Monday, April 2, 2012

Blogorium Review: Corman's World - Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

 I may be totally wrong about this, but one of the points made in Alex Stapleton's fine documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel is that the average "twenty year old film buff" doesn't know who Roger Corman is. During an interview late in the film, Martin Scorsese (who made Boxcar Bertha for Corman) says "I think it's very important to let the generation of today know who he is, and we all, we knew it almost forty years ago, so it's time to reintroduce him as a director, but also what he represented to American entertainment." It's probably true that the average moviegoer doesn't know who Corman is, and I don't totally disagree with Scorsese or Penelope Spheeris (who makes the earlier point about his obscurity), I would argue among film buffs that the prolific exploitation director / producer is not only well known, he's revered.

 Roger Corman is credited with producing over 400 films, most of which are some variety of exploitation if not outright schlock. He's known for making films on a shoestring budget, sometimes in less than a week, and for providing many writers, directors, actors, and producers their first "break" in Hollywood. That list includes Jack Nicholson, Joe Dante, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, John Sayles, Pam Grier, Dick Miller, Johnathan Demme, Spheeris, Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Allan Arkush, William Shatner, David Carradine, Robert DeNiro, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ron Howard (who directed his first film, Grand Theft Auto, for Corman). Many of these "Corman School" graduates appear in Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, to help tell the story of a fiercely independent filmmaker.

 Corman started his career as a script reader at 20th Century Fox, but when the story editor took his notes for The Gunfighter and took credit for it, he decided to go at it alone. He produced and assistant directed Monster from the Ocean Floor, then The Fast and the Furious (using borrowed sports cars from dealerships), and learned the keys to making films cheap in order to always turn a profit. He teamed up with American International Pictures and produced and directed a string of no-budget films (Dick Miller points out a scene in Apache Woman where he, as a cowboy, kills himself as an Indian).

 Corman's World breathlessly covers his stock actors, his period at AIP, the success Corman had producing a series of Edgar Allan Poe stories with Vincent Price, and the development of "teenage" pictures with Nicholson. The influence of The Wild Angels on Easy Rider (a film that AIP refused to make with Hopper as director and accordingly lost Corman a producer's credit), the decision by Corman to take LSD before The Trip, and the only Corman movie that ever lost money, The Intruder, are covered in some degree. Jack Nicholson makes his case why The Terror doesn't make any sense (the film had at least four directors, one of which Corman can't remember), and Scorsese used the "no-frills" schedule on Boxcar Bertha to make Mean Streets (which, had Corman produced the film, would have been changed to Blaxploitation!)

 The Intruder, in fact, may be the surprise for many people who only know Corman for films like Attack of the Crab Monsters or Little Shop of Horrors. Made in 1962 by Roger and his brother Gene and based on the novel by Charles Beaumont (who also wrote the screenplay), the film is a condemnation of the segregated South, told through the perspective of a racist rabble rouser named Adam Cramer (William Shatner), who arrives in the fictional southern town of Caxton to incite riots as a result of court-ordered integration of schools. The film, which is surprisingly un-exploitative, reflects Corman's own view of racial tensions, but was met with hostility when released. When he lost money on the film, Corman opted to go back to the formula that worked, and The Intruder, while highly regarded, remains unseen by many of his exploitation devotees.

 The documentary uses a wide cross section of Corman's output, from the monster flicks to biker films, women in prison films, blaxploitation films, and science fiction cheapies, and once the rating system came into being, the gore and gratuitous nudity required every few minutes. Stapleton also includes the tidbit that when Corman left AIP to form New World Pictures, he not only distributed his own films, but also provided US releases for Bergman's Cries and Whispers, Fellini's Amarcord, Laloux's Fantastic Planet, Fassbinder's The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, Schl├Ândorff's The Tin Drum, and Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala. The desire to distribute foreign films when no one else would and, in some instances, play them in drive ins, reflected Corman's actual taste in films, despite his reputation.

 Also appearing in the film are Corman's wife Julie, herself a producer, director Eli Roth and Paul W.S. Anderson, the latter a director of the remake / sequel Death Race. At the beginning and near the end of the film, Corman's World shifts to the production of Dinoshark, one of the new films Corman is producing in a partnership with the Syfy Channel (you might have seen Sharktopus, another entry last year). It's star, Eric Balfour (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) talks about the guerrilla filmmaking techniques employed and general cost saving techniques that can make shooting the film difficult (including walkie talkies that don't work because they were made for children to play with).

 It's not too far away from the experiences of Corman's previous collaborators, who made do with too few extras, too little time, and not enough money. Bogdanovich's first "job" for Corman was taking a Russian science fiction film and turning it into The Gill Women of Venus, despite the fact that there were no women in the original film. He shot footage with Mamie Van Doren and other scantily clad women on the beach, and was told to shoot it with no sound. Once he delivered the footage, Corman decided that it needed dialogue, so the silent footage was overdubbed even though no one was speaking. Because he delivered the film in time and under budget, Bogdanovich had the opportunity to use an extra day of shooting from The Terror and made Targets. Corman may be fiercely independent and incredibly cheap (Nicholson mentions this repeatedly), but he knows how to spot talent and nuture it. Arkush and Dante started their careers as trailer editors for Corman before going on to make their own films.

 Corman's World manages to be both breezy and thorough in most points of Corman's career, but there are a few points of contention the film raises when dealing with his period running New World pictures. There's a distinct lack of coverage for the films Corman produced at New World (they instead focus on the distribution of respected foreign directors). The reason, at least one might argue, is that those films directly contradict an argument that Corman and Eli Roth make: in the wake of Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood figured out the "Corman formula" and beat the schlockmeister at his own game. Accordingly, Corman couldn't compete with the major studios.

 What the film glosses over is the fact that a great deal of Corman's New World Pictures were ripoffs of the Hollywood films he claims beat him at his own game. It explains why Joe Dante's Piranha is moved around in such a way that the fact it was designed to cash in on Jaws never seems to come up, and other pictures like Battle Beyond the Stars (Star Wars), Forbidden World (Alien), and Galaxy of Terror (also Alien) aren't mentioned at all. Corman also claims he had no interest in slasher films, even though he put his name on a boxed set of the Slumber Party Massacre films (he produced parts 2 and 3) and The Sorority House Massacre parts one and two.

 It's not a serious problem, but Corman's World does gloss over a lot of the 1980s and 90s in favor of leaping forward into his work with the Syfy Channel (specifically Dinoshark). The "New World Pictures" section of the film is more devoted to footage from an earlier documentary about Roger Corman explaining his interest in distributing foreign films and also including interviews with director Jonathan Kaplan (Night Call Nurses) the late Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Eating Raoul). While it may be an odd omission, Stapleton's chronology does smoothly transition from the birth of the blockbuster to the death of the independent film (including a pointed comment from Nicholson to that effect) to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences awarding Corman a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. At the ceremony, many of the faces we've seen during Corman's World are in attendance, as well as Quentin Tarantino, an acolyte of the Corman style. The section caps the story nicely, although it is clear that Roger Corman is far from done producing exploitation films.

 And folks, that's not a bad thing. Even if it is the Syfy Channel.

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