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A Workman Finding His Artistry: The Cinematography of Roger Corman by Pawel Aleksandrowicz

Corman directing Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels (1966)

Corman directing Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels (1966)

A Book Review by Brad Cook.

For many film fans, myself included, the name Roger Corman typically evokes an immediate response: That guy who makes schlocky movies quickly and cheaply and throws them out there to make a few bucks. Anyone who’s also a fan of the show Mystery Science Theater 3000 is familiar with many of Corman’s best – or, shall I say, worst – efforts.

However, as Pawel Aleksandrowicz points out in the introduction to his book, The Cinematography of Roger Corman (Cambrige Scholars, 2016), the director was, in 1964, the “youngest American director to be given a film retrospective at the prestigious Cinémathèque Française in Paris. In 2008, one of his directorial efforts – House of Usher [1960] – was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress” (3). Aleksandrowicz notes Corman’s other achievements, including his 2010 honorary Oscar and his discovery of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Jack Nicholson, and many other talents. In addition, his production-distribution company, New World Pictures, brought many films by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa to the United States.

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1975)

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

When contrasting that impressive resume against the dozens of films he made, many of which were cheap, disposable efforts, Aleksandrowicz asks: “Is [Corman] an exploitation schlockmeister or a great filmmaker worthy of critical recognition?” (3). Before one scoffs at the second part of that question, it’s worth following along with Aleksandrowicz as he first takes up the question of what it means for a director to be called an auteur and then explores the over 50 films that Corman personally directed. (The approximately 400 others that he attached his name to were directed by others. He stopped directing in 1971, except 1990, when he helmed Frankenstein Unbound for 20th Century Fox.)

Aleksandrowicz uses the first two chapters of his modest 208-page book to lay the foundation for that question. He first examines the history of the auteur theory, a term whose meaning has been argued by critics during the decades since it was first used. It’s easy to say that such directors as Coppola, Fellini, Kurosawa, and Scorses are auteurs, but Aleksandrowicz poses that “there exists a number of directors who would pose an interesting challenge to auteur theorists: blockbuster directors like Michael Bay, decidedly bad directors like Uwe Boll, or exploitation filmmakers like Corman” (21). (Sure, an amusing idea, but each has a distinct style, even if it’s [mostly] poorly executed.) Aleksandrowicz also examines the concept of exploitation, defining it “not [as] a film genre per se, as it is sometimes treated, but rather a method of making moving pictures in such a way that, when they are released, they bring in the highest possible profit in relation to their costs. An exploitation picture is, therefore, made explicitly to earn money.”

It’s an interesting attempt to define the term, since, as Aleksandrowicz admits, it would cover most movies because “film in general is exploitive” (15). However, he notes that “what differentiates exploitation from the rest of the cinema is the fact that it exploits its certain feature. This may be a controversial topic, special effects, sex, violence, a film star or a particular character” (15). While that seems to cast the net even wider, Aleksandrowicz goes on to say that he would differentiate between such movies as Piranha (1978) and Jaws (1975) on the basis of budget. The former cost less than 10 percent of what the latter did, which is what he says differentiates Corman’s quickie effort (directed by Joe Dante) from Spielberg’s precisely crafted film.

Aleksandrowicz continues with other ways to define exploitation films, including the main element of their ad campaigns, which tends to emphasize sex and/or violence, the way they tend to push those main elements to an extreme in their stories, their smaller film crews, and their methods of distribution.

With his scholarly foundation laid, Aleksandrowicz spends the next chapter discussing Corman’s personal life and typical production process, which tend a bit toward overkill. They could have been summed up as part of the previous chapter, although the information is likely of interest to Corman fans who want to know more about him. There’s also a bit of padding in the third chapter, in which Aleksandrowicz talks about the way Corman exploited many social and political topics in the films he directed. For example, the threats of nuclear destruction and alien invasion are labored over despite the fact that many readers of this book will likely already know about those fears and anxieties that were found in many films of the 1950s. Aleksandrowicz also goes into tangents talking at length about non-Corman films that are related to his subject, such as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), but his examination of Corman’s directorial efforts is worthy reading.

The Intruder

The Intruder (1962)

The third chapter is the longest in the book but contains many passages that are likely to be of interest to those with passing knowledge of Corman’s career. For example, Aleksandrowicz spends a few pages discussing The Intruder, a 1962 movie starring William Shatner that Corman believed in so strongly that he mortgaged his home to pay for it when his usual producers balked. Set in the south, The Intruder tackles the issue of racial integration, and Shatner’s white supremacist trying to halt it, in a town deeply divided on the subject. In one memorable sequence Aleksandrowicz describes Corman’s use of real townspeople who reacted to a speech by Shatner in a way that unnerved the cast and crew. Corman ended up losing money on the movie.

Another interesting section of the book covers the movie Wild Angels (1966), which stars Peter Fonda and predated many of the themes found in Easy Rider (1969). For that one, Corman brought in some real Hell’s Angels who not only came up with some of the more shocking scenes in the movie but also caused plenty of anxiety for the film crew when dealing with local police departments. Concluding the chapter, Aleksandrowicz writes that, unsurprisingly, “there is no doubt that Corman is an exploitation director, as films like Not of This Earth (1957), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), War of the Satellites (1958), or The Last Woman on Earth (1960) clearly exploited popular topics and have very little to offer thematically.” Though the director can argue that those themes were very personal for him, it is definitely too little to fulfill the requirements posed by the auteur theory: “Yet, Corman sometimes used exploitation only as an excuse to refer to something entirely different than the topic he seemed to be exploiting. In other words, he touched different themes than the ones he marketed and he bypassed the conventions of exploitation to express a personal vision” (124).

In the fourth chapter, Aleksandrowicz examines Corman’s major themes: female empowerment, the outsider protagonist, and gothic horror. On the first, Aleksandrowicz writes: “One of the very few directors in the 1950s, if not the only one, who would shoot action-oriented films with strong female protagonists billed first and consciously reverse gender roles (but not for comical effect) was Corman” (126). He also notes that the director’s “first strong female lead already appears in his first film, Five Guns West (1955), although she is still not fully developed” (126).

Apache Woman (1955)

Apache Woman (1955)

However, Corman would go on to create a more developed female lead in his next movie, Apache Woman (1955), as well as in Swamp Women, The Oklahoma Woman, and Gunslinger (all 1956), among other films. Aleksandrowicz notes that Corman’s lead women “constitute real protagonists in his films when it comes to their role in the plot, the screening time, the billing, even the title” (136). In addition, Corman treated women well behind the camera, as exemplified in this quote from famed producer Gale Anne Hurd, who broke into the industry while working with him: “One extraordinary aspect to Roger is that he is and has always been, without question, a great champion of women in film, 100 percent … I never even realized sexism existed in Hollywood until I got outside New World” (126).

On the outsider protagonist, Aleksandrowicz notes that “[m]ost of [Corman’s] heroes and heroines are in one way or another excluded from the mainstream of society and often in conflict with it” (140). He offers a lengthy list of movies that fit that criteria, such as The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), in which Seymour is an oddball character thrust into the limelight by his strange plant, X: Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), whose protagonist is banished from mainstream science and forced to make a living on the carnival circuit. Unsurprisingly, this strong theme comes out of Corman’s own experiences, as Aleksandrowicz points out: “His fascination with being and becoming an outcast, as well as with the outcast’s relation to the mainstream, stems mainly from the fact that he was an outsider himself, both when it comes to his personality and his creative work” (144).

While gothic horror is more of a genre, or perhaps a sub-genre, than a theme, Aleksandrowicz includes a section on gothic horror so he can discuss the string of Poe adaptations that Corman made to critical acclaim and commercial success during the 1960s. Thematically, Corman leaned on work by his screenwriters, who included the well-known Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, who penned many classic Twilight Zone episodes.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Aleksandrowicz uses this part of the chapter to discuss Poe’s motifs that run through the movies, such as intangible evil, natural surroundings reflecting a person’s mental state, and love as “an unattainable object of desire and a vessel of destruction” (153). He also points out that Corman weaved some Freudian motifs into the stories, because the director found much in common between Poe and the famous psychologist, and Corman’s own personal motifs, including strong female characters.

Aleksandrowicz’s final chapter, which is fairly brief, discusses how Corman’s themes are expressed through “his mature style of filmmaking, which relies on three key elements: movement, deep composition and symbolic frames” (170). Again, examples from the director’s movies are used to back up the claim. He breaks the style discussion into sections according to Corman’s career, starting with the early movies made in 1955-1958, which Aleksandrowicz admits “leave a lot to be desired when their style is taken into consideration” (167). Obviously, the director’s break-neck shooting schedules accounted for much of that, but the writer points out that Corman also used that time period to learn how to make movies, since he had no prior formal training.

Aleksandrowicz sees Corman’s 1958-1960 time period as one where he achieved an “artistic breakthrough” (170). That’s when he learned how to move the camera, create deep shots, and employ ambience, symbolism, and expressionism. “Summing up,” Aleksandrowicz writes at the end of the chapter, “Corman’s mature cinematic style fulfills every requirement posited by the structuralists in their approach to the auteur theory: it is technically accurate as well as artistically distinguishable, unique and innovative, it can convey meaning and mood or be visually beautiful, and it transcends genres” (183).

Aleksandrowicz wraps up his book with a conclusion that notes the paradox between Corman’s films that actually have artistic merit and those that do not. He points out that while it’s not clear why Corman was not artistically consistent in his directorial output, “one thing is certain: once Corman reached a higher artistic level, he was unable to maintain it” (186). In the end, he leaves the reader to decide whether Corman should be considered an auteur. At the very least, Corman clearly made some movies that were well-crafted, and the fact that his “film school” propelled so many well-known people into the Hollywood ranks showed that he had a keen eye for talent. In addition, his willingness to distribute the works of notable foreign directors helped shape modern Hollywood, since so many of those films had strong influences on the directors, actors, actresses, screenwriters, and producers who broke through in the 70s and 80s.

And whether one thinks it makes sense to even try to discuss Corman’s status as an auteur, Aleksandrowicz’s book at least serves as an in-depth scholarly roundup of the director’s most notable works. That’s the kind of thing that deserves to be preserved somewhere for future generations.

Based in northern California, Brad Cook has contributed to Film Threat, Pop Matters, Flickering Myth, and Hammer to Nail. He also works in corporate marketing writing.

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