Wednesday 15 May 2024

Roger Corman

 (A flyer for a series of Corman screenings which I picked up in Tokyo circa 2011.)

Yes, I know that he had a great run, that he lived a long and rewarding life, and that ‘celebration’ rather than ‘sadness’ should usually be the watchword when a beloved individual passes away at the age of 98…. but damn it all, I was really hoping Roger Corman would make it to 100. I mean, that would just have perfectly capped a life of such great and indefatigable achievement, wouldn’t it?

To be honest, I was already vaguely planning the party, but we’ll just have to have it now instead, I suppose.

Trying to summarise the full scope of his work and influence across the decades is a daunting prospect, so for now, I’ll just say that, whenever I hear some accursed young person utter that insipid phrase “living your best life”, my mind automatically flashes to Roger Corman.

Because, yes, I know he had some difficult moments in his career, and I know he sometimes made some questionable decisions, but for the most part, whenever he put his hand to something, he aced it.

As both a filmmaker and an enabler of other filmmakers, he created an incredible body of work, changed the face of American cinema on all levels and exerted an influence on culture (both the kind we celebrate on this blog and the more mainstream variety) which is truly incalculable. But, the kicker is, he did this whilst simultaneously making a shedload of money, living a long, happy and fulfilling life, and even (for the most part) playing fair and treating other people well along the way.

That’s a combo I feel very few people in the entertainment industry have managed to achieve, and - though again, he didn’t always manage it perfectly - the way he consistently found a way to square the circle between art and commerce is exemplary. Cutting the bullshit from the creative process and following a straight path from lofty inspiration to exacting planning, necessary compromise, hard graft, successful execution and ensuing reward - he’s the American Dream personified, let’s face it!

If yr proverbial (wo)man on the street knows one thing about Roger Corman, it will be his reputation as ‘King of the Bs’ - the all-time don of schlocky ‘50s monster movies, cranking out double feature 60 minute wonders (primarily at the behest of the fledgling American International Pictures) which a speed and sense of budgetary efficiency which must have shaken his competitors to the core of their being.

This rep is all well and good, but what people who haven’t bothered to watch the films he made as producer/director during this period so often fail to appreciate, is that a fairly high percentage of them are actually really good as well.

Despite focusing on a field (low budget sci-fi/horror) which the the film industry in that era still regarded as sub-normal junk, Corman never looked down on his audience, and took the work seriously, going all-out to deliver films which were well-written, funny, fast-paced, and which explored unusual / intriguing ideas, in spite of their modest means. As a result, the vast majority of his early quickies remain engaging and entertaining to this day, whilst the best of them stand up as classics.

Meanwhile, if our proverbial street person reaches thing number # 2 about Roger Corman, it will probably be pen portrait of the time he spent heading up New World Pictures through the long 1970s - a more cynical, more divisive and (famously) more tight-fisted figure perhaps, as he moved into a role as shaper and controller of other peoples’ art, but still an eerily benevolent and even-handed overseer of the decade’s grindhouse carnage.

Stories from this era tend to focus more around the frustrations of his protégées as they tried with varying degrees of success to resist Corman’s often crass, commercially-minded demands (details of which we needn’t go into here), or struggled to bring projects in on the oft-impossible budgets he had set for them. But for all that, it’s rare to find a New World veteran unwilling to laugh off his unreasonable demands and occasional lapses of judgement, with most instead praising him for his mentorship, wisdom and willingness to listen to their crazy ideas and/or admit his mistakes - virtues not noted in many studio bosses in the cutthroat world of independent commercial cinema.

Without wishing to digress too much into specifics, I’ve always thought that one particularly interesting example of the “have yr cake and eat it” balance Corman struck between idealism and cynicism during his New World / Concorde years concerns his oft-noted championing of female filmmakers. (See for instance a great quote from Gale Anne Hurd, stating that she initially thought Hollywood was a really cool, equal opportunities workplace, until she left New World and immediately encountered a barrage of sexism from the major studios.)

All of which is very admirable, but if you check the stats, you’ll soon realise that Corman almost exclusively assigned female directors to projects with potentially misogynistic subject matter and demands for copious nudity - presumably in the expectation that the presence of a woman at the helm would help nullify criticism and keep the feminists off his case. (You can see this pattern all the way through from Stephanie Rothman making ‘The Student Nurses’ in 1970 to Amy Holden Jones directing ‘The Slumber Party Massacre’ in 1982, Katt Shea’s ‘Stripped to Kill’ in 1987, and probably beyond.)

Just one example of the jaw-droppingly ruthless / ingenious, high risk tactics Corman employed in his years as a producer of theatrical features - but at the end of the day, for every New World movie which emerged as an ill-judged, misbegotten mess, there were three or four which just plain rock, and probably at least one which (once again) is now recognised as a canonical genre classic. And thus, his batting average remains impeccable, right into the gaping maw of the late VHS era.

BUT ANYWAY - rewinding a bit, if you’ve been lucky enough to have picked an especially hip and well-informed person off the street, the third Roger Corman they might be inclined to tell you about is probably Corman the auteur - the thoughtful, cultured director who allowed his fascination with European art cinema, Freudian psychology and altered states of consciousness to filter through into his landmark series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations during the first half of the 1960s.

Drenched in purest decadent aestheticism, this incredible cycle of films, whose status as beloved comfort objects for multiple generations of horror fans hasn’t prevented them from simultaneously remaining provocative, multi-faceted and deeply weird, swing from canonical gothic beauty to raging sexual hysterics, from cosmic terror to broad comedy - all delivered within the same frantic five year period which also saw their creator’s creative flame burning bright on such fascinatingly outré projects as the harrowing civil rights drama ‘The Intruder’ (1962) and existential / proto-psychedelic SF fable ‘X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes’ (1963).

And, somewhat adjacent to Auteur Corman of course, we have Corman the counter-culture instigator - the curious, avuncular, slightly older guy who spent time hanging out on the Venice Beach / Santa Monica beat scene of the late ‘50s / early ‘60s, livening up the texture of the movies he made during those years with way-out artwork, freaky personalities and eerie locations drawn directly from that pungent milieu, before later - in a characteristically careful, pre-planned manner - he tripped his brains out on LSD and parlayed his pre-existing interests in fringe psychology and psychoanalysis into a brave (and possibly ill-judged) attempt to create an entirely new, thoroughly psychedelic form of popular cinema.

Somewhat to the alarm of his more straight-laced partners at AIP, the forty-year-old Counter Culture Corman let his freak flag fly (for a considerable profit, of course) through the wild and woolly years of ‘The Trip’, ‘Psych Out’ and - perhaps most significantly - 1966’s ‘The Wild Angels’, a film which not only kick-started the biker craze which fed directly into the production of ‘Easy Rider’ (and, by extension, the subsequent convulsions which brought about the birth of “new Hollywood”), but also managed to pre-empt the nihilistic aesthetic of early punk rock, exploring the notion that its teen biker anti-heroes don Nazi regalia purely to piss off their WWII veteran elders, and directly inspiring the wardrobe and attitudes of confrontational bands like The Stooges in the process.

Then, zooming forward again, on the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got Concorde-era Corman - battling his way through the tail-end of big screen exploitation cinema and on into the straight-to-video era with a steady stream of kickboxers, barbarians, latex suits and big tits, restricting himself by this stage largely to backroom pursuits of ruthless, Reagon-era number-crunching and sharp-toothed deal-making, leaving the ‘creative’ end of things to a new, rather more utilitarian, generation of protégées - artistic wings clipped, commercial expectations made clear, and close supervision no longer really necessary.

I’m not sure that effectively becoming a competitor to Charles Band or Lloyd Kaufman in the DTV realm really befitted the great man all that well in his old age to be perfectly honest, but he certainly never faltered in his output, that’s for sure, and it is from this era, and on into the even gnarlier hinterlands of the post-2000 cable/streaming market, that the vast majority of his 495 IMDB producer credits were racked up.

And, even though in later years, especially following his association with the SyFy Channel, these credits begin to appear almost exclusively on the kind of films which few sane and sober people have even heard of, if you run the numbers on Concorde’s output, you’ll still find a wealth of minor highlights and memorable oddities - a direct extension in a sense of the “make ‘em cheap, pile ‘em high but don’t forget the make ‘em INTERESTING” methodology upon which Corman launched his career half a century earlier.

There are other Cormans out there too, I’m sure, many of them. And, perhaps we’ll begin to identify some of them as I try to revitalise this blog over the next few weeks / months by watching Corman-related films which I’ve never seen before, and trying to write something about them.

So, RIP to one of the absolute giants of popular culture, and, don’t touch that dial, folks.

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