Monday, March 5, 2012

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (March 8th and 9th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[CORMAN'S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL screens Thursday March 8th at 9:20 pm and Friday March 9th at 7:30 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

My wife tells me I never take responsibility and say sorry for all the things that are my fault, such as how the second-hand dishwasher doesn't work well, our bad financial circumstances, endless job turndowns, home foreclosure, Whitney Houston's death, the Bush re-election, disease epidemics, the physiological process of aging, the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 - you know, all the things that are my fault. She says.

Well, one thing I do feel pangs of regret about now are the bad reviews I've given down the years to Roger Corman-produced movies. Even the really indefensible direct-to-video remakes/sequels and the clip-job ones that just recycled yards and yards of footage from other New World or Concorde-New Horizons productions. Pure filler for the video rack and a few extra bucks squeezed out of movie-renting suckers for minimal effort. I feel bad about talking trash on those now.

Such is the impact of CORMAN'S WORLD, not at all the first documentary about the iconic low-budget director-producer extraordinaire (see ROGER CORMAN: HOLLYWOOD'S WILD ANGEL) but a fond retrospective. Cineastes, especially of the Ghoulardi-raised variety, will feast on this career appreciation of Corman, from his rickety 1954 debut MONSTER ON THE OCEAN FLOOR through juvenile-delinquent non-epics, Vincent Price/Edgar Allen Poe gothics, 60s biker-hippie dramas (EASY RIDER could have been a Corman production, but Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda didn't like the penny-pinching of Corman's partners at American International, and Columbia Pictures reaped the profits instead) and 70s action-blaxploitation and sex comedies.

The narrative speaks to a galaxy of celebs, some like David Carradine sadly no longer with us and showing that the footage goes a ways back; in fact, we catch up with the "present day" Corman early on, overseeing as a producer (he hasn't directed since VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN in 1971) a monster movie called DINOSHARK, a campy outing for what was then the Sci-Fi Channel (hey, DINOSHARK isn't as nerdy a name as Syfy, if anyone were to ask me). On this opus the crew evidently tried to save money by communicating via child's toy walkie-talkies rather than professional transceivers. This leads some cohorts and critics to lament that for all the hundreds of features and the learning experiences they represented, all the cult-name recognition, all the genuinely good movies like HOUSE OF USHER, Corman never graduated from the drive-in schlock demographic to "quality" pictures approaching those of filmmakers he admired (and sometimes distributed in the USA) like Ingmar Bergman. DINOSHARK, the gore excepted, doesn't seem too far an evolution from MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR.

This is especially poignant given all the stellar talent Corman discovered and nurtured on the job, many of them interviewed: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Joe Dante, John Sayles, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Bartel, Jonathan Demme etc. Gene Corman hints that his brother's POV of the "respectable" studio establishment never recovered from the early disappointment of losing his credit on THE GUNFIGHTER, a Gregory Peck vehicle Roger helped get to the screen. Since then everything has been on Roger's cheapskate terms. 

Then there was the least-seen of Corman's storied productions, the serious 1962 racism drama THE INTRUDER, marking young William Shatner's cinematic debut in a villainous-bigot role. It was not intended as exploitation, and Corman was wounded by its rejection by those few audiences who attended. If the clips shown here seem a little stiff and obvious (I'm sure parts of THE DEFIANT ONES and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT haven't aged quite so well either), the lined faces of the extras could have come right out of a newsreel; Corman's little crew shot perilously on location in Deep South KKK territory, something that took considerable guts (THE INTRUDER is on DVD now, for your inspection).

Though his liberal-progressive politics would leak out time and again in some material, Corman himself, in a vintage Tom Snyder interview, explains his overall aesthete, that chintzy, fast-return-on-investment genre quickies like DEATH RACE 2000 appeal to his moral code. Multi-million-dollar budgets should be spent on urban renewal and social programs, not fancy sets for pretentious message movies (more recent low-budget producer-director Charles Band once expressed to me much the same opinion).

Is it a bit much to swallow that T&A nurse comedies represent some kind of heroic altruism as long as they're low-cost enough? Well, it worked for me, during the duration of this. Corman is invariably soft-spoken and gentlemanly, no matter how downmarket the movies. In fact maybe he’s a little guarded and reserved, a showman who knows enough not to reveal too much. Jack Nicholson, on the other hand [SPOILER ALERT] literally breaks down and weeps at remembering how Corman gave him his first break working on stuff like LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and THE TERROR. If there's an Oscar for Best Documentary Performance, Nicholson picks up it here. Penelope Spheeris, meanwhile, worries that Corman is largely forgotten by Gen-Y culture, something I wouldn't think was possible, but then again, 9/11 was my fault, what do I know?

On that note, the really soft center of CORMAN'S WORLD, in addition to everyone's obvious affection for Roger, is the movie bringing on the long-married Corman's beautiful wife and producing partner Julie. She tells such great life-with-Roger tales as the time she didn't know if their wedding was on or off - because Corman was shooting on location, and phoning to discuss plans would have meant long-distance rates. For all that, for all the gratuitous toplessness, rubber monsters, dismemberments, explosions and Dick Miller cameos, Roger and Julie Corman come across as the most normal and well-adjusted couple in cinema. Perhaps the classiest couple in all the fine arts, since I had to deduct points from Shannon Tweed and Gene Simmons for doing reality-TV.

Yes, the nitpickers (Robert Banks and No-Money Mark From Middleburgh Heights) will point out how it's criminal documentarian Alex Stapleton offers no discussion of how Corman's economical reincarnation fantasy THE UNDEAD appears to have a script penned in a form of iambic pentameter - try getting the Weinsteins to bankroll that today. Or why isn't James Cameron here? He was a graduate of the Corman film boot camp too. Or what about Corman's Marvel superhero feature THE FANTASTIC FOUR, subversively made with no intention of formal release, in some kind of mercenary legal maneuver. Not even acknowledgment of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS reborn as a hit stage musical. For full coverage of Roger Corman's world you'd need a set of encyclopedias (like one obsessive author compiled about Shatner), so invariably something's got to be left out. What's left, though is CORMAN'S WORLD, and it's one any movie buff will want to visit, bad matte-painted backgrounds and stock footage and all. (3 1/2 out of 4 stars or 5 out of 4 stars if you're Bob Ignizio)

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