Ask anyone who has ever made a movie, or attempted to make a movie, and they will, whatever their background and creative pretensions, pretty much all agree on one point: It’s really hard. Whether it’s a $100 million studio blockbuster, a low-budget Indy or a bunch of friends with a camera and barely enough money for lunch, it’s a bear. Just finishing a film is an achievement in and of itself.
If nothing else, Roger Corman made his movies. Some of them were good, some so-so and some laughably bad, but Corman, an adventurous dynamo of a filmmaker, cranked them out, and, critics be damned, never looked back. He is the undisputed Godfather of what is now ubiquitously referred to as the “Indy Film Movement,” not only as a hands-on filmmaker, but as a resourceful, canny businessman as well. Corman made millions of dollars with only minimal contact with the maddening Hollywood studio system; to this day he brags, and rightly so, that not one of his films have ever lost a dime.
But is it “art?” Well, sometimes. In addition to his mind-boggling array of genre flicks (crime, westerns, sci-fi, horror, biker flicks, babes behind bars, psychedelia, war, teen angst…you name it, he did it), Corman also distributed “art house” films by Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini and Truffaut, getting their pictures on more screens and earning them more money than the “majors.” He also gave a start to a who’s who of Hollywood directors: the list includes Scorsese, Coppola, Curtis Hanson, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Joe Dante, and, somewhat ironically, James Cameron, the king of the mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster. The actors who worked for Corman on their respective ways up (or down) include Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Charles Bronson, Shelley Winters, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and enough other notable performers to fill several pages of this publication. Corman had an indisputable eye for talent, and those who worked for him praise his hands-off creative approach, even when the filmmakers were young and inexperienced. Of course, Corman was the opposite when it came to the purse strings – he controlled all financial aspects with a tight fist, but many of the aforementioned artists to this day praise Corman for his parsimony; it taught three generations of filmmakers that money is not the key to good filmmaking – creativity and ingenuity are far more important.
Erstwhile film scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini, whose previous works include several excellent volumes on film noir, as well as books on David Lean and Robert Aldrich, have meticulously collected every flick that Corman directed (over fifty films!), wrote and produced. They even tracked down his work as an actor; most of those films were, not surprisingly, directed by his former protégés. Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring is a handsome trade paperback, with sharp black and white stills, complete major crew and cast lists and Corman’s own reflections. It’s a fun read, and a great coffee table book that puts Corman’s work into a larger cultural perspective.
Corman’s panache and showmanship are in evidence even in his “two day wonders,” which include such camp classics as Little Shop of Horrors. The book’s title refers not only to Corman’s underlying themes of the overwhelmed Everyman, women struggling for power and dignity and his own liberal politics, but also to his uncanny sense of capturing and staying current with the zeitgeist of American popular culture. And, of course, he made some really dumb stuff, too, but even such forgettable films as The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Serpent were fun inasmuch as there was plenty of eye candy, both in terms of the scenery and the voluptuous, scantily-clad actresses.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was a clever TV show that parodied many of Corman’s cheesier films. And yet, even his most slipshod, haphazard films had a profound effect on audiences. Roger Corman is a true American icon who manages the tricky tightrope walk between art and commerce. He has no illusions about which god he serves on a particular project and at the end of the day, whatever your opinion of his films, his greatest gift may be the simple message that you can go out and make a movie your way. Silver and Ursini have done a fine job of encapsulating Corman’s career, a career that many in the film business are just now attempting to emulate. Well, better late than never.
Alain Silver and James Ursini both reside in Santa Monica.