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.
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.