Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, And Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie by Chris Nashawaty

Roger Corman is a legend of the cinema.  Corman started his career in the early 50s and is still active today.  Along the way he has managed to direct and produce hundreds of films, rarely losing a dime on any of them.  They were cheapies, they were B movies, they were exploitation, they were direct-to-video.  Monster movies, biker movies, and women-in-prison movies were just some of the genres Corman dabbled in during his heyday. The films had great names (A Bucket of Blood, She Gods of Shark Reef, Naked Angels), they had eye-popping posters, and the films always had great tag lines: “Their bodies were caged, but not their desires. They would do anything for a man—or to him,” boldly declares the poster from The Big Doll House starring Pam Grier.  

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, And Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie is an oral history of the Corman universe.  It’s a fun peek into the world of shoestring production, told by those who lived to tell the tale. 

Corman’s longevity was a result of having a finger on the pulse of what would sell, as well as his ability to expertly navigate the changing landscape of cinema.  He knew how to produce B movie fodder for double bills and drive-ins in the 50s.  He saw a market for biker films and psychedelic films during the rise of the counter culture in the 60s.  Once Hollywood started making his kind of sci-fi and monster movies, but with huge budgets  (Star Wars, Jaws), he knew he had to reposition himself.  He became one of the first producers to take advantage of the nascent VHS market, making straight-to-video exploitation in the 80s.  He also got in on the ground floor, selling films to cable providers in the early stages of that market. Most recently he has been working directly with cable networks like Syfy looking for low-budget, genre-specific productions.  Piranhaconda, anyone?

However, Corman’s biggest contribution to cinema may be what is referred to as the “University of Corman” or “The Roger Corman School of Filmmaking”.  Corman had a keen eye for evaluating, or perhaps exploiting, talent. He routinely gave young film students an opportunity to write, direct, and act in feature length films.  In the 50s and 60s, the Hollywood system was hard to crack unless you had connections. If you were willing to work hard, work smart, and work cheap, Corman was willing to work with you, and he opened his studio doors to a bevy of passionate young folks wanting to break into the film biz. Luminaries who cut their teeth on Corman productions include Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdonovich, Martin Scorcesse, James Cameron, Penelope Spheeris, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Towne to name just a few.

Crab Monsters weaves together the stories of all of these major players and then some.  It’s a loving tribute from Hollywood hot shots who openly admit that they owe much of their success to the opportunities that Corman gave them, and from how much they learned under Corman’s tutelage.  Also touching was the general consensus that once these youngsters got a couple of productions under their belt, Corman actually encouraged them to leave and head on to better projects with bigger budgets.  Corman was under no illusion about the kind of work he was making. That said, what makes so many of the Corman productions rise above base levels of exploitation is that those making the films were giving it their all, because they knew the value of the opportunity they were being given. 

Though Corman’s films were exploitation and gratuitously breast heavy, Corman opened the doors for women as well.  Says Gale Anne Hurd (producer Aliens, The Terminator, Walking Dead), “At the time, he was the only person in Hollywood who would ask a woman coming in for a job as an executive assistant, ‘Ultimately, what kind of career path do you want to take?’ I didn’t think there was a career path! It hadn’t occurred to me.  And I said, ‘Roger, I’d like follow in your footsteps and be a producer.’ And he said, ‘Tremendous!’”  Many of the women and men interviewed for Crab Monsters attest to the fact that the number of women on Corman productions from directors to writers to producers to crew exceeded what was happening elsewhere in the Hollywood system.

Also of interest is that in the 70s Corman started distributing European art house fare in America.  Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman made it to the theaters courtesy of Corman’s support.  Corman liked the films, and the ever savvy businessman in him realized that there was money to be made.

Crab Monsters is beautifully laid out with hundreds of pages of photos, posters and graphic goodies befitting Corman’s oeuvre.  Needless to say, the book is filled with fantastic anecdotes.  Death Race 2000 is one of my favorite Corman productions.  Sylvester Stallone tells a great story about straying from the script and inserting his own dialogue into Death Race, confident that he could get away with it because he knew the production was too cheap to do second takes. Stallone then credits that experience with building up his confidence to write the Rocky script.  

Corman, too, was willing to improvise in his own way.  Alan Arkush (director of Rock ‘N’ Roll High School) relates a great anecdote about Cockfighter.  The film was one of the few Corman bombs.  The opening weekend was a disaster, but Corman was undaunted.  Says Arkush, “We were on the phone with Roger and he’s saying, ‘You know the scene where Warren Oates leans back and closes his eyes? Cut in some naked nurses and some car crashes like he’s dreaming of that.’ We thought he was kidding.” Corman was not.

Ron Howard does a great job summing up Corman’s low-budget but loving ways. “I was fighting with Roger at one point on Grand Theft Auto, trying to get a few more extras in our climactic demolition-derby scene in the stands.  Everyone was supposed to be rioting.  And he wouldn’t give me more than forty-five extras.  The grandstand was supposed to seat a thousand people.  And we talked about cheating the angles.  But I kept begging for more.  And finally he just put his hand on my shoulder in a very paternal sort of way and smiled and said, ‘Ron, I’m not going to give you any more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.’” 

And that’s why you’ve got to love Roger Corman.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Fever by Megan Abbott

Over her last three novels, The End of Everything, Dare Me and, her latest, The Fever, Megan Abbott has become expert in mining the perilous crossing between teen and adulthood.  For her, it’s a territory where every moment is dripping with possibility, with desire, and with newfound powers and observation.  Yet doubt is also part of the equation. Friends outwardly share every detail, yet they still hold tight to their innermost secrets.  It’s a world where bold action couples with insecurity.  It’s a world of teen girls, on the brink of adulthood, inscrutable and mysterious to the boys and men in their midst.

The Fever centers on a group of 4 friends, Deenie, Lise, Gabby and Skye.  The four are seemingly tight knit, but fissures begin to appear in the group dynamic as they circle closer and closer to the precipice of sex.  After Lise has a frothing-at-the-mouth seizure in class, the group dynamic is rent.

But Lise’s seizure does more than shine light on the secrets the girls keep.  It captivates their sleepy suburb and transforms The Fever from a teen coming-of-age novel to a creepy, dystopian look at the modern day suburban experience in a post-industrial society.

Lise’s seizure is near fatal, landing her in the hospital.  Soon after, other girls begin to succumb to similar conditions.  The doctors are stumped or covering up, the school is in damage control, and as more and more girls are felled, rumors abound about the seizure’s causes. Is the school riddled by toxic building materials? The town’s once thriving lake, now contaminated, has been cordoned off to the public.  Is the polluted lake water seeping into the community’s drinking water?  Perhaps, the most disturbing and persistent rumor is that the girls have received a tainted batch of the HPV vaccine, a vaccine that the school mandated for all enrolling girls.

Teen life is hard enough to navigate without the hidden dangers waiting to blossom in the playing fields of 21st century America.  Abbott’s willingness to bring modern day dystopia to a teen novel makes The Fever a great read.