Thursday, May 17, 2012

Did Star Wars kill Roger Corman?

Every so often, someone comes along and blames George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for ruining the movies. The argument is always the same. Before the bearded ones came along, Hollywood was making artsy films that meant something. After Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood began making money more than anything else.

I've always been able to brush off that argument is disingenuous nonsense. But what do you do when the accuser is Jack Nicholson?

I was watching the excellent documentary Corman's World, about the man who was the king of the B-movies. His movies were quite literally cheap and often unabashedly exploitive. And most of them made money. One of the few that didn't was 1962's The Intruder, a racial drama starring William Shatner as a cracker.

Corman was never going to be Stanley Kramer, so most of the time he cranked out schlock, and he occasionally lucked out into making an actual good movie like The Pit and the Pendulum and the original Little Shop of Horrors, which starred one Jack Nicholson (in the role Bill Murray played later.)

Corman gave Nicholson his break, so it's not at all surprising to watch him boost Corman. It is surprising to hear him say the words, "I hated Star Wars."

Nicholson says, "If Star Wars doesn't make a ton of cabbage, we'd still have little green lines across the screen." The documentary basically argues that once Jaws and especially Star Wars made the popcorn movie hugely profitable, that sparked the twilight of Corman's career.

There is some validity to that. Certainly after the juggernaut of the Force, it became that much harder for Corman's scrappy little movies to break through. Cheap sci-fi and horror were eventually relegated direct to home video. It's not unlike what happened in the porno industry. In the 70s, some porn films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door we're actually kind of artistic. In the VHS age, porn became just an endless parade of friction.

Maybe Star Wars took Corman out of theaters, and that is too bad. But it hardly ruined him. In fact, Star Wars itself is not unlike a Corman movie with a really big budget. Have you looked at the 1977 film lately? Sure, it's big piece of myth-making, but in many ways, it's a scrappy little film, especially compared to the other slicker episodes. A line like "But I was going to the Tosche station to pick up some power converters" would be right at home in a Corman movie.

And Corman's spirit lives on today, not only in protégés like Scorsese, Howard, Sayles and Demme, but also in disciples like Robert Rodriguez, who is a past master at making movies on the cheap, and especially Quentin Tarantino, whose pictures are Corman flicks writ large. Their Grindhouse was a very bloody valentine to Corman.

Nicholson complains that instead of making 12 movies a year a studio makes "12 circuses." He's not wrong, and I'm mindful of that the week that Battleship comes out. But wasn't one of Nicholson's best-known roles in a circus called Batman? Playing a clown, no less?

But I don't want to be too hard on Jack. Corman's World also treats us to the sight of Jack Nicholson crying during his interview. And he's not acting. For that alone, Corman's World is wild.



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