Respectability is overrated, especially in the world of film. It leads to polite cinema, cinema based on books and plays. Cinema that may win the occasion BAFTA or Oscar nod, or pick up some critical attention at Sundance, but cinema that very rarely offers any kind of challenge to the viewer. Truly great filmmakers are rarely respectable. Orson Welles wasn’t. Neither was Fassbinder. And Lars Von Trier certainly isn’t. Great filmmakers are boundary pushers and nose thumbers. They do not pander. Respectable cinema, on the other hand, does precisely that: it appeals, briefly, to the intellectual and moral values of the middlebrow audience of the time, but in retrospect is something of an embarrassment. Does anyone, looking back, truly think DANCES WITH WOLVES deserved any of the critical acclaim it garnered? Is it truly more deserving of awards than GOODFELLAS? Of course not. But it benefited from the zeitgeist. It appealed to the mood of the moment.
The classic example of this phenomenon would be William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. At the time of release in 1946, this solidly-crafted, decent, humane study of three US soldiers returning after World War II and attempting to rebuild their lives was critically acclaimed, universally popular, and won every award imaginable. It chimed with the mood of the times. Never mind that legendary film critic Manny Farber later famously dismissed it as "a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz" - at that moment, the world needed a film about healing and renewal, and this one did the job better than the rest. Of its kind, it’s an excellent film. But filmgoers in search of the darker realities faced by returning soldiers would have to seek them elsewhere, in the tough, shadowy crime dramas that began appearing around the same time; tales of alienated loners, many of them ex-servicemen, who find themselves out of their depth in plots they cannot hope to fathom, in environments where they cannot hope to succeed. These were the films that actually appealed to the returning soldiers themselves. Conceived at the time as potboilers and pulp action movies, they were later championed as offering a far truer portrait of the era, particularly by French critics, who coined the term by which such films are now known: Films Noirs.
These days, whole university media courses are dedicated to the study of Film Noir. Critics have built whole careers writing about it. The films themselves are regarded with the utmost seriousness. But they did not start out that way. They were not respectable at all. They were “B Movies”, designed to play in support to headlining “A Movies” (such as THE BEST DAYS OF OUR LIVES}; humble genre films, often made quickly, and subject to fewer big studio checks and guards. And so they were better able to capture the uneasy atmosphere of the time.
Which brings me, at last, to the subject of this particular blog, the maestro himself, Mr Roger Corman. Roger Corman has never really sought respectability either, though he has attained something like it over time.
Roger Corman has always maintained that he makes B Movies, rather than exploitation films. In doing so, he is not being mealy-mouthed, or disingenuous. He is identifying himself with a noble tradition of maverick, under-the-radar filmmaking. His autobiography, HOW I MADE A HUNDRED MOVIES IN HOLLYWOOD AND NEVER LOST A DIME is no idle boast. Though he might gleefully adopt the role of opportunistic, bandwagon-jumping, penny-pinching movie mogul, famously telling author Brian Aldiss during the shooting of FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND that his company was “a cheap outfit”, and though no-one could doubt he is a shrewd, hard-headed businessman, Roger Corman is without question one of the most significant influences on American Cinema of the last 50 years.
Had he simply directed his legendary “Poe Cycle” with Vincent Price, Corman would surely earn a place in the pantheon of any genre fans favourite directors. But he was also behind such droll classics as BUCKET OF BLOOD and THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, the visceral anti-racism drama THE INTRUDER, nihilistic biker movie THE WILD ANGELS and the still startlingly experimental THE TRIP. As a filmmaker he is idiosyncratic, even groundbreaking, and was among the first to incorporate experimental filming, lighting and editing techniques pioneered in Underground Cinema into mainstream film.
As a Producer and Talent Scout he was responsible for the discovery and /or encouragement and promotion of such talents as Jack Nicholson, Robert de Niro, Nicolas Roeg, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Monte Hellman, Jonathan Kaplan, George Armitage, Richard Rush, Paul Bartel, Lewis Teague, John Sayles, Robert Towne, Charles Beaumont, Chuck Griffith, Lazlo Kovacs, Daniel Haller, Les Baxter, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Jane Asher, Susan Strasberg, Diane Ladd, William Shatner, Luana Anders.
Corman freely admits he worked with young up and coming talent, and aging, no-longer-in-demand talent because they were cheaper to hire and grateful for the work: “I get the ones on the way up, and the ones on the way down.” And yet, far from feeling exploited, filmmakers who worked with Corman at American International Pictures in the Sixties and Seventies describe it as The Corman Film School. Considered objectively, from without, it might look like a sweatshop, a factory farm.
Yet it was also a place to learn your craft by doing; that encouraged speed and decisiveness and creativity on the wing. AIP films at their best display a unique breed of inventiveness and innovation, born of thrift and limited time and resources. Corman was (in)famous for his ability to recognise talent, and for an almost laissez-faire approach to getting the best from that talent. His method: to re-use EVERYTHING. He was master of economy of scale, of getting the absolute most from his resources. If he had an actor for three days, he would have that actor in as many films as possible during that period. He would shoot several films simultaneously on the same set, or the same location. His crews would be working continually, virtually round the clock, as various directors shot various films in the same space with the same people. The idea was always to get films in under budget and in less time than scheduled - because then an extra film might be squeezed in using the resources.
If Corman had spare footage, and actors and facilities available, he would sometimes throw together a new film just to use them - THE TERROR, for example was assembled by Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and Jack Nicholson - who also starred alongside Boris Karloff - from some footage shot but not used in THE RAVEN, and because Corman still had the two lead actors available for another day or two to shoot new scenes, using the same sets. Peter Bogdanovich would later be given Boris Karloff footage shot but not used for THE TERROR, plus a day’s shooting with Karloff, and would make the truly startling TARGETS. Corman’s only proviso to his filmmakers was that the film contain some exploitable elements that he could use to sell it - a (once-) famous face, horror or crime elements, sex / nudity, some counter-cultural element, such as rock and roll, psychedelia, drug use or beatniks, hippies or bikers (depending on the era).
It ought not to have worked at all. It ought to have produced nothing but cynical, bandwagon-jumping crap, but due to Corman’s own talent, his eye for the talent of others, and, yes, his eye for the market, and above all, perhaps, due to that strange alchemy that occurs when young, talented, eager, hungry, creative people are brought together and given free rein, some remarkable films were made.
Modern Hollywood was born out of the “Corman Film School” - not just in terms of the talent Corman discovered / encouraged, but also the counter-cultural spirit he fostered in the 1960s, which would shape the classic American films of the early 70s, and be an inspiration to independent filmmakers everywhere.
Grimm Up North pays tribute to one of the greats of American Cinema, and one of our own personal heroes, with a screening of the acclaimed documentary CORMAN’S WORLD, alongside the recent cult gem SHARKTOPUS, at the Anthony Burgess Foundation on Friday 16th March, from 7.30pm. No true film buff will want to miss it.