas and outlines that were scribbled on everything from paper to drink napkins to cue cards for the actors to read from. When interviewed today**, principal players like Peter Santoro (who lit and shot the movie almost all by himself for as little as $20/day) and editor Robert Florio jokingly recall thinking it was going to be “the worst piece of crap”. Yet Mitchell believed in his vision, shooting in Vegas, Palm Springs and LA (with La Cienega standing in for Rome), utilizing every “connection” he had in order to gain access to shooting locations.

This haphazard approach is one of many reasons why Gone With the Pope was never finished before Mitchell’s untimely death. Santoro vividly remembers traveling with Duke to Movielab and then stealing reels of developed film without paying. Apparently this was common practice, as Mitchell cheated nearly every lab in Hollywood, to the point that he had to change his title again and again just to avoid paying his overdue tabs. More amazing is the fact that none of the key collaborators can accurately speak to why the movie was never completed. Some simply say “money”, while others act like Mitchell vanished into thin air near the end. There was no wrap party – no handshakes or congratulatory “thank yous”. The man simply stopped staying in contact with those who worked on his warped vision of America. Some cite Mitchell’s insistence on shooting a Jimmy Durante tribute while he was coming down the home stretch as being the final reason the well dried up, which is as close to a concrete answer it seems we’re ever going to get.

Thank God for Bob Murawski, the Academy Award-winning editor of The Hurt Locker (not to mention numerous Sam Raimi movies), and co-founder (along with the late Sage Stallone) of Grindhouse Releasing. Murawski recovered reels of the film (along with Duke’s extensive notes) in a parking garage Mitchell’s son, Jeffrey, pointed him toward. For fifteen years, he made it his mission to restore the movie, cutting it together and utilizing state of the art technology to color correct and time Gone With the Pope. Scenes that original editors Robert Leighton and Robert Florio spliced are present, but the finished product is very much the fusing of a strange bond that was miraculously formed over an ocean of time. This marks Gone With the Pope as being a singular oddity in the annals of cinematic history – a bygone relic that carries a modern rhythmic sensibility.

It’s fairly understandable why Murawski would want to bring this movie to the masses from basic premise alone. Mitchell’s central conceit – a group of ex-cons go on an Ocean’s 11 style mission to kidnap the Pope, in order to ransom a dollar from every Catholic on the planet – is so ludicrous that you can’t help but be wowed by the artist’s audacity. It’s the gusto Mitchell brings to telling this tale that keeps it intriguing, as the “heist” (which plays like some hooplehead’s hazy fantasy of a Vatican shakedown) is merely a vessel through which he explores what it means to be an Italian American in the 1970s. During its rough eighty minutes, Gone With the Pope becomes a crass, exploitive meditation on the burden of sinful contradictions, and how one flawed man views himself in the eyes of a faith he rejects.

The flaws Mitchell’s character Paul contains are very much reflections of the real man. In life, the singer was also a jokester; the kind that didn’t know when to say, “enough is enough”. Though he was a great friend to Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow hated Mitchell after he supposedly threw her into the pool on she and Sinatra’s wedding day. No joke was considered too “off color”, and the man swore like a sailor, no matter whose company he was currently enjoying. This unchained sensibility leads to two of the Gone With the Pope’s most uncomfortable moments, as Paul berates a black hooker (by calling her a “spook” and commenting that her bush “looks like Brillo”) before lovingly lying down with her. Later, he pays an obese woman to wake up his sleeping friend in their hotel room, before the two tear her clothes off and lock her out of the suite, giggling at their own cruel gag.  But this is who Duke Mitchell was – a somewhat grimy individual to his core – full of racism, sexism (and many other “isms”), but who could also smooth over his worst offenses with a kind word or gesture. It’s a testament to Mitchell as a performer, as he’s able to pull these rather ugly scenes off without ever apologizing for the fact that he definitely finds them funny, yet still retains our sympathies by the oddly hunting finale.

Like Massacre Mafia Style, Mitchell proves himself to be quite adept at staging and shooting shoestring action sequences. The initial mission Paul is sent on after he strolls out of prison is the filmmaker’s answer to the Baptism assassination scene in The Godfather, as Paul and his dimwitted associate (Giorgio Tavolieri) blow away a gaggle of guys in two different parts of the country. This bravado bit of bloodletting is capped by a slow motion shot of Paul tossing away his empty shell casings – a visual flourish that no doubt feels like Murawski’s doing. But this is just one of many bits of flair the Oscar winner adds, polishing and layering “cool” that could’ve never existed via Mitchell’s hand alone. Another jaw dropping moment revolves around a slow motion beating of one of Paul’s adversaries with a telephone, which Murawski transforms into a balletic bludgeoning even Sam Peckinpah could admire.

Several of Mitchell’s collaborators make an eerily identical comment when remarking why they think the cult icon was never a bigger success: “he was his own worst enemy”. But there are instances contained within Gone With the Pope that seem to reveal the artist was acutely aware of his shortcomings. Themes of abandonment surround Paul, as he refuses to take anyone else’s opinion into account by the end of the picture. When combined with Mitchell’s rigid adherence to his own stubborn vision (that came with compromises as great as utilizing non-actors in most roles, resulting in some of the stiffest performances cinema has ever seen), it’s just another example of how Gone With the Pope is a window into this man’s long departed soul.

However, this clarity is really what carries the viewer through to the end – the fact that we’re watching a man spill his very essence onto film. Mitchell may be presenting his worldview in the most uneducated fashion possible (just wait until you hear Paul’s rant about the Church’s neglectful attitude during the Holocaust), but there’s no denying that it belongs to him and him alone. That’s the brilliance of true outsider art (which Gone With the Pope most certainly is): it asks you to see the world through the eyes of another human being and try to find the beauty in their unusual perspective. That’s invaluable in any age, and we should count ourselves as blessed that Murawski saved this compelling piece of cinema from being lost forever.

Tonight on Weird Wednesday: Gums

Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie

*A movie I’ve written about at length.

**For the incredible Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray.