Roger Corman: King of the Bs

Roger Corman is the godfather of B movies: the Cézanne of sleaze, the Turner of trash, and that’s why this year EIFF are dedicating a retrospective programme to this true titan of American cinema. Michael Gillespie reports.

Feature by Michael Lawson | 01 Jun 2009
  • Bloody Mama

At 83, Roger Corman shows no signs of slowing down in a career that has spanned more than fifty years and nearly 400 flicks. His films have ranged from 50s monster mashes (It Conquered the World, Attack of the Crab Monsters), 60s psychedelia (The Trip), exploitation (Caged Heat, Bloody Mama), horrors, nudie cuties and biker pics; not to mention the provocative racial drama The Intruder (considered his best film) and a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations rightly hailed as classics of the genre. He also shot The Little Shop of Horrors in two days and one night, still believed to be a record for any theatrically released motion picture.

While he took the industry standard apprenticeships, which saw him rise through the ranks to screenwriter, director and (most successfully) producer, Corman attributes much of his success to his industrial engineering degree, which gave him the efficiency and business sense essential for Hollywood: “Motion pictures are the art form of the 20th century, and one of the reasons is the fact that films are a slightly corrupted art form. They fit this century - they combine art and business!” Cynical maybe, but it makes perfect sense when you consider the talent Corman has sired and the influence of his work.

Consider his protégés: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Sylvester Stallone, Joe Dante, John Sayles, James Cameron. What this list shows is that the “Roger Corman Film School” (Cameron’s words) gives filmmakers the resourcefulness and discipline they need to progress. According to Scorsese, the experience of working with Corman “was a way of learning to make a picture”.

“With Boxcar Bertha, we started on a Monday and four days later you finished… you have a certain amount of shots to get before lunch and you better get them. That’s a very important thing: without having done Boxcar there’s no way I could have done Mean Streets."

Corman still has an eye for talent. Former pupil Howard McCain’s Outlander recently hit cinemas, Paul W S Anderson’s Death Race remake proved a huge hit, while Aberdeen’s Steven Lewis Simpson, currently touring the festival circuit with Rez Bomb, enjoyed a stint at the mogul’s Concorde Pictures (even working on the now infamous Fantastic Four movie). “I learned that making a movie was not the big deal that everybody makes it out to be,” he said. “There was one film I worked on in post-production: Corman went down to the studio on Thursday, saw it was going to be free in a few days, came into the office to pitch on Friday, re-wrote an old script Saturday Sunday, cast Monday Tuesday Wednesday and started shooting on Thursday. They could do that because they had the infrastructure and the attitude to do so.”

Corman laments the fact that “today, less that 20-percent of our films get a theatrical release”. But anyone with digital TV and a local video store will know that the avenues and audiences for B movies are scaling new heights. Companies like Troma, The Asylum and Seduction Cinema are churning out cult hits with a rapidly increasing presence in the mainstream press and academic textbooks. Youtube is crammed with spoof trailers and zero-budget exploit-athons as Tarantino keeps flying the Grindhouse flag, whilst Luc Besson’s Europacorp has produced some of the decade’s most successful low budget genre pictures (Taken, District 13, The Transporter).

The recent documentary Not Quite Hollywood argued that the Australian New Wave of the 70s was only possible thanks to the “Ozploitation” boom of the same era. Godard and Truffaut argued the case for B movies in Cahiers du cinéma and used their formal language as the template for the influential experiments of the Nouvelle Vague. And the auteurs of the British New Wave were hardly hurt by the popularity of seaside postcard sex comedies and horror from Hammer and the like. So while it may be true that some B movies are puerile exercises in sex and violence with no artistic or technical merit, it’s a fool who does not appreciate their occasional brilliance and importance in film history. And if care about film history, you care about Roger Corman. A killer B invasion is heading to Auld Reekie: B ready, B ware, B there!

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