Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Master monster maker

Roger Corman takes aim at needlessly inflated production values

Roger Corman started his career as a reader for Fox. When his notes on the excellent Gregory Peck western The Gunfighter (1950) were used without due accreditation his innate rebelliousness, or chutzpah, or spite, first made itself known. He quit, and without any studio support made Monster From the Ocean Floor, aka Monster Maker, aka It Came From the Ocean’s Floor (1954)—I could use up my entire word-count on alternate titles—whose budget, says IMDb, was $28,000, though I could be persuaded that the actual money spent was far less.

Few noticed it at the time, but a giant of American cinema was born, an absurdly prolific producer/writer/director who would redefine the bottom line, innovate the industry, and recognize the audience’s willingness to go along with the baldest discontinuities, flimsiest sets and most ridiculous plots if there was a pay-off at the end. He spotted and set trends, capitalized on controversy, got bikers' engines running, gave pivotal breaks to young artists who would go on to become some of the most revered filmmakers of our age, and blazed a broad trail for this slippery thing we call independence. Corman directed more films in 1957 than most filmmakers make in an entire career. His product dominated drive-ins for decades, and the oft-made claim that none of his pictures ever lost a dime is only a slight exaggeration. Though he would eventually distribute work by Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa, the question was always a matter of delivering the goods and bringing home the bacon; art was largely accidental, or a bi-product of audacity. Audacity came naturally to Corman, and there’s a case to be made for audacity elevating some of his 400-plus films to their own kind of artistry.

Bruce Dern doses Peter Fonda in The Trip (1968)

Corman’s still at it. Alex Stapleton’s Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel catches up with him in Puerto Vallarta, deep in production on Dinoshark (2010). Early in the documentary we get some deadpan practical filmmaking tips from this slim, sophisticated octogenarian: “We feel the monster should kill someone fairly early…” But most of Corman’s World is comprised of archival footage and talking heads. These elements are sewn together in a pretty pedestrian manner, and occasionally the editing fumbles with the coverage (why we need to keep switching from wides to close-ups in the interviews is beyond me), but the story Stapleton wants to tell, that of Corman’s singular legacy—the burned bridges and betrayals, not so much—is told effectively and very, very entertainingly.

top: Peter Bogdanovich
bottom: David Carradine

There are lively testimonies from Corman’s most stalwart collaborators, his wife and co-producer Julie Corman most notably, from Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy—couldn’t they have found some more interesting critics?—and, of course, from the stunning roster of filmmakers who were supported by Corman in their youth. Martin Scorsese, Peter Fonda, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Bruce Dern, Joe Dante, Pam Grier, John Sayles, William Shatner and Robert De Niro all drop by to describe Corman’s persona, techniques, mystique and work ethic, though I think the best material comes mainly from David Carradine, whose insightful in both his praise and criticism of Corman’s career, Peter Bogdanovich, whose tale of trying to incorporate half-naked telepathic women into Gill-Women of Venus, aka Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (1968) is priceless, and Jack Nicholson, who actually cries—at least I think he does; he’s wearing sunglasses and covering his face—as he declares his gratitude to Corman for being the only guy in Hollywood to give him work for the first ten years of his career.

Jack Nicholson

Metro Cinema’s screenings of Corman’s World are paired with screenings of two of Corman’s finest works as director: X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), starring Ray Milland, and the LSD-exposé The Trip (1968), written by Nicholson and starring Fonda, Dern, Susan Strasberg and Dennis Hopper, which I must of watched about a dozen times as a teenager, and probably only one of those times while actually high on LSD.


Paul Matwychuk said...

I'm assuming the film interviewed Todd McCarthy in his capacity as the author of the book KINGS OF THE Bs, which helped spark the revival of critical interest in guys like Corman, Samuel Arkoff, and Edgar Ulmer. But I agree... it would have been nice to see people like Kim Morgan or Joe Bob Briggs weighing in on Corman's legacy as well.

JB said...

Hey, Paul. Thanks for writing.

I certainly don't want to give the impression that McCarthy's contribution was without historical value, I just think it would have been nice to have some more critical analysis from... well, your two suggestions are pretty great. I don't see why Corman's work should be given less critical attention than any other filmmaker given this sort of career overview treatment. Though, as I alluded to in the piece, Carradine makes an interesting comment about how Corman nurtured all of these filmmakers who would move on to more ambitious projects while Corman himself somehow never quite made the leap, even though he clearly sees himself as an artist with something to say.

Feminema said...

How have I lived my life thus far without seeing Gill-Women of Venus, aka Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women?

You are a savior of a blogger, and I feel my life's purpose cohering in front of my eyes.

Also, have I ever mentioned how frequently I come to your blog merely to scan your index? Because one never knows when one might be in the mood to read all four entries on Untrustworthy Leprechauns, both entries on Shirtless Chauvinists (only two?), or (more likely) that one on Erotic Firefighting. It's got a literary panache all its own.

JB said...

Didion, you are far too sweet to be the film buff/academic you claim to be. You made my morning--at least!

And you reminded me to update, which is to say, re-edit, My Heavily Edited Index. I actually had to click on "erotic firefighting" to remember what the hell it referred to. And then I thought, How could I forget? My favourite line of dialogue in that entire movie.

There really should be more shirtless chauvinists but that term uses up so many characters and blogger puts a pretty tight cap on such things. Which is probably a good thing.

The Gill Woman may be one of those films that's more impressive in your imagination than in reality, but that's no reason why you shouldn't seek it out! I met Bogdanovich a while back, just briefly, and he kind of annoyed me. But I have to admit that every time he pops up in something like this he always has the best stories. I have started to wonder if that ascot hasn't been surgically implanted.

Still need to read your entry on Friends With Kids, which I saw in a rough cut last summer (I was working for a festival) and did kind of hate. So I was very intrigued by your opener.

Your untrustworthy leprechaun...

Feminema said...

"Sweet." That's funny. It's probably more likely that I am "petty and vindictive, but her prose cleans up real nice," "venomous but prone to moments of extraordinary generosity," and/or "dismissive of the middle-brow, but enthusiastic about all things arcane, esoteric, or typically found in yard sales." That last explains a lot about my taste in household décor.

Meanwhile, "shirtless chauvinists" explains a lot about my colleagues. [Shiver.]

I'm still determined to hunt down a copy of Gill-Women, even though it has the lowest rating I've ever seen on imdb.com. I maintain that I still haven't heard anything that diminishes my interest in this film.

At one point (last year?) I did a mini-marathon of posts about movies about female rockers, and now I'm thinking about something similar with female monsters. And then I plan to create an expensive line of t-shirts for hipsters based on these films.

JB said...

Your T-shirt idea sounds like gold to me. In any case I would be more than delighted to read your thoughts on female monsters. In fact you should print your blog posts on the T-shirts. Both the content and the length of time necessary to read the shirts will greatly facilitate the conceiving of novel pick-up lines.

But what about gender-ambiguous monsters? What the hell is the Blob? For that matter, what about Godzilla? I can recall no indication as to its sex. And by what criteria do we assign gender to monsters anyway? Your theme is rich, deep and dark, Didion. Do it.

JB said...

Oh, and I don't buy any of that "I'm not sweet" bullshit. Face it, you're nice!

Feminema said...

You are so right, JB: what the world needs now is cult female monster movie t-shirts with some long, dense paragraphs by moi.

I can get rich AND spread the word of my own words, all in one fell swoop.

And as my head grows larger and larger with this excellent idea, I morph into ... The Blog!

JB said...

SEE the BLOG envelop an entire population of fashion-conscious twenty-somethings in T-shirt!!!

HEAR the BLOG propose iconoclastic feministic readings of movies most of those twenty-somethings wearing the T-shirts have never actually bothered to watch!!!