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Roger Corman Won An Oscar The Other Night...

... and it feels like no one really wrote about it. Sure, there was coverage of the ceremony, and maybe some drive-by praise of Corman's career (like Cinematical's Eric D. Snider blithely condemning his entire oeuvre whilst comparing the legendary producer-director to Dr. Uwe Boll), but in terms of anything substantial... nothin'. Perhaps everyone was too busy whoring for TWILIGHT traffic to notice that the one-man film industry who mentored the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, James Cameron, John Sayles, Joe Dante and many, many more was receiving the ultimate career achievement award in Hollywood last Saturday night. Or perhaps these people were tacitly blaming Corman for lowering standards to the point where audiences will settle (and line up in droves) for quick-and-cheap adaptations of a popular literary series. Fair enough. Thing is, though, when Corman worked on the quick-and-cheap back in the 1960s, he became, in the sage words of Don Druker, "cinema's chief interpreter of [Edgar Allan] Poe." When Corman was engaged, he knew how to wring the lurid best out of America's poet laureate of madness - and his thrift was equaled by his craft. This ability to make art on a murderously short shooting schedule with no money and reused sets (or cleverly-shot practical locations) was passed on by Corman to his most adroit proteges: Dante had a low-budget, homage-heavy blast with PIRANHA; Cameron willed a sci-fi classic out of next-to-nothing in THE TERMINATOR; and Peter Bogdanovich used two contract-mandated days of Boris Karloff to pull off a classic sequence at the conclusion of TARGETS. And while these directors later made films on budgets that would've easily funded Corman's entire '90s output, the resourcefulness imparted by their stingy mentor would get them through some rough early days in the studio system (Cameron's facility with matte paintings and forced perspective proved especially handy on ALIENS). Of course, Corman's goal was never to hand himself (and his profit-making potential) over to the studio system; after completing his run with AIP in the '60s and starting up New World Pictures in 1970, all he wanted to do was churn out the cinematic equivalent of McDonald's cheeseburgers and, per the title of his autobiography, never lose a dime. That some enterprising young filmmaker might serve up an unusually tasty Big Mac from time to time was all well and good, but hardly his intent. This became apparent as the 1980s wore on, at which point his Concorde Pictures outfit started coughing up films that were barely worth a bargain 99-cent rental from Blockbuster. With the advent of the direct-to-video market, Corman's fast-and-cheap ethic was downgraded to faster-and-cheaper (though I do have fond memories of slumming through Katt Shea's STREETS and thrilling to the butt-whupping brio of Don "The Dragon" Wilson in the BLOODFIST series). Meanwhile, the shoestring, indie-film triumphs of folks like Spike Lee, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith intoxicated a generation of would-be auteurs with dreams of masterpieces right out of the gate. Combine this with a sudden wane in the popularity of horror (brought on by slasher-flick overkill), and the Corman factory was no longer viewed as a viable fast-track to studio-sponsored bliss. Obviously, Corman's heyday as a filmmaker was the 1960s. This was when he knocked out eight quality Poe adaptations over the course of five years, while also finding time to direct the underrated Civil Rights parable THE INTRUDER, the madly-inventive sci-fi X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (one of his very best), and the musical-spawning LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. True, not all of these films are home runs, but they're all carried off with a wild 'scope panache that would be viewed as uncommonly accomplished today. Even when one can tell Corman has made do with a blown take or an ill-fitting costume or a laughably-ineffective special effect, he covers these concessions with his innate gift for shot composition. For example, get past the mild over-cutting of the below-embedded sequence from HOUSE OF USHER, and just marvel at the way he stages the tense conversation between Vincent Price and Mark Damon (garbed respectively in blood red and icy blue).
Or just marvel at dread-inducing line delivery of Vincent Price. "I can hear the scratch of rat claws within the stone wall,... Mr. Winthrop." If nothing else, Corman deserves that honorary Oscar just for bringing Poe and Price together. Three years after finishing with Poe, Corman would make what feels like his masterpiece in THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE. Starring a fresh-faced George Segal as gangster Peter Gusenberg and Jason Robards as a scenery-scarfing Al Capone (De Niro might've borrowed a tic or two here for THE UNTOUCHABLES), this is the movie that best gets across Corman's unremittingly grim world view. Based on the 1929 historical event (which didn't end well for seven members of Bugsy Moran's North Side Gang in Chicago), the film steadily acquires a pervasive sense of doom as a monotone narrator constantly breaks in to let us know each character's background, their function within the unfolding drama, and when they're going to die. There's very little suspense in THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE - just gorgeously designed-and-shot nihilism. Basically, we're stuck watching a buncha poor saps who've got it coming one way or another - and the joke's on us 'cuz we've got it coming, too. It's blunt, brutal, and it breaks down pretty cleanly on the first viewing, but for pure movie-watching pleasure, I actually prefer its classical, backlot aesthetic to the standards-flouting violence of BONNIE AND CLYDE. After 1971's VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN, Corman essentially gave up directing and focused on producing - and it's been my experience that pretty much every New World release from that decade has at least one indescribably nutty sequence that justifies the seventy-to-ninety-minute sit (though I'm not sure where it resides in UP FROM THE DEPTHS). If I had to pick a favorite Corman from the '70s, eight times out of ten I'd probably go with Paul Bartel's gleefully violent satire, DEATH RACE 2000 - which looks even more like a classic after last year's dipshit remake. But catch me in the right mood, and I might opt for Dante's PIRANHA or Bogdanovich's SAINT JACK. And while I'm ambivalent about the film overall, I could certainly make a case for Monte Hellman's COCKFIGHTER based on Warren Oates's performance alone. As for the multitude of chicks-in-chains flicks Corman financed throughout the '70s, no disrespect to Jonathan Demme, but I'll take the Pam Grier and Sid Haig in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE or THE BIG BIRD CAGE (both from Jack Hill) over CAGED HEAT. The trash outweighed the treasures in the '80s, but there were some minor triumphs hidden amid the refuse. The John Sayles-scripted BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS is an enjoyable space-bound riff on the SEVEN SAMURAI formula - and the sets for that film were memorably reused in Aaron Lipstadt's thoughtful ANDROID and the kid-skewing SPACE RAIDERS (neither of which I've seen since their initial run on cable). Corman also teamed with the great Jim Wynorski on several movies, most notably CHOPPING MALL and the cult fave DEATHSTALKER II. And I've still got a soft spot for Penelope Spheeris's punk rock/juvenile delinquent drama SUBURBIA, even if it hasn't aged all that well. Then came the '90s. Let's stop there before they repossess his Oscar. 386 films (and counting) as a producer. Fifty films (and out) as a director. Mentor to some of the greatest directors working today, including five Academy Award-winners. To borrow a thought from my friend BenDavid Grabinski, imagine Corman pulling a George Bailey in 1955, and tell me the American film industry would be a better place without him. When the studio system failed in the 1960s, those wheezing behemoths needed fresh young talent to keep them afloat. Corman gave them the seasoned trio of Coppola, Bogdanovich and Scorsese, who went on to deliver THE GODFATHER, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and MEAN STREETS. Oscar earned. Congratulations, Mr. Corman. Thanks for being so damned disreputable. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

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